Strings and Harps


Recently, while watching the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year concert on PBS, I had an epiphany. No, it’s not earth-shaking and is probably pretty banal in actuality. But, here’s what happened and the background for my calling it an epiphany.

I am a music lover. However, I have absolutely zero ability as a music maker. In fact, when I was a kid, my mom dug deep to get me accordion lessons. They were for a 10-base, I think it was called, accordion. A guy came by the house and demonstrated the accordion to us, and I begged for the lessons. Well, I was a very lazy kid and didn’t practice at all. Couldn’t read the music and that never sunk in either. At the end of the lessons, they asked my mother to not bring me back again.

Back to the epiphany! While watching the concert, I was struck by the fact that close-ups of the harpist clearly demonstrated that she did not touch the strings except to pluck them. That sure is different from a violinist or a guitarist. The string-instrument player uses one hand to change the length of the strings as they play with the other hand. The harp’s strings are all of different lengths. I also realized that the strings of the harp are all of pretty much the same diameter, whereas the strings of a guitar or violin, or viola, etc. are of different diameters. Epiphany! The harp’s strings are all set at given note values based on their length. That’s why there are so many of them. Other string instruments achieve the wide variety of notes of which they are capable by having strings of the same length, but of different diameters.

Furthermore, the variety of notes can be and is achieved by the performer changing their lengths. The performer accomplishes that by pressing them against the neck. Why has it taken me all these years to come to that realization? I mean, it’s really obvious. Musicians have known forever. I have no clue why I had no clue.

As I thought further about my epiphany, I realized that there is a reason why the strings in a piano are held in a “harp.” Although the strings are of different diameters, they are also of different lengths. The piano “hammers” the strings to achieve the various notes – that’s why it’s often referred to as a percussion instrument rather than a string instrument. The length never changes. The wide variety – several octaves worth – of notes is achieved by a combination of different diameters and different lengths of strings – but the performer has no control over the length. There are pads that the performer can bring to bear on the strings, but they don’t change the length, they dampen the vibrations effectively changing the amplitude/loudness/duration of the notes produced.

So, a piano is basically a really big harp in a box. Hmmm – does the hammer dulcimer function like a harp or a guitar? I’ve never really looked.


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