This is for those who would like to compose for the harp, but don't understand its numerous oddities. The harp is a beautiful yet complex instrument, and understanding how to write for it is very useful.
The harp is part of the plucked strings family, the rest almost entirely belonging to the guitar family (lute, mandolin, etc.). This means that acoustically, a single plucked string on a harp sounds roughly like a single plucked string of the same pitch on a guitar. It furthermore shares with the keyboard instruments the polytonality of using a different string for each pitch, which allows it to provide accompaniment as well as accompany itself; it’s therefore notated on the grand staff.
The pedals are the oddest thing about the harp and the least understood. Unlike the piano, which uses separate keys for chromatic notes and diatonic ones, the harp can only play diatonic notes, though it can change keys with the pedals (this is talking about a standard harp. There are, outside the classical music world, chromatic harps). The advantage, however, is that it can play any key (with seven notes per octave), and most importantly can play each one equally easily. A harp can do a 32nd note scale (through glissando) in C-flat melodic minor as asily as in C major, something a piano has trouble with due to it being “set” in C major.
Technically, one cannot simultaneously play C and C#. What isn’t realized, however, is that the enharmonic of C# is Db, so therefore C and D-flat can be played simultaneouly. One could even play B# and D-flat and never touch the C-string! So the harp is not as limited as it may seem. In fact, every note except D, G, and A natural can be played by two different strings, which enables the above as well as certain tremolo effects.
The pedals work by restraining the top of the string, thus sharpening it. They cannot create flats. Instead, the harp is originally tuned into C-flat major, then every string is sharpened. So C# is actually C-flat-double-sharp. This is important because a string sounds nicest when unrestrained. For this reason, the harp’s “favorite” key is C-flat major, and it does not sound very good in C-sharp major. A minor point (the harp still sounds lovely in C-major), but one worth noting. Many harp solos are in C-flat major (remember, a harp doesn’t need piano accompaniment in solos).
Acoustics and resonance will not make anything technically unplayable, but can lead to bad sounds if performer doesn’t look out for it. For those who don’t know, the piano has a special mechanism that stops the string the second you let go of the note and stops the sound. The harp does not. Instead, a loud note or a low octave note on a harp tends to last longer, and a shorter or higher one will be more staccato. Many dynamic effects, such as staccato, are rarely done on the harp. This requires the harpist to manually shut the string up every note, which is impossible if the hand is doing other things. Usually the harpist will just ignore the staccato. In fact, a harpist rarely pays any attention to the difference between an eighth-note eighth-rest and a quarter note. He/she'll pluck the string on the beat, then let it vibrate as long as it wants.
On a high octave, don’t play long notes. The sound doesn’t last. Worse are the low octaves. Because the sound continues for a while, it will interefere with other notes a little. If playing an arpeggiated chord, this is good; the arpeggiation is achieved and the notes still manage to harmonize and create a chord. It’s minor, but it should be regarded when planning to write sixteenth note melodies in the low octaves. This problem won’t happen if the same notes are played over (like in a repeating arpeggiated chord), but in and around the low octaves it can be a problem. So don’t do glissandi of the low octaves. Also, at the end of long phrases, the left hand (which plays the low notes) usually shuts up the strings, which stops the low hum that can still be heard. You can notate this or not; the harpist will probably do it anyway.
Another problem with the continuing noise is buzzing when you return to a note. If one keeps playing quick block chords (which can happen when directly trying to play an accompaniment written for piano), a buzz will be heard every time the fingers contact the strings for the next chord. Expert harpists can minimize this, and it’s not as noticable when multiple notes are shut at once, but it is still worth noting . Another problem is pedal changes while the string is still vibrating, as it can tend to create a similiar to that heard on a “slide” on guitar.
This part is tricky, especially as it’s not an exact science. Unlike a pianist, a harpist uses only the first four fingers; the pinky is too weak to pluck a string. The total reach from fourth finger to a thumb is around an octave and a half (10-11 diatonic notes), and that’s stretching it (the hand). For example, for a particular piece that involves a B-F-B-F broken chord; to do it one places the thumb on the second F after plucking the first B, as the reach from the low B to the high F can't be made at once. Also, the second and third fingers are more comfortable nearer to the fourth finger than with the thumb. So C3-A3-B3-C4 is very hard, while C3-D3-E3-C4 is very easy. Chord spacing (like C-E-G-C) is ideal, though it’s comfort might just be the result of the constant practice in it.
For those who don’t know, harmonic notes on the harp involve temporarily cutting the string precisely at the halfline while plucking it, creating a nice, bell-like sound exactly one octave higher. This is always done with the thumb and involves the whole hand, so don’t use it in complex melodies (also, it’s soft; it won’t be heard if the rest of the music is forte). Basically, it can only be done if one can play it on the piano with only the second finger.
Notes (from Tristitae)
Order of the pedals
D C B | E F G A
- Harpists can only change one pedal per side at a time, but they can change two sides at once: i.e. F# + G# together are impossible, but F# + C# works.
- A surefire way to irritate a harpist is give him/her a score with pedal/lever diagrams written in. Every harpist has his/her own preference for how pedal changes work, where they are, and whether or not to tune notes enharmonically - for example, in the "Wolcum Yole" of Britten's Ceremony of Carols, the G can be tuned to a Gb to imitate the F#, simply because in the fast quaver figure, it's less likely to fall off the strings and lose the note.
- If writing in quick chromatic changes in soft music, one must remember to work around the fact that, simply, pedals make NOISE. Horrible, horrible noise. If a harpist just plucked a C and is asked for a C# straight after, it's possible, but if the string is unmuffled, will make a horrid metallic grind as the pedal grip moves against the string. This applies to all octaves, so it cannot be escaped. Using enharmonics is a way out of this, as in most harp situations.
- In writing, one doesn't have to be confined to the pedal harp. Lever harps - also known as Celtic or folk harps - work on a different principle: the chromatic levers are up the top, so different pitches can easily be raised or lowered in different octaves. Of course, changes are limited - because lever harps are tuned usually to C or Eb, key signatures can only fall in the diatonic scales of both of those keys. For example, a non-enharmonic D# is not possible. Also, to change levers, the harpist must take his left hand off the string: good players can do it quickly and imperceptibly, but it's hard. And lever harps generally have a smaller range than pedal harps: a concert grand can have 47 strings, while a lever harp has 34.
I hope this will be of use, Bob The Sane
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