|King David's Harp (Abridged)
by John Wheeler
No historical personage comes more readily to mind than the biblical
King David when the word "harp" is mentioned. Yet the instrument,
kinnor, translated "harp" in the King James Version of the Bible,
was not a harp at all, but a lyre. The other stringed instrument
David played, nevel, translated "psaltery" by the KJV, was
likewise not a psaltery, and it may not have been a true harp either.
Lyre From Ancient Palestine
According to Josephus (1st century A.D.) the kinnor had ten
strings, the nevel twelve. The kinnor anciently had a
rectangular or trapezoidal soundbox and two curved arms of unequal length joined by a crossbar. It was played with the fingers or with a plectrum.
Nevel seems to mean "skin-bottle", perhaps because of its shape.
Because the strings enter the top of the soundbox, it is more of a
harp-lyre than the kinnor, whose strings stretch over a bridge on
the side of the box in a lyre-like way.
The kinnorot and nevelim (plural terms), with their light
framework and high tension strings, produced enough volume to compete
with rams' horns, trumpets, and cymbals, and were used in both
sacred and secular settings, accompanying choirs and soloists as well as song and dance.
Vocal melodies and instrumental accompaniment at that time were
commonly conducted using gestures of the hands and fingers. Apparently
the Hebrew Scriptures were sung to melodies conducted by a gestural
system, for a transcription of such gestures is still found in the
Hebrew Masoretic Text. All scriptures, not just the Psalms and songs,
could in principle have been accompanied by kinnorot and
nevalim, for "Thy statutes have been my zemirot (songs
accompanied by plucked stringed instruments) in the house of my
pilgrimage" (Psalm 119:54, KJV). The vocal melodies preserved by the
biblical notation, then, would naturally have been accompanied by the
biblical stringed instruments, as tuned to compatible scales and modes
On the basis of the late Suzanne Haik-Vantoura's decipherment of the biblical
notation, I suggest that the kinnor and nevel may have been
tuned in the following basic scales, with (E) as the tonic of the basic
A B C D (E) F G A B C D E (nevel)
The instruments would have been tuned to the "Pythagorean"
temperament (that is, by a cycle of fourths and fifths), to
facilitate the production of accidentals within a given mode. Other
diatonic and diatonic-chromatic modes (the latter including intervals
of a step and a half between certain degrees, as in our modern "harmonic
minor" mode) would have been derived by simply raising the pitch of one
or more strings by a half step.
A B C D (E) F G A B C (kinnor)
David and others probably played single notes, simple intervals, and
arpeggiated chords to accompany the singing, as the vocal melodies
were very "transparent" as well as "harmonic" in their structure. When
they echoed from the walls of the chamber or courtyard where they were
performed, they produced clear intervals and even triads. Any more
complex accompaniment would clash with this effort, not underline it as
the Talmudists suggest was the norm.
While King David's "harp" does not match our current definition, a
triangular-shaped instrument, he did play its precursor, and it is
wonderful to imagine that the "harp" was such an integral part of all
sectors of life so many thousands of years ago!
Music of the
Bible Revealed - NPR's Morning Edition interview.
John Wheeler lectures on the music, and plays a scale on the harp.