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What Is a Bow Harp?

A.M. Boyle
A.M. Boyle

A bow harp is a type of stringed musical instrument in the harp family. The name refers to the distinctive, curved shape of the instrument's body. There are several different types of bow harps, including the Egyptian, the African, and the Appalachian bow harps. Each of these types comes in different sizes and varieties as well.

The harp itself is an ancient instrument, so old that its exact origins are difficult to trace. Still, it is believed that the concept for some of earliest harps came from huntsmen plucking on the strings attached to their hunting bows. In fact, the name itself might have originated from the ancient Norse or German word harpa, which roughly translated, means to pluck. This may be why the different types of bow harp, in many instances, resemble hunting bows.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

A large version of the bow-shaped harp, standing about six feet (1.8 meters) tall clearly resembles an oversized hunting bow. It is sometimes recognized as the Egyptian harp because the earliest depictions of the instrument can be found etched in the ancient tombs of the pharaohs of Egypt. This type of bow harp can have anywhere from four to 22 strings. Harpers tune the strings to different notes and pluck them singularly or in unison to produce a melodic sound.

Another version known as the African bow harp consists of a flat, boat-shaped base, typically covered with leather or animal skin, with a hole at its center. An arching bow rises from one end of the base. The strings, usually ten but sometimes less, attach at an angle from the tip of the bow to the base, and some say that the instrument resembles a Viking ship. Musicians usually hold the instruments on their laps and pluck the strings with their thumbs and forefingers.

The Appalachian bow harp, sometimes called a mouth bow, also resembles a hunting bow with its smooth, crescent shape. This particular instrument generally has only one string and can vary in length, with some long as a person’s arm, while others are only about one foot (0.3 meters) in length. Musicians place the tip of the bow section of the harp against the corner of their mouths and pluck the single string with their thumbs. They make sound variations by moving their mouths and changing the way in which they pluck the string. Depending upon its size, the instrument can produce a guitar-like twang or a clucking-type percussion.

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