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Psaltery, Lap Harp, or Zither: Whatever you call one, it's fun!

Updated on August 22, 2014

What is a psaltery?

If you're not familiar with psaltery instrument, there are two main types.

The first is the plucked psaltery. It has been around since ancient times. It was mentioned in the Bible, and in fact:

The name of psaltery entered Christian literature in the 3rd century B.C. translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint where, in the Psalms, nebel was translated psalterion. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar's idolatrous ensemble included the Aramic psantria. Notice, also, that the book of Psalms has also become known as the Psalter (or psalterium), from the hymns sung with this harp. (more here)

This is also sometimes called a lap harp or zither.

The second type is of more recent vintage, and is called a bowed psaltery. It generally has a triangular shape, and as the name implies, is played with a bow. The notes on a psaltery are similar to those on a piano. The natural notes, or white keys, are on one side and the sharps and flats, or black keys, are on the other.

You can get a right-handed or left-handed bowed psaltery, and you can get them in different ranges, like an alto or soprano bowed psaltery.

These are a little harder to learn to play than the plucked psaltery, but still pretty easy. This is a delightful instrument with a lovely sound. They are worthwhile in their own right, but also have the advantage of being easier on the budget than some other bowed instruments, so again, a good starter instrument for adults and kids alike.

Both types of lap harps are shown on this page so you can compare and see what you like best. Whichever type you choose, these are wonderful music makers!

Music Maker Lap Harp (Zither)

This little psaltery is a great starter harp instrument for both kids and adults. It's economical, and it's a lot of fun to play.

With the little music sheets, it makes it really easy to learn how to play this lap harp. All you have to do is pluck the strings indicated!

I've had one of these for years. It's a sturdy little instrument. The worst that's ever happened is one of the grandkids threw a ball inside that landed smack dab on one of the strings and broke it. Fortunately, you can buy new wire and fix that pretty easily! Otherwise, it's been an easy care, fun to play instrument!

Lap Harp Accessories

A case for your plucked psaltery & more. . .

There are a few things that are a great addition to the lap harp, like having a carrying case to protect it, extra picks & strings (wire), and of course, more music!

Carrying Case for Lap Harp

World of Harmony Music

Replacement Pick Pack for Plucked Psaltery / Lap Harp

More Music for the Lap Harp - Call it a plucked psaltery, zither, or lap harp, you need music!

Musicmakers Hognose Psaltery

Here's a psaltery of ancient shape. This characteristic "pig-snout" shape shows up in several medieval illustrations that are showing plucked psalteries, Popular through the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and were sometimes quite decoratively ornamented.

This isn't a toy, even though many put a psaltery in that category. You can use this like any other musical instrument. It's got a great sound, with a lovely tone and volume. There's a video directly beneath here where you can listen to someone playing a hognose psaltery and see what a nice sound it has.

This would be a super instrument for anyone interested in medieval fairs and the like.

Playing a Plucked Psaltery - Listen to this rendition of Greensleeves. . .

Plucked vs. Bowed Psaltery

These two types of psaltery instruments have very different sounds. If you listened to the above video you know what a plucked psaltery, or lap harp, sounds like. It's a lovely sound, but not what I'd call an unusual sound.

The bowed psaltery, on the other hand, produces a more ethereal sound. It's capable of producing the most unique haunting sound. Some people love it, and like anything else, there are probably a few that don't care for it.

Of course, a lot depends on the skill of the player. When I was first learning to play a bowed psaltery, I like to have drove the cat to a nervous breakdown. ;-)

Fortunately, practice does improve a player's skills, and eventually anyone can learn how to make beautiful music with a bowed psaltery.

Playing the Bowed Psaltery - Amazing Grace

This should give you an idea of the ethereal sound of bowed psaltery.

Psaltery, Soprano, Right-Handed - Roosebeck

This is also a right-handed psaltery. It has 22 strings in the soprano register. Made with a spruce soundboard with rosewood back and sides, it has a carved rosewood rosette at the sound hole.

You also get a psaltery bow, tuning tool and rosin. The tuning is: C5 - A6, with the longest string length being 13"

This bowed psaltery is 15-inches long, and 5.3" in width.

Psaltery, Alto, Right-Handed - Roosebeck

This lovely alto psaltery is for right-handed people.

It has a spruce wood soundboard. The back and sides are made of rosewood, and it has a carved rosewood sound hole. There are 30 strings.

It comes with a bow and rosin, so you're all ready to play when you get it!

Another Taste of Bowed Psaltery Music

The different ranges of bowed psaltery instruments sound different, and of course, the style of song also makes a difference, and the skill of the player!

Psaltery, Baritone, Left-Handed

Psaltery, Baritone, Right-Handed - Roosebeck

Here's a lovely bowed psaltery in the baritone range. One is for right-handed players, and the other is for left-handed players. Both have 37 strings and are made with a spruce soundboard. The back and sides are made of rosewood, and the sound hole has a carved rosewood rosette.

As with the other bowed psaltery instruments, you get a psaltery bow. Also, there is a tuning tool and rosin. The tuning for these instruments is C3 - C6 and the longest string is 25.6" in length.

The bowed psaltery itself is 29.4-inches long, and 10.6- inches wide.

The Sound of a Baritone Bowed Psaltery

The Sound of Psalteries. . . - Which is your favorite psaltery?

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    • Food4Thought LM profile image

      Food4Thought LM 4 years ago

      @HardyGirl: Go for it! They do have a lovely sound. I really love it, but then I like bagpipes too. ;-)

    • HardyGirl profile image

      HardyGirl 4 years ago

      I've seen both types of psalteries at Renaissance Fairs. The sound is magical. I'd love to learn to play the bowed psaltery - I don't think my neighbors would mind.