page 6a: Harps

Musical Instruments of Middle-earth:


In Gothic times, harps were seldom over four feet tall, seldom had more than 22 strings, and had no pedals. Ancient Celtic harp technique (Now with audio examples!), also, is very different from that for modern harp; in fact, the whole basis of compositional methods is different from that of modern Western music. The term "harp" in Tolkien's Middle-earth stories might be interpreted broadly, as it was in Gothic Europe, to include things like lyres, kytharas, and cruits. Similarly, "fiddles," especially since Tolkien mentioned that they were of differing sizes, could easily include viols and crwths.

It is noteworthy that Tolkien said of certain Elves and Men of the First Age that they always carried their harps with them. On such seemingly unlikely occasions such Fingon's rescue of Maedros from the cliffs of Thangorodrim, and Tuor's secretive and impulsive journey from Androth to the sea, they pulled their harps out of their packs (or from their shoulders?) and sang. Virtually no harp of modern times would be small enough to carry into such territories, especially in the midst of such danger. These must be only 8- to 13-string instruments, at most, and of very high pitch due to their short length. If gut strung, as seems most likely, their tone would be not unlike that of a tenor ukelele; if wire-strung, they would probably sound more like the higher strings of a Japenese Koto.

Harps in Gothic Europe were tuned according to either Pythagorean or Just intonation, not to the 12-tone per octave equal temperament common only in the Western world and only in the past century or two. They also were tuned to 5- or 7-note scales, not 12-note per octave full chromatic scales. However, considering the remarkable, seemingly "magical" skillfulness of Elves, Dwaves, and even Numenorians, it might be appropriate to design tunings for them that include almost any number (and complexity of relationships) of tones per octave or other primary interval. See my Middle-earth Tunings page for more information (in the warning words of Plato, "Let none but geometers enter here." :-)





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Written by David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL, USA

Page last updated January 4, 2000