Is it hard to play the harp?

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    Seoid OC

    Somehow when people find out I play the harp or hear me play, one of the questions that always seems to come up is how hard is it to play/learn the harp?
    And all I can think to say is, compared to what?


    Just different, I’d say. I play guitar, harp and banjo and learned them in that order. Folk guitar was easy, and I was self-taught. When I started playing classical guitar (with a teacher), that was a whole different kettle of fish. The harp presented a new set of challenges: reading off the grand staff, using the hands more or less independently (but is that the right word?), and bending your thumbs forward instead of backward. Still, I learned more theory from the harp than I ever had from the guitar and my reading improved no end. The banjo presented its own set of problems: striking the strings with the back of your nails is so counter-intuitive that it slowed me down no end. (Should add that I play Old Time, not bluegrass.) Also retuning for different keys and/or different moods seemed wacky. I had expected the banjo to be like the guitar than it in fact is.

    Three instruments, all plucked strings and all different. Love all of them (and the lute too).


    In my case, my first instrument,


    Interesting question. My entire musical background was with single note instruments. I was able to play most of them fairly well, and achieved enough expertise in woodwinds (flute clarinet oboe English horn) to enter a master’s degree program as a woodwind specialist.

    I never had much facility with piano, although I took several years’ instruction on piano to get my bachelor’s degree in voice.

    When I began harp I was amazed at how easy it is to do things the wrong way. I had trouble with intervals changing places and fingers. But there was always enough of what I was doing that sounded wonderful that I didn’t want to give up.

    I’ve been playing a pedal harp for about 3 months, and I have noticed that chromatics are subtly different from other instruments in that you stay in place and alter the pedal, as opposed to moving to a different place altogether.

    That requires some additional thought. Overall, I would say that things that seem as though they should be easy on harp are not easy, and things that might seem hard at the beginning do get somewhat easier as you continue to work on them.

    Of all the instruments I’ve ever played, I think harp is the hardest to attempt without actual lessons.


    I think it depends on what level of playing you want to acheive.


    The folk harp I was allowed to try at a Christmas house concert in Hartford in 1979 so simple and basic to someone who could play the keyboard. A couple months later I kit-built one and it came natural.

    Every instrument has its virtuosi able to play material that’s miles beyond me. That doesn’t inherently raise the bar for taking any of them up, rather it raises the ceiling over musical aspirations. “Brian Boru’s March” can be achieved by a musician whose ambitions do not reach to “Introduction and Allegro”.


    Someone pointed out that with other instruments you have the music right in front of you instead of to the side and you don’t have to look at your hands. Absolutely true, and I can play guitar or banjo, even fretless banjo, with my eyes closed if I don’t have to refer to the music. Can’t do that with the harp.

    Seoid OC

    Thanks everyone for your input.
    I guess it does seem like it depends on your background and perspective

    I’ve always thought of the violin as a difficult instrument but I can’t help but feel that a single line instrument is always going to be easier…


    I play several instruments and like others have said, each has things that are easy to do on them and things that are harder than you would expect.

    That said I would put Harp fairly high up on the difficulty level.

    As someone mentioned, one of the things about the harp that is an advantage is that you can produce a decent sound right off the bat. Certainly to get a really great sound takes practice, but unlike many other instruments you can make a nice sound your first time sitting at a harp just by running your fingers across the strings. You can’t do that on a flute.

    The harp is easy to learn to play basic, simple yet nice sounding tunes. Particularly diatonic music. Once you get to more advanced arrangements or more chromatic pieces then the difficulty increases exponentially. When you are talking about chromatic music on a pedal harp you are now in the really difficult range of experience.

    Yes, you can play in any key on your first day of playing, but if you are going to comp over chord changes it is much easier on a piano where you can visually see the relationships between the notes than on the harp where the strings may play one note one moment and a different note the next and you basically have to keep track in your head what note the string is going to play when you get to it.

    On top of that the music is equal to piano music in terms of difficulty. Playing music which includes chords and melodies and counter melodies on a grand staff is just plain hard. As one music teacher told me once, people give up the flute or the violin because they can’t get it to sound good, not because they can’t read the music, but people give up piano all the time simply because the music is so hard to read. And that goes for harp too which uses the same basic kind of music and staff.

    And of course the more advanced the music you are playing the harder it is to keep a good sound. Once you start playing fast, chromatic music filled out with lots of chords and such it gets harder to produce good tone, and you are more likely to buzz against another string.

    I would put harp up there with pipe organ in terms of difficulty to play really well.

    But, it is easy to start. In fact easier to start than most instruments.

    Seoid OC

    Hi Tony,

    Thank you so much for your post!


    Those are such interesting answers from everyone, especially as “is it hard to play the harp” is impossible to answer in just one quick sentence. A word I have not seen here, however, is discipline. We are all different in the amount of discipline we use for our own tasks when we are alone

    Marie Forrest

    Hi Seoid (and everyone else!),

    I’m new here and new to the harp, been teaching myself lever harp for about a month, with a pretty limited musical background.


    Marie, I am self taught too and as a beginner, things progress quickly and that build confidence.


    don’t kid yourself that folk played properly (with ornamentation, at tempo, creating your own variations, learning by ear) is any easier than classical.


    I feel that technique is the hardest element in playing the harp.

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