Is there any sound quite as beautifully chilling as a low note on a harp? The instrument that stereotypically evokes the flutterings of angels has its dark side, and its bass tones can mess with your head. I thought about this during Das Lied von der Erde at Carnegie on Sunday: "Der Abschied," Mahler's antepenultimate self-requiem, begins with two harps playing two octaves below middle C, augmented by contrabassoon, two horns, tam-tam (very soft), and pizzicato cellos and basses. It's a sound from underneath the floor, something between a bell and a thump. Film/TV composer Michael Giacchino makes liberal use of deep harp notes: they're the main reason you get inexplicable chills watching Lost. Perhaps the orgy-shy Helen Radice has more to say about the history and literature of the Strum of Doom.
Update: Helen comes through with a rocking post on harp construction, Mahler, and the expressivity of the telling detail.