Harps form a very large family of instruments, present worldwide in many forms. The aim of this page is only to present briefly some types of early European harps and thus many shortcuts and omissions had to be made! A very good global vision of the history of the harp may be found in Roslyn Rensch's
Harps and Harpists, published by Indiana University Press in 1989 then 2007.

From the Middle Ages all European harps share the common characteristic of having a column that closes the "triangle" formed by the soundbox and the neck. This column is far from being present on all harps; they are for example not necessary on bow harps like the
Burmese harp and some African harps.

The medieval harp, nowadays often called "romanesque harp", is a relatively small instrument with a soundbox carved from a single piece of wood, a characteristic shared by other medieval string instruments. No complete instrument survived and medieval harps are reconstructed following the numerous depictions of harps in medieval sources.

Instrument by
Eric Kleinmann

At the end of the Middle Ages the shape of the harp evolved. The instrument became longer and the neck acquired a very special pointed shape; this type of harp is nowadays called "gothic harp" and was sometimes called "Burgundy harp" in the Renaissance. This new shape allowed for deeper bass strings as well as a good quality of the top strings thanks to the high point of the neck.

The braypins became widely used on these harps. Braypins are small wedge-shaped buttons that hold the string through the soundboard; when they are placed very closed to the strings they produce a buzzing sound that gives a whole — and unusual — new sound to these harps.

Harp by
Eric Kleinmann

Until the 16th century, harps were built (with few exceptions) with a single row of strings and without mechanism — the "medieval" or "troubadour" harps with semitone levers are not reconstructions of period instruments but harps built following modern techniques.

These harps had only limited chromatic possibility, and several transformations were thought of to obtain a more chromatic harp.

The harps that were most used in erudite music at the end of the Renaissance and in Baroque times were harps with several rows of strings. In Italy, the arpa doppia, with two parallel rows of strings, appeared in the 16th century. It is entirely chromatic but has the particularity that the notes are not placed in the same way in all registers: the diatonic scale (being the strings most used by the harpist) are on the side of the left hand in the bass and of the right hand in the treble.

Harp by Tim Hobrough

The double harp was expanded into a triple harp by prolonging the diatonic row on both sides. Of the three parallel rows, both outer rows are tuned in unison following a diatonic scale, one row for each hand. The middle row with the sharps and flats may be played by both hands through their diatonic row, a system well suited for 17th century music mostly written in keys with few sharps and flats but requiring very sudden harmonic changes.

Harp by
Claus Huettel

The chromatic Italian harps spread progressively throughout Europe: Haendel wrote his Concerto for a triple harp. However many other types of harps were still played. The majority of harps were probably still single-row harps; in Spain, chromatic harps were built with two crossing rows of strings; the Irish played, already for some centuries, a harp with metal strings...

In the 17th century a system of metal "forks" on the neck was developed in Germany. These forks could be turned one by one by hand to raise individual strings a semitone higher. In the 18th century these forks were linked to pedals with metal rods; the first pedal harps were born, ancestors of the modern orchestra harp.