Aeolian harp

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Aeolian harp made by Robert Bloomfield

An Aeolian harp (also wind harp) is a musical instrument that is played by the wind. Named for Aeolus, the ancient Greek god of the wind, the traditional Aeolian harp is essentially a wooden box including a sounding board, with strings stretched lengthwise across two bridges. It is often placed in a slightly opened window where the wind can blow across the strings to produce sounds. The strings can be made of different materials (or thicknesses) and all be tuned to the same pitch, or identical strings can be tuned to different pitches. Besides being the only string instrument played solely by the wind, the Aeolian harp is also the only string instrument that plays solely harmonic frequencies[citation needed].

The Aeolian harp – already known in the ancient world – was first described by Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) in his book Phonurgia Nova (1673). It became popular as a household instrument during the Romantic era, and Aeolian harps are still hand-crafted today. Some are now made in the form of monumental metal sound sculptures located on the roof of a building or a windy hilltop.

The quality of sound depends on many factors, including the lengths, gauges, and types of strings, the character of the wind, and the material of the resonating body. Metal-framed instruments with no sound board produce a music very different from that produced by wind harps with wooden sound boxes and sound boards. There is no percussive aspect to the sound like that produced by a wind chime; rather crescendos and decrescendos of harmonic frequencies are played in rhythm to the winds.


von Kármán vortex street

The harp is driven by the von Kármán vortex street effect. The motion of the wind across a string causes periodic vortices downstream, and this alternating vortex causes the string to vibrate. Lord Rayleigh first solved the mystery of the aeolian harp in a paper published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1915.[1] The effect can sometimes be observed in overhead utility lines, fast enough to be heard or slow enough to be seen. A stiff rod will perform; a non-telescoping automobile radio antenna can be a dramatic exhibitor. And of course the effect can happen in other media; in the anchor line of a ship in a river, for example.

In literature and music[edit]


The Aeolian harp has a long history of being associated with the numinous, perhaps for its vibrant timbres that produce an ethereal sound. Homer relates that Hermes invented the lyre from dried sinews stretched over a tortoise shell. It was able to be played by the wind. The same is said of the lyre of King David, which was played by a wind sent from God.[2]

Aeolian harps are featured in at least two Romantic-era poems: "The Eolian Harp" and "Dejection, an Ode", both by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In William Heinesen's novel The Lost Musicians, set in Tórshavn, Kornelius Isaksen takes his three sons to a little church where, in the tower, they sit listening to the "capriciously varying sounds of an Aeolian harp", which leads the boys into a lifelong passion for music. A lyre is mentioned in Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind", which is another name for an Aeolian harp. The Aeolian harp is also mentioned in Shelley poem "Mutability", alongside his essay "A Defence of Poetry".

Henry David Thoreau wrote a poem called "Rumors from an Aeolian Harp", which he included in the "Monday" chapter of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[3]

Aeolian harps are mentioned in George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-2), Thomas Hardy's "The Trumpet-Major" (1880) and "The Mayor of Casterbridge" (1886), Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955), and Lawrence Durell's novel "Clea" (fourth book of the Alexandrian Quartet) (1960).

An Aeolian harp is featured in Ian Fleming's 1964 children's novel Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang to make a cave seem haunted.

El arpa eólica (The Aeolian Harp) is an alternate history novelette written by Óscar Esquivias. It was originally published in 2011 by Fábulas de Albión. The novelette depicts the life of Berlioz as a young student in Paris.


Thomas Ward McCain building an aeolian harp at Burlington, Vermont.

Henry Cowell's Aeolian Harp (1923) was one of the first piano pieces to feature extended techniques on the piano that included plucking and sweeping the pianist's hands directly across the strings of the piano. The Etude in A flat major Op. 25 No. 1 for piano (1836) by Frédéric Chopin is sometimes called the "Aeolian Harp" etude, a nickname given it by Robert Schumann. The piece features a delicate, tender, and flowing melody in the fifth finger of the pianist's right hand, over a background of rapid pedaled arpeggios[clarify] as the free resonances of the pedal lifted strings flow air-like. One of Sergei Lyapunov's 12 études d'exécution transcendante, Op. 11 No. 9, is named by the author "Harpes éoliennes" (Aeolian harps). In this virtuoso piece, written between 1897 and 1905, the tremolo accompaniment seems to imitate the sounding of the instrument. In classical harp repertoire, an example of such imitation (mostly employing glissandi and arpeggios) is "La harpe éolienne"[4] by Félix Godefroid.

In 1972, Chuck Hancock and Harry Bee recorded a giant 30-foot-tall (9.1 m) Aeolian harp designed and built by 22-year-old Thomas Ward McCain on a hilltop in Chelsea, Vermont. United released their double LP titled The Wind Harp: Song from the Hill. (An excerpt of this recording appears in the movie The Exorcist.)[citation needed]

Australian artist, composer and sound sculptor Alan Lamb has created and recorded several very large-scale Aeolian harps.

On his album Dis (1976), jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek used as a background sound recordings of an Aeolian harp that was situated at a Norwegian fjord.

Roger Winfield's album Windsongs was: "Created using an orchestra of eight Aeolian Harps played entirely by the wind. Recorded in La Manga and Sierra Nevada area, Spain, Winter/Spring 1989 and Bristol, England 1989." (Discogs)

In the spirit of this, in 2003 an Aeolian harp was constructed at the Burning Man festival.

British producer Bonobo samples an Aeolian harp on his album Black Sands.

Builders of pipe organs have included stops intended to imitate the sound and timbre of the Aeolian harp. German builders were the first to include such a stop from the 1820s. The Aeolian harp stop is not a harp – it is simply a rank of pipes using a low wind pressure and voiced to imitate the sound of the real instrument. It is, therefore, classified as a "string" stop. These stops are amongst the softest found on pipe organs.

Monumental Aeolian harp[edit]

Aeolian harp of Mazzano

In Negrar, in province of Verona (Italy), is a modern monument Aeolian harp more than six meters high. It is a sound monument designed by the Italian architect Giuseppe Ferlenga which was inaugurated in November 2015 from the Sports and Cultural Group of Mazzano. The acoustic part of this tool is composed of a frame that contains a copper harmonic case. The Aeolian Harp of Negrar has six strings of different lengths and materials. If there is wind, this monumental harp produces audible sounds up to a distance of about four meters.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lord Rayleigh (April 1915). "Æolian Tones". The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science [Sixth Series]. 29 (172): 433–444. doi:10.1080/14786440408635325.
  2. ^ Bonner, Stephen (2001). Sadie, Stanley (ed.). Aeolian Harp. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 1 (2nd ed.). New York: Grove's Dictionaries. p. 174.
  3. ^ Thoreau, Henry David (1906). A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Houghton Mifflin and Company. p. 184.
  4. ^ La harpe éolienne: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  5. ^ Arpa eolia di Mazzano a Negrar, Italy, sito del Comune di Negrar

External links[edit]