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Harp Music and Human Exceptionalism

Are humans exceptional? Here is another reason to think so — music. For me, particularly the harp. Historians think people began playing the harp or lyre as far back as 3500 BC. This instrument is complex — but it is also moving. The human capacity to be moved by music is, as far as we know, unparalleled among living creatures.

Composed of a sounding board, base, column, neck, and strings, the pedal harp is, like nature, “finely tuned” to achieve a purpose. The sounding board and column are constructed of highly polished wood. Metal and wood form the neck. Made of wire, gut, and nylon, strings are under very high tension. There are 47 strings in a concert grand.

Connected to the strings via machinery running inside the column to the neck, pedals enable musicians to play three different pitches on one string. This means that it is as easy for a pedal harpist to play in C-flat major as it is to play in C major. There are also lever harps, where pitch is changed by moving a lever at the neck. For these harps, each string can play two pitches.

Over the lifetime of a harp, due to the high tension, the neck will warp and the middle of the sounding board will curve up. Harpists must have their instruments regulated to maintain excellent quality sound and pitch.

Moving past the instrument itself, what does playing the harp entail?

Technique for the harp is very specific: pulling the harp onto one’s shoulder, keeping one’s elbows parallel to the floor, plucking the string with the tip of the finger only, and fully bringing the fingers into the hand in the “harp fist.” Then there is the placement of fingers relative to each other (the pinky finger, by the way, is never used) while playing in the middle of each string, and more, especially as one gets into special effects like harmonics. This is all in muscle memory for the skilled harpist.

Then add to that the directives of musicianship. Of course, a musician must read music — but what does that mean? One must learn time signature, rhythm, notes, tempo, dynamics, and, I would argue, feeling.

But here we are talking about the performer — what about the piece of music? This is another level of complexity: someone else’s handiwork.

My teacher used to tell me to play a song correctly from when I first picked up the piece: starting with hands separately and beginning as slowly as needed so that I would not make a mistake.

I invite you to watch the video of Valérie Milot playing Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau from Má Vlast. It is an orchestral piece transcribed for harp.

Smetana became deaf not long after beginning to write Má Vlast. For more on the composer and the piece, see here.

But why does this relax us? Why does something so complex clear our minds? I can only think that intelligent design points to part of the answer. The artistry of nature finds its echo in the human art that, in its own way, touches our heart.