The Sound of the Sutton Hoo Harp

By Peter C Horn

It was not that long ago (1970′s) when writers were expressing doubts about what musical instrument was meant by hearpe in the Old English literature. The question was ‘Why have only two been found?’ (Grose & McKenna, Old English Literature, 1973). A few years later the question required no answer, because by then there was evidence of at least 15 hearpes, from various sites in England and Germany, all similar to the Sutton Hoo hearpe.

This early musical instrument,  called by the Anglo-Saxons a hearpe, is what we call today a round lyre. The triangular frame-harp came into use much later in the Anglo-Saxon period.

This pan-Germanic hearpe or lyre, the most famous example of which is the Sutton Hoo harp, is the musical instrument associated with the early Old English poetry, such as Beowulf. It is a simple yet very elegant musical instrument; aesthetically pleasing in its rounded shape.

This six-stringed instrument, light in weight and not too large in size would have been easy for the travelling scop to carry from place to place. The hollow sound-box looks alarmingly shallow, being no more than 25mm in the case of the Sutton Hoo harp, but it can produce a sound appropriate in volume for the germanic mead-hall.


The wooden tailpiece at the foot of the hearpe, which restrains the strings, need not be much more than 50mm long, in order that the bridge may be moved to a position that will give the strings a vibrating length of about 575mm. This should give the sound a reasonably low and full tone, and, particularly when tuned to a suitable pentatonic scale, the compass of the instrument will lie within the normal tenor register. Because of the nature of the construction of the hearpe, it will in most cases go out of tune much quicker than most other instruments. This tendency can be avoided by making sure that the strings are held firm enough at the base and in the pegs. The  hearpe should then remain in tune without the need for adjustment for some weeks.


Information regarding the tuning of a six-stringed lyre is to be found in a work entitled De Harmonica Institutione (c 880) written by Hucbald (c840-930) who was a Flemish monk. This tuning, when starting from the first note of the C major scale, comprises the first six notes of that scale, namely CDEFGA.

However, Hucbald is not describing, or providing, any information on, the tuning of the Anglo-Saxon or Germanic hearpe. Hucbald is explaining how the Roman philosopher, Boethius (480-524) would havge tuned the classical lyre; an instrument which, as Hucbald notes, additional strings were often added to accomodate the ranges of the various modes.

Whether the Anglo-Saxon scop tuned his harp to Hucbald’s scales later in the Anglo-Saxcon period is not known, but certainly in the pagan period the scop would not have been familiar with the modes used by Boethius.

The Pentatonic scales

It seems fairly certain that the Anglo-Saxon hearpe would have been tuned to a pentatonic scale. The notes of these scales lie naturally to the musical ear between the octave and the instrument has six strings, which gives the five notes of the scale plus the octave note.
Pentatonic scales are very common throughout the world, being much used in the early folk music of various countries.

Any scale comprising of five different notes may be termed ‘pentatonic,’ but there are a number of early forms of pentatonic scales. The G flat major pentatonic scale is the base of melodies that may be played using only the black notes of the piano. The scale C D E G A (c), is the scale used in the early music of China.

The minor pentatonic scale, C Eflat F G Bflat (c), is the scale used in Appalachian folk music and it is also the scale used in early English folk-song music. Tuned to this scale, quite a number of early English folk melodies may be played on the Anglo-Saxon hearpe. Because these early English folk-song melodies go back many centuries, it is I think reasonable to assume that the Old English Scop would have tuned his hearpe to this pentatonic scale. We can therefore, I believe, bring back to life the sound of the Sutton Hoo harp.



The main problem that remains is how was the hearpe played? Did it involve, as some have suggested, a technique called ‘block and strum? The problem with this technique is, if carried out for any length of time, it becomes very tedious to the ear. It is, I think, worth examining the Old English literature to see whether there is any mention of technique whilst playing the hearpe.

There is a late reference to ‘singing to the harp,’ that is Old English salletan  (The Paris Psalter 104). But this term can also mean ‘to sing psalms’ (Latin psallere), and when sung with a harp it would have been the later triangular frame harp, such as is shown in the 11th century Psalter in St. John’s College Cambridge.

The Finnsburh Episode in Beowulf (Lines 1063-1065) seems to suggest that hearpe and song were conjoined:

∂ær wæs sang and sweg samod ætgædere  

Fore Healfdenes Hilde-wisan

Gomen-wudu greted gid oft wrecan

(There was song and sound together gathered  

before Half-danes battle leader  

Game-wood played, tale often repeated)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 But sweg here may mean the general sound in the Hall, the background noise, rather than hearpesweg (the sound of the harp). This interpretation is perhaps strengthened by gomen-wudu greted coming in the next line; gomen-wudu (joy-wood) being one of a number of kennings for the hearpe.

A passage in Widsi∂ provides another reference to the joining together of hearpe and voice:

Donne wit Scilling sciran reorde

For uncrum sigedryhtne song ahofan

Hlude bi hearpan hleo∂or swinsade                                                                                                

When Scilling and I with clear voice

raised a song for our victorious Lord

Loud was the sound of the harp’s melody )                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               In this passage Scilling is sometimes taken to be the name of Widsi∂’s hearpe rather than another person. But in either case it is not made absolutely clear that the hearpe and voice are heard together at the same time. 

In The Gifts of men the hearpe appears to be played quite quickly and skifully and separately from the voice of the Scop:

Sum mid hondum mæg hearpan gretan

Ah he gleobeames gearobrygda list

(One with his hands may play the harp

He has on the glee-wood a quick-playing skill)

Note here also the term gleobeames (glee-wood), another kenning for the hearpe, sometimes appearing as gliwbeam. The late equation of this term with the timbrel (tambourine or drum) is either by extension or error. A play-wood or pleasure-wood, or perhaps music-wood, is the meaning of the term; the hearpe, basically, being a thin wooden board in appearance. The term gleo in the form glee, has come down to the present day, but now with the meaning part-song.

An extract from The Fortunes of Men describes a lively hearpe-playing style:

Sum sceal mid hearpan æt his hlafordes fotum sittan

feoh ∂icgan ond a snellice snere wrætan

lætan scrælletan sceacol, se∂e hleape∂

nægl neomegende, bi∂ him neod micel.

(One shall with hearpe sit at his Lord’s feet,

receive treasure and rapidly twang

the harp-string, letting the plectrum loudly sound,

which leaping nail sounds sweet

and brings much pleasure.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Here we see that the hearpe was, at least sometimes, played loudly and quickly leaping from one string to another.

Finally, some lines from the Riming Poem:

L 25   gellende sner  (harpstring resounding)

L 27/28  scyl wæs hearpe

hlude hlynede, hleo∂or dynede                                                                                                                                 

     (clear-sounding was harp

loudly resounding)

Macrae-Gibson in his glossary (The OE Riming Poem, 1983) gives gellende, hlynede and dynede all as ‘resounding,’ but they must surely have had, at least, slightly different meanings. The sublety of meaning being lost means we have lost some information regarding the sound of the hearpe. Macrae-Gibson translates the lines as ‘ringing loudly so that the sound re-echoed;’ but this is a personal intepretation.

One thing to bear in mind is that, when the poetry is composed later in the period, it may well be that the references are to the triangular frame- harp rather than the earlier germanic round hearpe.

The Rhythm of the Poetry

Pope argues that the verse was rhythmically, rather than metrically, regular (J C Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf, 1942 rev. 1966). He suggests that Old English verses ‘were chanted whilst being accompanied by a small harp which provided a drone.’ (ibid). However, the Old English extracts above do not support this suggestion. It does seem to be the case that, by slightly emphasizing the alliterated syllables, the natural rhythm of the poetry emerges.


We see from the Old English passages above that the hearpe was played in a number of different ways. It was played loudly, quickly, with leaping notes, sweetly and with a resounding sound. The technique was not restricted to a drone (though a sort of drone may be sustained if required), nor was it restricted to repetitive ‘block and strum,’ which soon becomes wearisome.

It is reasonable to assume that the hearperes would have had some differences in their techniques; there is no reason to assume that there was a standard method of playing the instrument. The hearpe would have been very useful during the recital of the poetry. It might have been played during short interludes, especially when the scop needed to collect his thoughts. It must surely have been used to reflect the various moods, actions and atmosphere of the poetry.

(Based on Article published in Withowinde, Spring 2005)


August 31st, 2010