The Aeolian Harp (also called a wind or window harp) was quite popular in England and throughout Europe in the early 1800s, and was even reflected in the English poetry of that time.
An ethereal, alien-like musical sound is produced whenever a gust of wind or light breeze blows over the strings causing them to vibrate without human assistance. Discover how you can make your own harp for years of enjoyment.
Wind harps are truly a conversation piece and relaxing to the ear, and I hope that the simple plans given on this page will get you started on building one of your own.
A window harp could be custom made to fit within a modern sliding window, whether horizontal or vertical, to provide any room with soothing background melodies as demonstrated in the YouTube video below.
The gentleman in the following YouTube video clearly shows how to build a modern wind harp using a piece of common gutter downspout. The type of tuning pins and strings used is also discussed.
The video addresses the often asked question, "What kind of pins and strings are used for stringing Aeolian harps?"
When it comes to tuning pins, zither tuning pins work well; they have about an inch of thread at one end and a square head at the other end to fit a tuning key, with a small hole to secure the string. The pins can be securely screwed into an 11/64th-inch drilled hole at one end of the harp. Brad nails of a suitable size can be carefully driven into the wood at the harp's other end to serve as pitching pins.
The strings used must be "round" to be effective in the wind. Round weed whacker string from the hardware store can be used for large outdoor harps, while 25-pound test nylon fishing line (20 thousandths of an inch thick) works well for small instruments.
Old nylon guitar strings work well, but you are limited to a 30-32 inch instrument length. Harp string works great, but it's often only sold in rolls of 50 feet at stores that sell parts for musical instruments and can get expensive.
Don't over worry about proper tuning, as who can say what an Aeolian harp should truly sound like. Tune to your preference, and an out-of-tune harp often sounds just fine. Above all, experiment.
Some wind harp makers suggest using nylon guitar strings, perhaps 4 Gs, 4 Bs, and 4 Es, all 12 strings tuned to the same note, often a low G.
They can be attached to headless nails at one end and tuning pins similar to those used in auto-harps at the other. Most music stores should stock or be able to order the strings and pins you need.
The website of Aeolian instrument enthusiast Uli Whal presents a large collection of Aeolian articles and information in both English and German languages. Being an older-style site, it does require some exploration to locate the detailed information wanted, however, it's well worth the effort.
There's an extensive collection of wind generated sounds you can listen to in MP3 format. Aside from the musical sounds produced by an assortment of Aeolian harps, you'll be fascinated by the ethereal sounds created by the blowing wind on power transmission lines, telephone poles, kite musical instruments, kite lines, wind harmonicas, and even a Portuguese windmill near Lisbon.
Of special interest to Aeolian fans is Whal's detailed instruction and examples of how his recordings were made. Plus, he describes how to build and use a simple yet effective tin can resonator for amplifying the wind sound that's similar to the string telephones we made as children.
Whal also describes how to make a contact microphone to transfer Aeolian
sounds to the input on a recording device using a piezo electric disc.
Piezo discs (disks) can be found at most music stores, or they can be easily purchased online from Amazon, and they cost very little. They are used by hobbyists for installing in cigar box guitars and homemade musical instruments. However, they are perfect for use with Aeolian harps and the capturing of most wind-generated sounds.
Instructions for using piezo discs as a simple contact microphone are given online, courtesy of Richard Lerman, Arizona State University West.
Here's an interesting YouTube video of a freestanding gutter harp in action. It gives you an idea of the possible musical sounds a wind harp can generate.
Popular Science Monthly (August, 1921)
These are rather pleasant things in the summer, as when the wind blows, they murmur and hum and sing. If you wish to make an Aeolian harp, first decide where you will have it, whether in the open window, in place of one of the panes, or in a fanlight or ventilator opening; any opening that the wind has access to will do.
Then make a wooden frame to fit the opening. Make it fairly stiff with a top and bottom of hardwood; onto this frame glue a very thin sheet of wood having two openings in it, similar to those in a violin. This thin sheet must be flush with the outside of the window, so that the frame projects into the room.
It is recommended that a screen is fastened behind the two openings to prevent unwanted insects from entering the room.
Now, get some screw-eyes and screw them halfway into the top and bottom of the frame, close to the back. The number used is a matter of taste; the more strings there are, the louder the harp.
To these screw-eyes, stretch gut strings, similar to those used for violins and banjos. Fasten them tightly and put two bridges under them of sufficient height so that the strain comes on the bridges, then screw up the eyes until you have sufficient tension; the tighter the strings the higher the note; they may be of various tensions or tuned to one note.
The wind and an Aeolian harp will entertain you with a continuous musical performance. —E. A. McCann
Knights American Mechanical Dictionary (1877)
A species of musical instrument, the sounds of which are produced by currents of air passing over its strings, commonly fifteen in number. Its principle may be familiarly shown on a large scale by the action of the telegraph wires stretched from one pole to another.
On a windy day especially these will be found, by anyone stationed near, to emit low musical tones rising and falling in proportion to the strength of the wind, and more or less silent in proportion to the tension of the wires. Were the number of wires increased, and their length and tension properly varied, these would constitute a perfect Aeolian.
A common mode of construction is to make a box of thin wood and of suitable length, to set beneath a window sash. It may be five or six inches in width and depth. At one end of the box are pins equal in number to the strings employed, and at the other as many pegs; the strings, being made fast to the pins at one end, are tuned by turning the pegs at the other.
The box is open on the sides presented towards the room and to the exterior air, and the strings are sounded by the passage of the air over the box. Catgut is usually employed for the strings.
It is supposed to have been invented by John J. Schnell, musical instrument maker to the Countess d'Artois. It was suggested by the vibration of the strings of a harp placed in a breezy situation. It was exposed for sale in 1789 under the name of Anemo Chorde. Its use was revived by Kircher.
The Babylonian Talmud says that the harp of David sounded when the north wind blew on it, and it has been suggested that he had an Aeolian, as we understand it. The sounding of his harp by a gust of wind would be nothing extraordinary if it stood near his north window, which was probably open for air and chosen for its coolness and shade in the climate of Judaea.
The Household Cyclopedia of General Information (1881)
Of very thin cedar, pine, or other soft woods make a box 5 or 6 inches deep, 7 or 8 inches wide, and of a length just equal to the width of the window sill in which it is to be placed.
Across the top, near each end, glue a strip of wood half an inch high and a quarter of an inch thick, for bridges.
Into the ends of the box insert wooden pins, like those of a violin, to wind the strings around, two pins in each end.
Make a sound-hole in the middle of the top, and string the box with small cat gut, or blue first-fiddle strings. Fastening one end of each string to a metallic pin in one end of the box, and, carrying it over the bridges, wind it around the turning-pin in the opposite end of the box.
The ends of the box should be increased in thickness where the wooden pins enter, by a piece of wood glued upon the inside.
Tune the strings in unison and place the box in the window. It is better to have four strings, as described, but a harp with a single string produces an exceedingly sweet melody of notes, which vary with the force of the wind.
Did you know that Aeolian wind harps can be unintentionally created by transmission lines, guide wires, telephone poles, and wire-strung fences?
Sometimes, on a windy day, musical tones can be heard rising and falling in proportion to the strength of the wind and generally in proportion to the tension of the wires.
As a young boy walking to school "in the good old days," I loved the cool, crisp winter mornings when the roadside telephone wires hummed their eerie tune. Each telephone pole gave its own distinctive sound, when you pressed your ear against the wooden pole. It was magical to hear them "singing."
Wind harps come in all shapes, sizes, and designs. For instance, the remnant of a unique Aeolian harp stands on a mountain slope overlooking the popular spa city of Pyatigorsk, Russia, in the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
The small stone pergola (shown above) was built in 1822, and it originally had two handcrafted wooden harps embedded in its floor. As the wind turned the weathercock on the dome, it activated a geared mechanism that touched the strings to create pleasing musical sounds.
It is said that wind harps have ancient roots going back to the time of King David, when harps were hung on tree branches to catch the evening breezes.
Nowadays, when placed on a balcony, patio railing, or window sill, the melodious, relaxing sound generated by a window harp offers a pleasing alternative to wind chimes.
For instance, the short YouTube video below features an Aeolian Harp that uses a common 3-gallon water jug as its resonance chamber, suspending it between two poles on 100 lb Dyneema cord. Listen to its uniquely alien-like sounds.
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