What Is a Lap Harp?

A lap harp is a plucked psaltery-style stringed instrument. It gets its name from the fact that the harp is played on the player’s lap. Lap harps are smaller than their larger cousin, the pedal harp, which sits on the floor, due to the instrument’s positioning. For thousands of years, people have played various versions of lap harps all over the world.

There are two types of lap harps: non-levered and levered. The strings of a non-levered lap harp stretch across the instrument and are attached to tuning pegs. If the player wants to play in a key other than the one in which the harp is tuned, he must turn the tuning peg and adjust the pitch of at least one string with a separate tuning tool. Because this isn’t something that can be done quickly or frequently, most non-levered harps are tuned to C or G, which allows them to be tuned to a few other keys adjusting only one or two strings.

A levered lap harp attempts to eliminate the time-consuming task of changing keys eliminating the need to adjust the harp’s tuning pegs. The string is connected to a lever mechanism on this type of harp. When the player pulls or releases the lever, it pulls or releases the string, changing the pitch one half step up or down. However, because the lever mechanism only moves in one direction, it can only do sharps or flats, not both.

Lap harps are further divided into groups based on how they are played. Some lap harps are completely flat on the lap, placing the strings horizontally and requiring players to play with their hands palm down. The melody harp, a non-levered lap harp with a trapezoidal shape and only 15 or 16 strings, is the best and most common example of a “flat-sitting” harp; it resembles a dulcimer. The majority of lap harps are “edge-sitting” harps, which means the harp sits on its end with the strings vertical and the palms facing inward to play. Edge-sitting harps can be levered or non-levered, but a high-end edge-sitting harp will typically have a full lever system that allows the player to address all seven keys.

The size of flat-sitting harps, such as the melody harp, is limited to fit the length and width of the player’s lap. Because there is nothing stopping the strings from rising to different vertical heights on an edge-sitting harp, size is more variable. A small edge-sitting harp can be as short as 61 cm and weigh as little as 5 pounds (2.27 kg), but a height of 32 to 36 inches (81.28 cm -.9 m) is more common. Larger versions with up to 25 strings and a weight of 10 to 12 pounds are available (4.5 – 5.4 kg).

Because a concert or pedal harp has an average of 45 strings, it has a range of about five and a half octaves. The largest lap harps, on the other hand, usually have a three-octave range. In terms of practical performance, this means lap harpists are limited in terms of the music they can play and the effects they can achieve. However, because of their limited range and small size, lap harps are much more portable and lighter than larger harps, making them ideal for people like music therapists who need to transport their instrument frequently.

Even though a high-end lap harp can play in any key and is portable, it has one major flaw: the player must stop playing with one hand to shift a lever during a performance. Harp makers solved this problem designing harps with pedal mechanisms around the end of the 1600s. The pedals, which are controlled the player’s feet, are connected to a mechanism that, like the lever, controls the length — and thus the pitch — of the harp strings. With modern pedal harps being able to adjust pitches to achieve both sharps and flats, levered lap harps represent the mid-point in harp technology.