The Harp

The harp is an instrument from the plucked string family with a triangular shape and a height of 1.80 meters. The instrument sits between the legs of the player and is tilted onto the right shoulder.

The main parts of the harp include the body, soundboard, base, pedals, column, neck, strings, tuning pins, tuning discs, and bridge pins.


RANGE

The range of the harp spans from the B-1 (if the lowest string is manually tuned half step down) to the G#6 (with the G pedal all the way down). Therefore, we can say that it is tuned in C flat, that is, when no tuning discs are in contact with the strings and, as a result, not changing their tuning.


NOTATION

The harp is always written in a grand staff (two 5-line staves), the top with a treble clef and the bottom with a bass clef. The harp is a non-transposing instrument and always uses key signature.

Even though piano music often has the music distributed in the staves depending on the hand it plays this is not the case of the harp. Music for harp should always be written in the stave that the pitches belong to.


SOUND

The harp is a quiet instrument compared to most instruments in the orchestra, especially if we just have one. For this reason, often times composers ask to have a pair of harps instead of just one, being other reason the wider variety of effects you can achieve with two of them. These effects include glissandi and arpeggios in contrary movement and complex textures.

However, the harp is rarely put in a mix with the sound just coming from the Decca Tree. Spots mics are used in most scenarios to a degree that we are totally used these days to listen in recordings a generous balance towards the spot mic.

The harp is also an instrument that changes a lot depending on what register it plays:

LOW REGISTER

Notes in the low register have a great resonance, which works beautifully with arpeggios and anything that needs support from the bass notes. However, the harpist have to pay extra attention to damping the notes in this area, something that composers should keep in mind in any of this ways: letting the player have time to damp the notes; allowing time for the notes to die out; consider the mix of notes/chords part of the music. It is also not recommended to write very low glissandi for this very reason.

The composer should also take into account that the lowest notes take about half second since the attack to fully develop.

The low register sounds very full, resonant, metallic, and a bit dull. It is also very appropriate for bass notes, arpeggios, or doubling low instruments.

MIDDLE REGISTER

This is the register that we usually listen when the harp is performing solos, arpeggios, glissandos, or chords. Due to its weak dynamic power it is highly advisable to keep the rest of the orchestra to the minimum, very much like a chamber orchestra. The sound is clear, still quite full, gentle, mellow, resonating, and brighter and less metallic than in the low register.

HIGH REGISTER

This is the register that really can cut through a more dense and complex texture when we have the harp playing in the orchestra. The sound is clear, bright, sharp, glittering, penetrating, and almost not resonant.


STRINGS

The harp has 47 strings: 7 strings per octave except on the highest octave, which only has the first five notes. Among these 47 strings, the lowest 12 are wire strings (steel centers wrapped with copper, steel, or silver-plated copper), being the remaining 35 made out of gut or nylon.

Each string is attached to the harp through the tuning pins located in the neck (in the top of the strings), and through the holes in the soundboard (in the bottom).

The strings are color coded in the following way:

  • C strings: red
  • F strings: black/blue
  • Rest of the strings: they have the color from the material the strings are made (silver for the wire strings and white for the gut/nylon strings)

The resonance of the strings decrease gradually from the extreme low register, where it can last about 5 seconds, to the extreme high register, where it fades very quick after the attack.


PLAYING TECHNIQUE

The harpist can play with up to four fingers: the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers. The pinky is too short to reach comfortably the strings, so it is not used.

The position of the hands is as the following picture portraits: thumbs looking up and the rest of the fingers horizontally. The thumbs pluck the strings against the body of the player and the rest towards his or her body.

The range of the two hands is not the same. While the left hand can reach the whole range of the instrument, the right hand is limited in the low register. This is because the harpist has to rest the harp on the right shoulder. A safe low limit for the right hand is the G1.

While the maximum interval a harpist can cover with a hand depends on his or her hand size, a good reference is a maximum of a tenth, which include 2, 3 and 4-note chords.


THE PEDAL MECHANISM

The harp is a diatonic instrument by nature: it has 7 strings per octave with the intervallic relation of a diatonic scale. The way these strings can cover the 12 notes of the chromatic scale is by means of the pedal mechanism.

This mechanism is made up of 7 pedals placed on the base of the instrument –facing the player– that are connected to the tuning discs on the neck through a series of rods inside the column of the instrument. The seven pedals are arranged in the following way: three on left side (D, C and B) and four on the right (E, F, G and A). Each of them have three positions:

  • Flat: all the way up.There are no tuning discs involved. The strings have their full length.
  • Natural: one step down. There is one tuning disc involved. The strings are shortened by one step.
  • Sharp: two steps down. There are two tuning disc involved. The strings are shortened by two steps.

Every pedal affects the corresponding note in all its octaves. This means that we can’t have different accidentals on the same note in different octaves. However, there is a workaround for this limitation: enharmonics. We can do a C natural and a C sharp at the same time making the B strings sharp (two steps down) and the C strings sharp (two steps down). That said, we can’t do enharmonics in these three notes: D natural, G natural, and A natural.

There are two strings that the pedals don’t affect to: the lowest C and D. These strings have to be tuned manually by the harpist before starting to play. Therefore, they can only be set to one alteration: flat, natural, or sharp.

We should always notate the position of all the pedals at the beginning of the piece, after a long pause, a new movement, or at any place that requires a few pedals changes. There are two main ways to notate the pedal setup at any given moment:

  • Letter representation (option 1): all the pedals are written in capital letters (with its accidental on the right), in order (from the point of view of the harpist), and on a single row.
  • Letter representation (option 2): as the previous one, but with two rows. The top one has the pedals in the left side of the harp and the bottom one the ones in the right.
  • Diagram representation: all the pedals are symbolized with short vertical lines over a longer horizontal line. If the vertical short vertical line of a particular pedal is over the horizontal line the pedal is flat; if it is over, natural; and below, sharp.

When only one of the pedals needs to be altered, we will only mark that change right before the first note with the new accidental takes place.


FUNCTION

We can group the functions of the harp in the orchestral repertoire under three main categories:

  • Adding shimmer to the orchestra during swells and climaxes: this is one of the archetypal roles of the harp. Glissandi, arpeggios, and the likes add, especially in the mid-high register, the type of brilliance that we are used to listen from the harp in crescendos or forte passages of orchestral pieces.
  • Doubling other instruments: the harp is an instrument that works really well when doubling other instruments or sections in the orchestra. The blend that results from doubling the strings and woodwinds is particularly good, as well as when it is used doubling percussion or keyboard instruments like the glockenspiel, xylophone, or timpani. In the case of instruments that have a softer attack (i.e. clarinet and French horn), can also contribute making the attacks more clear.
  • Accompanying a voice or voices or a solo instrument: the harp –like the piano– it complements a voice or a solo instrument wonderfully, since its sound has a different quality (except when the case of a percussion or keyboard instrument) and it has the ability to perform bass and accompanying roles at once.
  • Filling the accompaniment: the harp can also take part in a larger groups that perform patterns of accompaniment or complex background textures. In other words, filling in the orchestral texture.