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The Aeolian Harp


In the Jewish Talmud (200BC) there is a reference to King David’s harp sounding by itself -  ‘being every midnight blown upon by the north wind, warbled of itself’ Talmud in Berae, fol 6.

The Greek Commentary of Eustathius (1115-1195 AD) mentions that the blowing of wind against musical strings will produce musical sounds.

Anasthasius Kircher was a 17thc musical inventor and experimenter, and he refers to the Aeolian harp throughout his treatise on music.


In the late 18th and early 19th century a great many philosophers, artists writers and musicians were fascinated by it. During this era specially made rectangular boxes with 6 to 8 strings were constructed that would fit at the base of a standard window frame, enabling the house’s occupants to hear the sound of the wind blowing across the strings. Several poets were inspired to write poetry about this sound, including Samuel Taylor-Coleridge- ‘Eolian Harp’ in 1796 and ‘Dejection, an Ode’ . Other poets include William Heinesen ‘The lost musicians’ - Shelley ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and ‘Mutability’ and ‘A defence of poetry’. Swift wrote ‘A tale of a tub’ (Aeolist section) and a wonderful anonymous poen from the Belfast Newsletter in 1831 called ‘To a broken Aeolian Harp’.


At the end of the 18th century a popular scientific theory was that human nerves were like instrument strings, they believed that vibrations sent messages to the brain. The Aeolian harp therefore became  a model for the body, translating vibrations into human consciousness. Scientists like David Hartley (1705-1757) wrote a ‘Doctrine of Vibrations’ claiming that vibrations such as those heard from an Aeolian harp had an effect on the mind, and Lord Rayleigh wrote an article entitled ‘Aeolian Tones’ referring to them. William Jones FRS in 1781 referred to an Aeolian harp as an ‘Air prism’ - he thought that air contained music  just as light contains colour,  in his ‘Psychological Disquisitions’ in which he discusses the natural philosophy of the elements.

Modern times-

Today there are many excellent makers of Aeolian harps, which are designed for use in gardens and outdoor locations, and modern science tells us that the strings of an Aeolian harp are 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.

Sarah is the only ‘Aeolian Harpist’- using REAL harps to create the wind-blown effect and then performing WITH the wind. Whilst science explains the basic mechanism, it does NOT explain some of the extraordinary variations that Sarah has encountered in her vast experience in working with 34 string harps, there are still many mysteries about these beautiful sounds.