About this Article
Written by: Lisa Chow
Written on: April 17th, 2003
Tags: electrical engineering, entertainment, material science
Thumbnail by: Holzwurm52/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Lisa Chow is from Quincy, MA and at the time of writing this article, was a junior at the University of Southern California majoring in civil engineering.
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Directional AudioWritten by: Philip Hirz
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The Engineering of BeerWritten by: Erik Tolmachoff
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Volume V Issue IV > The Harp: Engineering the Perfect Sound
The history of the harp goes back thousands of years. The harp is regarded as the world's oldest string instrument. It influenced the evolution of the piano, guitar, and violin. Engineering is the application of science to the art of problem solving; the harp has encompassed the ideals of engineering. Through many centuries, harp makers have been committed to satisfying the evolving demands of musicians by devoting themselves to improving the instrument's sound quality. Engineering developments in the harp's structural, mechanical, and ergonomic aspects have improved its sound and led to the creation of the single action harp, double action harp and electronic harps. Good engineering has helped create beautiful, soothing music that brings peace and tranquility to the people worn out by the demands of daily life.


Ingersoll/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: A medieval European harp.
Many do not consider the harp as an example of engineering advancement because it is not a typical technological development. Engineering is defined as the application of science to problem solving in practical scenarios. It is fascinating to note that the development of the harp has encompassed the ideals of good engineering. For many centuries, harp makers have been committed to satisfying the evolving demands of musicians through improvement in the instrument's sound quality.
Engineering developments in the harp's structure, mechanics, and ergonomics have improved the sound of the world's oldest string instrument (see Fig. 1); these changes were reflected in three major modifications of the harp since its inception. The first change occurred in the 1700s when pedals were added to the harp. This addition introduced the single action harp, which allowed the pitch of the instrument to be raised half a step. In the late 1700s, the harp was modified further and it was then possible not only to raise the pitch but also to lower it by half a step. The double action harp was invented in 1801 as a result of the need for a broader range of pitch. With the dawn of the computer age, the instrument was computerized in the 1980s leading to the creation of the pneumatic computerized harp. Figures 2 and 4 are examples of songs played on a harp (see Fig. 2 and Fig. 4).

Anatomy of the Harp

The harp consists of three basic structural components: the strings, the resonator (also known as the soundboard) and the neck [1]. Principles behind the musical string are simply an "ageless phenomenon of physics" [2]. When a string is plucked, it will continue to vibrate until its energy is depleted. As the string vibrates, it causes the air around it to move. The soundboard acts as a wall and causes a mass of air to move and translate the massive waves of sound pressure into the beautiful sounds of the instrument.
While all the strings have the same function, different types of strings produce varying frequencies just as the different types of reed in woodwind instruments produce different sounds. Thinner and lighter strings, which vibrate more rapidly and produce higher tones, are located near the shoulder of the harp while the thicker and heavier strings, which vibrate slower and produce lower tones, are located near the forepillar of the harp [2]. The strings are made out of gut, except for the heaviest of the bass strings, which contain copper wound over a silk core. The strings must be tensioned in order to produce music and the soundboard and neck are the mechanisms that achieve this. One end of the string is attached to the soundboard and the other end is attached to the neck directly with special knots or indirectly to fixed plugs, movable tuning-pegs, or tuning rings.