Reasons for mysterious gender imbalance in harp playing…?

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    (Sorry in advance if this has been covered before, I looked for old threads and while I have found mentions of this, I didn’t find a specific thread.)

    So, I am a physicist and also female and therefore in a minority – I’d say that my workplace is about 10 men to every woman. Most of my friends are guys and I spend most of my time in groups with large male majorities which feels normal and natural to me by now. Whenever I go someplace (even cyber-space) that is woman-dominated, I tend to really notice, not in any way because it’s bad, only because I am not so used to it. And I also spend a lot of time thinking about why this might be (either situation), which is sort of unavoidable if you are a female scientist. And something I noticed is A LOT (but by no means all) of the lovely (by all means all!) people on this forum are women, or at least have female screen names. And every harpist I ever met in real life was a woman.

    Now this has been puzzling me ever since I joined this forum: I know there are lots of gender imbalances in lots of instruments. I grew up learning the trumpet and I quickly noticed that brass playing is heavily male-dominated, but I can think of a good reason for that – playing a brass instrument is very physically demanding, it’s like doing exercise and can test your endurance, stomach muscles and lung capacity – things which men tend to be better at. And the flute is a dainty little instrument which I can see people might mistakenly assume is appropriate for girls not boys and therefore suggest to their daughters, not their sons.

    But harp? I can’t make it add up. The closest relation to the harp, the piano, is a fairly even split – it is not considered gendered at all – even though it used to be for genteel ladies to play for guests. But the Welsh and Irish harpists of old were all men. You need to be fairly strong to lift the harp, lean it on yourself and cart it around, and I can’t see ladies in long dresses getting their feet round the pedals. So what the hell happened?

    In the interests of scientific inquiry and pure curiosity, I’m interested in your opinions, suggestions, reasons and theories about why this might be…? Also any anecdotes you may have about being male/female/otherwise in a majority/minority…



    I don’t know any statistics about this so I’m only speaking from anecdotal evidence but I blame the Victorians. As we all know, most harp players at one time were men and this was largely because most of the fun in any field was had by men and the lifestyle of a travelling player would certainly not have been thought suitable for a woman. However, in the 19th century the moneyed classes were in need of something to entertain both their women and their guests and they quicly saw the benefits of having a harp in the drawing room.

    Young ladies from wealthy families were educated in what they called ‘accomplishments’ – ie.drawing or painting in watercolours (oils were too messy and anyway were considered rather ‘serious’); some facility in the use of those languages that were thought suitable – perhaps a little French or Italian; delicate needlework (NOT darning hubby’s underpants, but perhaps a little embroidering, beading of lacemaking) and, of course, playing an instrument.

    The pianoforte and harpsicord were popular as they produced the kind of music that could not only show off the lady’s skill when guests arrived but could also be put to use for a little impromptu singing or dancing but the harp really came into its own when played as a spectator sport because its most appreciated property was the way in which playing showed of a young lady’s beautiful arms – remember that in those days there were far fewer parts of the female body on view in public (and very often in private too) so the turn of a delicately plump elbow was a very acceptable way of hinting at what other delights might linger beneath the crinoline. This was really the main reason for the harp’s huge popularity at that time and I believe that is where the instrument got its reputation as a rather ‘feminine’ instrument, though happily that is at last beginning to fade and I do encounter (more frequently online than in person) quite a few male harpers/harpists these days. In ‘real life’, in fact, I’m only personally acquainted with two other players and, of those, one is male and the other female. Thank you so much for raising this point, Mae, I think it’s a fascinating subject.


    From what I have read, and it’s just something I read so don’t know how accurate it is, one of the reasons that so many women took up the harp was because Marie Antoinette played. When the queen does something the rest of the court follows, and that spreads out to other countries that have close ties.

    Marie played, the women of her court also started playing, and the aristocracy of other countries who often followed the current fashions in France followed.

    Perhaps it is just my own experience but I don’t find that the harp world is that female dominated. Not that there aren’t a lot of women playing the harp, and perhaps more than half, but it seems to me it actually might be just slightly more than half. It seems a good half of all the harpists I know, when you add in all harpists, not just classical harpists, are men.

    I think that since most instruments are so heavily male dominated that even an even split makes an impression.

    Sherri Matthew

    Hi Mae,

    You’re right about the old Irish harpers being men…. almost exclusively. The bards carried their wire-strung harps with them onto the battlefield and played for their patrons at the end of the day in the mead hall, but this was decidedly not the occupation of women. I think it’s very ironic that here today as a woman I play the music of the church – Gregorian chant – on an instrument that was almost exclusively the province of men for hundreds of years in Ireland and I am sure had primarily secular music played on it to accompany bardic poetry. 🙂 I’ve been researching this angle recently and it’s been quite interesting reading.

    I haven’t looked into the gender split but I would imagine it’s fairly balanced. Ann Heymann is the leading proponent/authority of things wire harp, having devoted a significant portion of her life to researching and uncovering the old playing technique from forgotten manuscripts in Dublin. There are men active in the field as well – Simon Chadwick and Paul Dooley come to mind, the latter for his research and recording work on the ap Huw Welsh manuscript. And there’s some well-known wire harp builders for both historic and modern models as well. Jay Witcher in Maine and Lynne Lewandowski here in VT both build historic harps. I think we’ve got a nice male/female balance in the wire harp world today, considering its long history.


    I think for classical harp, its history as a drawing room instrument probably played a significant role, and this certainly could have been helped by Marie Antoinette’s playing the instrument.

    But I’ll detour here. For brass instruments, that is the common belief, which is one reason females had so often been dicriminated against as players of many instruments. The numbers of female musicians in American orchestras climbed dramatically once they began implementing auditions behind screens and conductors couldn’t assume that as females they could never properly play a trombone or percussion or you name it. Googling Abbie Conant and reading about the shameful treatment she received at the hands of an orchestra in Germany, having to take breathing tests to demonstrate her lung capacity, something a male had never been required to do, should send anybody with a conscience into a fit of anger. And just this year, a swarm of male conductors have made, and I won’t mince words, unmitigated asses out of themselves in interviews saying that women don’t have the strength or personality to be good conductors, that male players will be distracted by their beauty, and so on ad nauseum. Just the stupidist garbage spewing out of the mouths attached to their very empty heads. Rant over.

    Jerusha Amado

    I think this is the angriest I’ve ever seen you on this forum!


    Yeah, I guess I got a bit riled up. Not anything in the thread itself of course, but it did touch on some larger issues that show a very ugly side of the classical music industry.


    I’ve heard that the chiefest reason why both (large) harps and pianos were originally gendered female was because they were non-portable. As a result, they were used exclusively for domestic music-making, and were not the sort of thing you could bring out into the world or heaven forbid, into a tavern. Even the celtic bardic harps were small enough to tuck under an arm.

    And brass instruments got into the modern orchestra via military bands, which has more to do with why they are associated with men than lung capacity. As Kreig said, blind auditions have pretty much put that one to bed permanently.

    Sherri Matthew

    Yes, that’s true… Forgot to mention that the old Celtic harps were indeed meant to be carried about on horseback, so portability for working harpers was an issue.

    Kreig, that was an eye-opener. 🙁 There’s some bad stuff going on in the recording industry too. I just haven’t expanded on it too much here. 5% of all recording engineers are female. I do my own studio work, so I haven’t run into any attitude, but some recording forums I’ve read, I’m assured that it’s alive and well. It’s a very male-dominated industry, from what I understand.

    Philippa mcauliffe

    ALL the horns in our Symphony orchestra are currently women. In fact the strings in general are more women than men too esp the violins. Screened auditions. None of the trumpets or trombones yet though! And mum says double bass seemed a very male thing until more recently in her experience but now seems quite mixed.


    The tuba player in the Philadelphia Orchestra is a young woman.


    And the first chair horn; I went to high school with her!


    It’s worth remembering that wind instruments in general don’t make noises because of the volume of air that’s blown through them. They make noise, like blowing over the top of a jug, when the air inside them is set to vibrating. And that can be done with quite small puffs of air, generally. In order to get a good, big sound out of a tuba, one need not blow a tuba’s worth of air through it at any time.

    Think of the jug: the bottom is actually closed, so NO air can pass through it, really. And yet it can make a sound.


    All this is puzzling! Perhaps children make choices based on the conditioning acquired during theirpre-school years development and therefore the parents’ influence carries some weight and like the colour pink, a lot of this comes from TV advertising with sweet music and ballet/princesses etc. It might also be that the age at which children start, 8-10, say, is when they are ‘compliant’ with the perception of a bias although the woodwind and bowed instruments appeal to both sexes. Perhaps the harp and brass are at opposite extremes, noise level wise and that influences their appeal. My parents never presented a restrictive or narrow choice to me and so I never related my choices to gender biases. Today the research from Philadelphia reports evidence of a difference in hard-wiring in the brain.


    I hate to say this but I also suspect some of the bias against wind instruments may well start when girls are at the age of taking up an instrument at school and may be put off by the facial expressions involved. Doubtless they soon grow out of this but by that time they may have already become used to playing something else.

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