Recently a mom inquired about a good guitar appropriate for her very young son.  He seems fascinated with the big guitar, and she wants to get an instrument for him that would foster this interest.  In my opinion, a guitar, even a small one is not the best option.  The lap harp is a perfect first stringed instrument. because it introduces the sounds of the major scale, it is tunable only by parents, and it is easy to play.   There are several types, a child’s version for the very young, and traditional lap harps that allow children even as young as 4 years old to play song melodies, as well as anyone older that thinks they could never play an instrument.

For children 2 – 7 years old, little guitars or ukeleles are fun to carry around, but it is difficult to make any real music.  Their fine motor skills, coordination skills with both hands simultaneously, and their cognitive skills are not ready yet to make chords or melodies on a guitar like instrument.   They may sound good to strum when they are in tune, BUT, little finger LOVE to play with the tuning knobs!  And repeated strumming of out of tune instruments does not make for harmony in the home.

Of course, some elementary aged children are ready a bit earlier to learn to play the guitar, but most benefit from a hands-on group music program, where they get to learn basic music theory, history, and more through movement and games.  The Kindermusik for the Young Child program offers all that, and so much more.  The students even learn to read music and play chords and melodies on a two stringed dulcimer they decorate themselves!  For these students, the lap harp is a great way to expand on the rhythm concepts we learn in class, and play a wider variety of melodies.

BUT, our focus here is to find a fun stringed instrument for children as young as 2 years old.

HERE’S THE Uniqueness of the lap harp:  it is not required to know how to read music, and the tuning posts are not adjustable without a tool.  Children as young as two years old can enjoy strumming the lap harp, whose strings are tuned to a major scale.  As they strum and pluck the strings randomly, they are tuning their ears to hear the correct interval of pitches in a Major scale.  Strumming all of the strings makes a pleasant, not too loud sound, but is not quite as pleasant as a guitar or ukulele when tuned to pitches that blend, since the major scale is not designed to blend perfectly when all of the pitches are played together (whereas the Pentatonic scale would).

As the children increase their picking skills on the lap harp, they may “climb the ladder” by playing each string, from the lowest to the highest in order, then “slide down” by strumming from the top to the bottom, or “climb the tree” and “climb back down”.  And if they are able to CONNECT THE DOTS on paper, then they may be ready to play melodies using the song sheets of children’s songs that come with the music.

As easy as dot to dot puzzles.

The sheet of music fits perfectly in between the wood and the strings.  Each note on the sheet music is placed directly under the string which shall be plucked with a finger pick.  Each note also is written with it’s correct rhythm notation, whether it is a whole note, half note, quarter, eighth, and so on.  This is GREAT practice for those who are learning to play their rhythms.  But if you can sing the melody, it is not necessary to know the rhythmic value of each note.  It is easy to pick out the notes to the correct rhythms as you sing it in your head.  Thus, it also builds audiation skills, which is an extremely important skill for our future musicians.  All lap harps use these type of song sheets.  This makes it so easy for anyone to play, children, grandparents, and even adults who think they could never play an instrument.  You should see my mom “go to town” with all the songs on this instrument !

I just saw the First Act Lap Harp on the shelves at Toys R Us the other day, and I was very impressed with this pint sized version of the traditional lap harp.  I thought the guitar shaped body, with wooden handle built in, was very engaging, and just perfect for little hands to explore fully.  The First Act Lap Harp has only 8 strings, one for each note in the C Major Scale, and comes with 10 song cards and an oversized pick.  It is not available through First Act Discovery, the maker, but is available many places online and sometimes through other major stores like Target and Walmart for as low as $20.  Side note:  First Act Discovery has developed “Notes to Grow On”, an interactive musical learning APP for kids that you may want to check out if you have an appropriate device.

As with any real stringed instrument, it is recommended that the play is supervised just in case a string breaks, or a child decides to try to explore it differently.

I thought it was interesting that the recommended ages for traditional lap harps in Canada is 4 years old and up, whereas the USA recommended age is 13 years old and up.  This is based on rather stringent government regulations.  SOAP BOX MOMENT:  When parents allow their child to play with an object unsupervised, and do innappropriate unsafe things with the it (which they tend to do), then sue the company when their child gets hurt, (and somehow the legal system gets this through), the government is forced to make ridiculous regulations.  Just saying…    So in my opinion, families who actively engage and supervise exploration on this instrument should be able to enjoy musical fun just right for any age child, just as I allowed my babies to strum my guitar as I held it for them so many long years ago, and just as I encourage hands on play with real instruments in my Kindermusik classes.   The joy of making music starts here, together, with real instruments that make beautiful sounds.

Traditional lap harps, such as the Melody Harp and the Music Maker, have 15 strings, which is two octaves of a Major Scale.  They look the same, but  The Melody Harp is tuned to the C Major scale, whereas the Melody Harp is tuned to the G Major Scale.  I was amazed to find that there were so many more available sets of “sheet music” (the dot to dot melodies) for the Music Maker – 28 sets to be exact, including traditional children’s songs, international songs, gospel music and classical music, as well as sets for Disney songs, and one for BEATLES music !!!  I was so glad that my mom had chosen to give me the Music Maker so many years ago, and that my research had led me to find such a bounty for expanding the music we can play on our instrument !!!

Traditional lap harps (even other brands) are available in many places online, but I really liked, who specializes in offering just these instruments.  the FAQ page is very thorough, and they have a special Holiday offer for a great set including instrument, extra song sheets of Christmas music and a carrying case for a great price, less than $60.

It is important to note that the strings MAY need to be tuned when first getting it out of the box, and occasionally as time and little hands change the tension.   All of the lap harps discussed here are tuneable.  There are good instructions for this on the FAQ page at LapHarp.  Each lap harp comes with a tuning device that should be put someplace safe and used only by adults.  It is recommended to have a tuning device to help get the pitches correct.  LapHarp sells a good pitch pipe if you have a good ear for matching pitches.  For those who like a more precise electronic reading to get the correct pitch, local and online music stores also offer good digital tuners.  I got mine from the great folks at the Guitar Center – the most family friendly music store in Lakeland, FL.

For a bit of background and perspective, the lap harp is actually a zither, which is basically harp strings precisely attached to a wooden base so it can be played on the lap instead the traditional harp design being open so it can be played with hands on either side.  Traditional zithers contain many more strings and pitches so it can be played in a variety of scales.  In the 1800’s a man in Germany designed and patented the Autoharp, which contains ALL of the pitches, but has special bars that allow anyone to play beautiful sounding chords of all types, and pick notes that are only harmonious with that chord.  The Autoharp is the “Cadillac” of lap harps, and there are a world of musicians who excel in making beautiful music with this instrument.  I WANT ONE !  But I will need to save my pennies, because they are a bit expensive.

Does anyone have experiences with lap harps with children that you’d like to share?