There is a difference between playing on a harp with pedals and a harp that does not have pedals. The instruments use different fundamental hand techniques. One is not better than the other, just like piano is not better than organ. When you find a teacher, you want to make sure they will teach you the technique that is appropriate for your music goals.
The main difference: Classical versus Celtic
If you intend to play the genuine, unmodified classical repertoire—Debussy or Ravel exactly as they wrote it—you will have to play a pedal harp. If your dream is to play in an orchestra, you will need to do this on pedal harp. Yes, you can play arrangements of classical music on lever harp, and it sounds great, but it is not the real thing. If this matters to you, go for pedal.
If you intend to play the genuine Celtic repertoire, you’ll need a lever harp with the appropriate string tension. It is not impossible to play Celtic music on a pedal harp, but the quick notes (ornaments) are more difficult. If you’re all about Celtic music, go for lever.
You can play gazillions of genres on either harp.The classical/Celtic divide is not about limiting the possibilities of the harp, but rather to set your expectations on what you’re getting into.
- A lot more expensive. Be aware of this, but don’t let it stop you. There are lots of financing options for buying or renting a harp.
- Bigger and heavier. If you intend to play in places other than your home, you will need a vehicle large enough to transport them in.
- Louder. Because they are bigger, they are going to be louder, which is better for playing in big spaces or with a full orchestra.
- Genuine classical repertoire. If it is your goal to play the music the way Hasselmans and Satie wrote it, you will have to play on a pedal harp.
- Modified Celtic repertoire. You can get the gist of a Celtic song on a pedal harp, but the Celtic ornamentation can be difficult because of the string tension.
- Less expensive. Sizes vary, so there is a lever harp to fit any budget. Even the most expensive lever harp is half the cost of a pedal harp. You can also choose to have no levers at first, greatly cutting the cost, and add levers to some or all strings later. This is not possible to do with pedals.
- Lighter weight. A good, big lever harp weighs half or less of what a pedal harp weighs. You can transport a lever harp in most any type of car.
- Not as loud. Lever harps aren’t wimpy, but, un-amplified, they do better in a smaller space or with a chamber ensemble.
- Modified classical repertoire. You cannot play many classical songs on the lever harp exactly as written,but there are many good arrangements for lever harp.
- Genuine Celtic repertoire. Inasmuch as there is a genuine Celtic repertoire for harp, you will be able to play it completely on a lever harp.
Pedals versus levers is a key differentiator, but there are also:
- Wire-strung harps. These use wire strings rather than nylon, gut, or carbon fiber. They are traditionally played with your fingernails, producing a bell-like tone.
- Paraguayan harps. These are the distinctive harp of Venezuela, played with fingernails in melody hand and finger pads in the bass.
- Double-strung lever harps. These have two sets of strings next to each other, with two sets of levers.
- Triple-strung harps (no levers). These have the sharp and flat notes on a set of strings in between two natural sets.
- Historical harps. These are reproductions of harps from hundreds of years ago, sometimes with burrs to give the strings a buzzing sound, and usually with less space between strings than modern harps.
Should you begin your harp journey on one of these specialty harps? Sure, especially if your main goal is to play one of those. But if you've never heard of them until you just now read about them her, please do not let the variety confuse you. Focus on your goals, and see what harp fits them best.
If you can’t decide now
Overwhelmed? Well, lucky for you, you live in the Internet Age. Go to YouTube, and look up some players of the various harps mentioned above, or see the examples I mention in my list of harp music genres. Which sounds best to you? If you are able to travel to a harp conference, you can hear different harps in person, and you can probably try them out in a vendor hall.
If you believe the difference is about pedals versus levers, then, if your ultimate intention is to play pedal harp, you should try to learn on a pedal harp.
If you can’t afford to get a pedal harp right now, then make sure that you learn on a lever harp with similar string tension as a pedal harp, and tell your teacher that you intend to play pedal. You need to use different muscles to pull pedal harp strings, and you’ll want to develop pedal harp hand technique from the start. It is easier to go from pedal harp technique to lever harp technique than the other way around.
The lever harp is not a “training harp.”It can handle any music genre, and it’s much more portable than a pedal harp. Most people don’t even know there is a difference, so even as a professional doing weddings or other gigs, you will do fine with a big lever harp.
Remember, this is all about your goals with the harp.
(PS: What do the pedals or levers do anyway?)
You can think of the strings on the harp as the white keys on the piano. They are A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
The black keys on the piano are sharps and flats of these notes. So how do you hear a B flat or a C sharp on the harp? Here’s where pedals or levers come in.
Pedal harps have seven pedals, one for each letter in the musical alphabet. Set the B pedal up, and all the B strings turn to B flat. Set the C pedal down and all the C strings turn sharp. Using your feet means that you don’t have to take either hands off the strings.
Levers do the same thing as pedals, but instead of having one pedal per note, you have one lever for each individual string. If you want C sharp, and you have 4 C strings, you have to flip up to 4 levers.
This is why you can’t play the certain original classical repertoire on a lever harp—too many changes to sharps or flats in the middle of the song.