Research Project

Posted In: Amateur Harpists

  • Participant
    Kate Miller on #156163

    Hello, I am after a bit of advice and feedback for a research project I am doing about the harp.
    My question is
    How was the harp perceived in the 18th Century compared to present day?
    I am trying to find out the general perception of the harp, that I and fellow harpists have encountered from the general public and deduce whether it is heavily influenced by the iconography from the 18th Century. My intent is to try and change the opinion of what is a very out dated view which in this modern age is very far from the truth.
    I formed a focus group and asked what they thought of when you hear or see a harp and the answers I got went down the stereotypical line:
    Women’s instrument
    You have to be rich to play one
    All harps are gold

    I want to prove this perception is wrong and find out if this stereotype is having an effect on the harping world.
    Have any male harpists been affected by people or comments made by others about playing the harp? And do you think this female image of the instrument puts off potential male students?
    Have any teachers come across reasons for lack of students or too many students which link to the stereotype of the instrument?
    The harp has come a long way in organology and its so versatile today which I feel non-harpists tend to be naive too and have no idea what the instrument is truly capable of.
    I would love to hear from you if you have any opinions on this matter however relevant! Or advice on any information you think is important to the research. Thank you in advance!

    cc-chiu on #156164

    Nice that you are doing qualitative research! Are you studying psychology or social sciences? Just curious :).

    It is interesting that the harp is considered a female instrument because so many good harpists are male. It would be interesting to ask them for their opinion and whether they face criticism.

    As for the fact that you need to be rich to play the harp – harps aren’t the cheapest instruments… Fortunately, cheaper models are becoming available now, but you can get a cheap guitar to practise some chords on for 40 euros, whereas a harpsicle costs around 300 euros and then you don’t even have levers yet. For that amount of money, a guitarist can buy a reasonable guitar which can serve him/her many years. And don’t even let me get started on the matter of pedal harps… As a child, you really need parents who are able and willing to pay such an amount of money (or who are able to take on a loan).
    So no, you don’t need to be rich but you need to have some money to spare… which can be a huge deterrent for parents. After all, if your son/daughter doesn’t like the guitar or the recorder, you won’t lose as much money as when you’ve just bought a 2k student lever harp… I realize that violins and flutes etc. are also rather expensive, yet the starter models do come a bit cheaper than a harpsicle.

    Regarding your research, I think it is important to keep track of all the topics you’d like to explore. You’re talking about 18th century iconography, that alone is an entire study in itself, after all, how do you determine that a certain prejudice is caused by certain pictures? You’d need to look into a lot of pictures and sources to determine a general ‘view of the harp’, which would also require a lot of art knowledge. I’d be very interested in such a study, by the way.

    Also, in research, ideally you’d like to keep your own opinions out of it. After all, it sounds as though you have already formed your conclusion, while you are trying to research what people think and how it was caused. In my opinion, the goal of research isn’t to try and change something… Or you could research the factors necessary to get people to the harp. That would require another perspective however, then your main question is ‘what deters people from the harp’, which is more specific than ‘what do people think about the harp’. Your preliminary results don’t indicate that people are actually deterred from the harp, but if you have findings that point that way, you could also adapt your research line to that. (I assume you are familiar with the concept of iterative research? 🙂 ).

    Perhaps this is also important to ask your focus group – how did they form their opinion about the harp, were they exposed to harps during weddings etc?

    What was the composition of your focus group? Personally, I’d form multiple focus groups of various demography and see if there are any differences. Especially as you are also interested on the effects on the harping world, I’d try to include a focus group of harpists. Which might be quite hard to organize, but perhaps you live somewhere near a conservatory? You also might want to include professional musicians, as you mention that you found that non harpists don’t know what the harp is capable of.

    However, at first, I’d try to keep everything as small as possible at first, as focus group interviews generate a lot of data. Perhaps you can distill a few common themes and work from there. The themes you mention are already very diverse and I’m not sure whether you will be able to fit everything in one research project. However, if you’re able to do this, it’s great!

    By the way, is there any literature on this topic? I’m more from a life-science background so I don’t know which databases to search… 🙂

    angel-zhao on #156165

    My opinions on two of the questions you posed:

    “You have to be rich to play one”

    Before I learned about the existence of small harps and lever harps, my only perception of “harp” was a large, heavy and expensive instrument. The only (pedal) harp I ever saw in person was owned by my first piano teacher. It was impressive and seemed unobtainable for my middle income parents. Many people start their music studies on the piano as it’s highly recommended and a “common” instrument. For the harp, it’s quite the opposite. With a limited used harp market combined with the fact that sometimes well-maintained second-hand harps cost more than its newer equivalent, it could be difficult for many to find the right “first” harp. After that, there’s the prospect of having to purchase multiple harps for different purposes. Personally I do not think you have to be rich to play the harp. However, it usually does take more savings and research for one to obtain a good harp that lasts along with study material/teacher.

    “The harp has come a long way in organology and its so versatile today which I feel non-harpists tend to be naive too and have no idea what the instrument is truly capable of.”

    When I talked to my mom about harps earlier this year, I was surprised to hear her say that harp is primarily an orchestral instrument, used as an accompaniment to other instruments or in a duet with the piano, that it’s not a good solo instrument (and something about playing one string at a time). Her perception stemmed from one single conversation with my first piano teacher. I had to tell her my teacher (very likely) said that based on her own repertoire. Harp is very capable as a solo instrument. I also told her about folk music and lever harps. If I did not correct my mom, she could easily pass off the same misinformation to another person. For those who only heard about harps in passing without any interest in doing in-depth research, it’s easy to hold onto a concept or opinion however uninformed, and pass it on. Without more contact with actual harpists or people “in the know”, limited exposure means more people will take any (mis)information for granted.

    Kate Miller on #156166

    Hi CC Chiu, I’m studying Creative Music Technology so this project is quite different to what I’m usually researching along with the methods I’m doing to obtain the data.

    Totally agree with how you can finance a harp only if you have the relative funds to do so, but there are some great finance schemes out there now to loan before you buy and then getting the cost of the loan knocked off the harp price if you buy which is what I did and have not looked back since, so in this case I guess its becoming more accessible to people who previously thought it was an out of reach instrument of choice to learn. I hope so anyway, more harpists can’t be a bad thing.

    Iconography is a huge topic definitely and I would absolutely love to go into so much more detail about paintings, sculptures, architecture etc…. the project is limited to around 3000 words so sadly I cannot go into too much detail on one topic but definitely cutting down the topics to accommodate a more in-depth research for one or two questions and analyzing the data would be appropriate.

    I don’t have the art knowledge but could very happily spend a great deal of time trawling through books, internet, museums researching the instrument…. I can definitely say its pretty fascinating.

    My title is a working one so yes giving it a definitive question, which can derive from the findings, would really give it interesting starting point.
    I can’t find any previous studies on this topic or of similar value, which is a shame but starting afresh can be quite pro-active.

    This is incredibly helpful thank you!

    Angel Zhou, Thank you very much for your comments, they are great to read and will contribute really well to the project!

    As the Harp seems to be attributed to one gender more than the other, would any male harpist care to comment on how/if this perspective is changing?

    Rightly so there are many wonderful male harpists and it’s really great to see anyone play an instrument with such talent.

    Tacye on #156167

    Marie Antoinette is often blamed for a lot of this.

    paul-knoke on #156168

    Hi Kate!

    I’d be very interested in learning what you find out about how the harp was regarded in the 18th century.


    Philippa mcauliffe on #156169

    I think you might need to concentrate on one specific area only when you are that limited.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #156170

    What an excellent topic. I would be happy to give you a detailed response via e-mail; send me a list of questions you have. You might also post this in Facebook in whatever male harpists group we currently have there.

    Kate Miller on #156171

    Hi Tracye, Yes from what I’ve read it seems she was the trendsetter for harps in the French court.

    Hey Paul, If anyone would like to read my end research then I will happily email the paper.

    Georgina, Thanks for your input. It’s really interesting that men are so prominently featured at a professional level yet not so much at a beginners.

    “Is that cos they only see girls playing and that perpetuates the divide or is it just not as appealing to them?”

    That’s a great question, and on the student who had his parents choose the violin for him, the cost of the instrument really swayed the verdict on which instrumental path he would take.

    A majority of people I have asked to ‘define’ the harp are not classically trained musicians so the only exposure, they have had to harps are at functions such as weddings… I suppose the environment of which the instrument is situated adds to the perception.

    So far my sources are mainly books, internet, and paintings for the iconography part but if anyone has any more sources which could be useable then please do get in touch. Thanks again for the feedback, there’s lots of interesting facts and questions I can highlight in the project.

    Hi Saul, that would be wonderful! I’ll send you an email in the next couple of days if that is ok.

    Again if there are any sources which I haven’t highlighted and comments, opinions, personal experiences anyone would like to add, please do get in touch.

    Thanks, Kate

    paul-knoke on #156172

    Hi Kate

    Any chance you’ll be at the Edinburgh Harp Fest? I’d be happy to meet you there to talk more about your research (18th century harp is my special interest). If so, you’ll be able to find me or leave word for me at Michael Parfett’s table.


    Kate Miller on #156173

    Hi Paul,
    Sadly no I am not but if its ok, I will give you an email to pick your brains.


    paul-knoke on #156174

    Hi Kate

    Absolutely, it’s OK! However, my email access may be limited for the next week or so.


    Kate Miller on #156175

    Hello all,

    I Just want to say thank you for all of your input, feedback and advice, it has been a great help. I am quite eager to talk to a few more male harpists and ask a few questions to gain a perspectives from your points of view on the harping world and personal experiences.
    If any male harpists out there could volunteer a few minutes to answer a couple of questions, please comment below and I will get an email right out to you or give me an drop me an email (click on my name and it will be in that section).

    Thank you


    unknown-user on #156176

    I’ve always assumed that the skewed gender ratio is what’s actually responsible for seeing many male professionals, but not many male beginners. At least subconsciously ,a young male student probably isn’t totally comfortable with the fact that he is probably his teacher’s only male student (or maybe even the only male student in his region!). If he is a very naturally gifted player, he will receive lots of praise that will outweigh any subconscious discomfort with the gender ratio. Moreover, he will probably be praised more than a female colleague of similar level simply because of his gender. On the other hand, a male student who is not very good at the instrument will probably end up quitting rather early unless he is very much in love with the instrument. I think that sincere (and rightfully deserved) praise at a young age is probably what naturally selects male harpists so that a greater proportion of them are very good and therefore likely to go on to be professionals. The clincher here is that if you have two equally talented harp students who could easily both make it as professionals, the boy will probably receive more encouragement (at least implicitly). In this way, boys who begin the harp and stick with it are more likely to be better players because of the natural selection method I described above. Then on top of that, they’re probably more likely to go to be professionals than females of the same caliber. With both of those things going for them, its no wonder that the male:female ratio is much higher at the professional level.

    Did that make sense?

    tony-morosco on #156177

    My take:

    Women’s Instrument: I always heard the Marie Antoinette explanation as well. Historically the harp was an instrument associated with men. The Druids and bards have the association with the harp. At the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, which is famous because it is when Bunting began notating the harp repertoire of Ireland, out of the 11 competitors there was only one woman.

    But around that same time Marie Antoinette took up the harp, and as was typical in those days, what the queen did the women of the court followed, and so the harp became an instrument that became associated with women.

    I don’t know if that is “urban legend” or if it is actually fact, but I have read it in a few different sources and it does not sound unreasonable to me.

    However, I think there are far more male harpists than most people realize. Not a majority, but still a lot more than the public tends to think about. And besides, what really makes an instrument a man’s or woman’s instrument? Gender doesn’t play a part in making music on any instrument I know of.

    While the image that might jump into most people’s minds when they think of the harp is a woman in a gown playing a gilded harp, I don’t think that it is all that surprising to people to see a man playing the harp.

    I know I have never received any negative comments about it, or suggestions that I shouldn’t be playing the harp because I am male.

    I think it might help that, although if you mention the harp people might first imagine a woman playing it, if you ask the average person to name the first famous harpist they can think of more times than not they are going to say Harpo Marx.

    While the female association with the harp probably does put off some potential male students, I think that is happening less and less these days. I think more and more boys are choosing the harp, and that the stigma of being a male harpists is mostly in people’s heads and doesn’t translate to the real world as often as people think. Not that it doesn’t ever. Some brides just have the image of walking down the isle to a harp, with the very specific image of the gold gilded harp played by a long haired woman in a flowing gown.

    But I think far more often than not it is the music that matters more to them and while it happens I don’t think it happens often enough to be considered a serious problem.

    It is also worth noting that in some parts of the world, specifically South and Central America, the harp is still primarily an instrument associated with men, with far fewer women playing.

    You have to be rich to play one: Clearly a misperception. You can get a decent lever harp for under $3000. While not cheap, and while that may put it out of the reach of someone who is poor, it is not out of reach for the average middle class family. While it is more expensive to start on harp than many instrument (a student flute starts at around $500), almost any high end instrument gets into the same range as a high end harp (high end professional violins and flutes can easily hit $20,000).

    So the cost of becoming a professional with a professional quality instrument might be high for harp, it is no more so than with many other instruments. But starting costs do tend to be higher than for other student beginners, and I am sure that discourages many. Even if they can afford the cost they might not be willing to shell out that much money without knowing if the child is really going to follow through with it. Few options to rent than with other instruments also probably contributes to limiting the number of people who consider it a possible option.

    All harps are gold: Clearly not. Personally I don’t care for gold harps. Aside from the fact that I don’t really like the look of them it is just that much more expense on the harp and gives you that much more to have to take special care and worry about on the harp. I see lots of harps these days used by professionals that are not gold gilded, from more contemporary use in things like jazz, to more traditional settings like in orchestras. The local symphony uses Salzedo model harps, which I think look fantastic in an orchestral setting (not to mention sound great).

    For those who like them, great. But I, for one, am glad that these days there are plenty of options that don’t involve gold or other excessive adornment.

    Weddings: Sure, harps are a common choice for providing the music at weddings. But they are far from limited to just weddings and symphonies. If anyone needs their perception of the harp as being limited to those settings broken just bring them to see Deborah Henson-Conant or Park Stickney, or Monica Stadler, or Edmar Castaneda, or Athy or any number of other contemporary harp performers, most of whom probably haven’t played a wedding since their student days, if ever.

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