The bray harp is not a sound modern ears are used to, but it was the standard European harp of the late medieval, renaissance and early baroque periods, and has an evolution that goes back much further. It has gut strings with wooden pins at the base, positioned so they buzz against the strings as they vibrate: thus the pins have their name, as the effect was said to sound like a donkey’s bray.
The harp is descended from a family of musical instruments with unfretted strings stretched across a frame, including the small lyre of classical Greece, which we can date to the 14th century B.C.E. The earliest known surviving stringed instruments were even earlier, excavated from royal tombs in Ur, southern Iraq, in 1929. They look like harps and are harp-sized, but are considered lyres on the distinction that harp strings rise directly from the soundboard, whereas lyre strings pass over a bridge, as do the strings of the Ur lyres. They are dated 2600-2400 B.C.E., and such instruments are described in contemporaneous texts as sounding like a "softly lowing bull", which would account for the decoration of the golden bull’s head on these particular lyres. The "softly lowing bull" sound is created by the strings gently vibrating against the top edge of the bridge – the same principle and effect as brays.
The first unambiguous illustration of any European triangular harp comes from the culture of the Picts, the Scots of the late iron age through to early middle ages. These stone carvings are not detailed enough to give us any clues about construction, but their shape certainly indicates they are harps rather than lyres. We have a more detailed view in the 10th century, in the Caedmon or Junius manuscript of 930, and this harp is without brays. There is some debate about when brays on European harps first came into use. They are not mentioned in writing until the 15th century, but the harp illustrations in the Hunterian or York Psalter of 1170 clearly show something at the base of the strings. Getting accurate information about instruments from medieval iconography is always a difficult task. Other contemporaneous depictions are brayless. Are these protrusions bray pins or the string holders sometimes seen on medieval harps? String holders were round and brays based on a rectangular shape, so this is most probably the former. Both performed the function of holding the string in place; in addition, the L shape of the bray pin was turned so that, when played, the string would vibrate against it. We see something again on the harp in the Peterborough Psalter of 1310–20, and this is more open to interpretation. The shapes look flat, more like the brass ‘shoes’ on the string band of the soundboard of a wire strung clarsach, the harp of the Irish and of the Scottish Highland Gaels. The brass ‘shoes’, however, are semi-circular, so what we see is probably round string holders flattened by the limitation of the artist.
Harps of this period came in a range of sizes, from 60 centimetre lap harps with only 10 or 11 strings to 120 centimetre harps with 25 or 26 strings. Their distinctive rising, sleek shape, reminiscent of contemporaneous Gothic architecture, has earned them the retrospective name ‘Gothic harps’, though at the time they were, of course, just called harps!
Bray harps were clearly very popular, being mentioned, for example, several times in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, including as an instrument to sing with; it was often illustrated duetting with a lute in the 14th and 15th centuries, or sometimes in massed harp consorts; and it was depicted in a range of secular and religious paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries, sometimes played by angel musicians. So it continued through the renaissance and, when Michael Praetorius’ second and third volumes of Syntagma Musicum were published in 1618-1619, in the early baroque, he wrote that “the strings of the harp rattle and crackle" and still described the bray harp as "the ordinary harp”.
The bray harp was tuned and strung diatonically, that is, with only natural notes, not sharps or flats (like having only the white notes on a piano), though there are records of harps having both a B natural and a B flat string, as both were often needed for mediaeval modes (the old musical scales). Being diatonic, this meant either retuning the harp if a particular sharp or flat was needed for a song or tune or, if that note was needed both natural (not sharp or flat) and sharp or flat in the same piece, ‘fretting’ the string. This was a technique documented in the 16th century, and involved pushing the string against the top of the harp to raise it by a semitone.
Developments in European music in the 15th century and beyond, just on the cusp of the renaissance, were to mark the end of the diatonic simfony and psaltery: the rise of chord sequences and chordal playing, together with the invention of the modern key signature with fixed sharps and flats, made those instruments obsolete. The diatonic bray harp, though, continued unaffected, perhaps because it had the option of both retuning and fretting: the simfony could do neither; the psaltery could only retune. The change from diatonic bray harp to chromatic brayless harp came slowly. It took until the 1630s for the triple to become the new standard harp, and harps with brays continued in Germany and Prussia into the late 18th century.
This began to change with the creation of the fully chromatic and brayless triple harp in Italy just before 1600. It took another three decades for the triple harp to become the new standard harp. There is some evidence that the bray harp continued to be played for a few decades yet: see, for example, the detail from Dutch artist Rembrandt’s 1660 painting of Saul and David at the top of this page, with brays clearly visible.
Bray harp playing Light o’ love, traditional tune from before 1570