Instrumentation notes – Harp (double-action)

  • Has 47 strings
  • Written range:
    Range of harp
  • In each octave, there is a single string for each pitch class, i.e. C-class string for C-flat, C, C-sharp.
  • All C-strings are red, all F-strings are black; remaining strings either silver or white.
  • At any one time, a string can only be tuned to one pitch only; you can’t play F and F-sharp together; you have to play E-sharp and F-sharp.
  • Harp has seven foot pedals, 3 located for left foot, 4 for right foot:
    Harp pedals
  • The selection of specific tuning of a string is controlled by its corresponding foot pedal, which is dedicated to tuning ALL the C-strings, D-strings, etc, not just one.
  • 3 positions to each foot pedal; off, on and second-on.
  • The unstopped position of pedals tunes harp to C-flat major.
  • When put in first ‘on’ position it changes the tuning to C major and 2nd position, C-sharp major (the strings get shortened).
  • So, the top notch position shows the mechanism is off (C-flat major). When moved down to middle notch, the mechanism is forced into first ‘on’ position (C major). All the way down is the second ‘on’ position.
  • Harpists need to be told in advance how to arrange the pedals and when to change them as the piece moves through keys and before glissandos; pedal settings can either be listed in the order in which pedals appear on the harp, left to right. G harmonic minor scale, the setting would be:
    D C B-flat, E-flat F-sharp G A.
  • Some use pictograms at the start of a score & at points of key change:
    Harp pedal chart
    The short, dashed vertical lines are the pedals. The long vertical line is the centreline of the harp with the pedals running left to right.
  • Harpists prefer to see the right foot notation over the left foot, e.g:
    E F# G# A
    D C# B
    This would be written above or below the 2 staves – never written in the middle of the stave
  • Need to keep track of pedal movements – don’t need to notate every pedal change in the score; I can use pedal diagrams to indicate position of the pedals at regular intervals. Can also choose to omit all pedals in a score.
  • One foot is placed either side of the harp
  • Changing two pedals, one each side, is extremely hard. Also changing two pedals on one side of harp is hard as could cause a balance loss.
  • Notation written on two staves like piano.
  • LH reaches further down than the RH and the thumb and 3 fingers (not little finger)
  • Chords of 4 or less notes are idiomatic.
  • Should avoid large intervals between lower pitches and players prefer large intervals between the higher pitches
  • Pitch issues where enharmonic equivalents need to be considered; not all pitch configurations are possible and players do rewrite if pedal changes are to be made in time – this leads to the playing of a tremolo using two different strings each tuned to the same pitch; harpist can use a separate finger on each string.
  • A similar effect at soft dynamics is created and less defined articulation by the technique ‘bisbigliando’ – ‘whispering’
  • The enharmonic tuning of strings valuable to reinforce the lower tones that are often weak or bring out impossible pitches.
  • Rapidly repeated notes are better achieved by the alternation of two strings tuned to the same pitch; F-sharp and G-flat
  • Harmonics are created by touching a string at the middle node while plucking the string with thumb; this is done with one hand and the sound is one octave higher than written.
  • ‘Son etouffes’ is a dry staccato created with this or ‘dampened’ by replacing a finger on a string straight after plucking the string. When not possible to use same finger, other fingers or the heel or palm of hand used to dampen the sound. Notated as a circle with a cross through the middle. When NOT specified, it is assumed the sound should ring out until it fades. To avoid doubt, the indication ‘Lasciar Vibrare’ or L.V is noted (‘let vibrate’)
  • ‘Quasi guitara’ is when the harp sounds like a guitar or lute, achieved by plucking strings near the soundboard (very bottom of harp) ‘press sulla tavola’.
  • Key changes should be anticipated where the music travels harmonically and set in the appropriate key. If modulating to keys with more sharps, start the harp’s part in a very flat key. If modulations steer towards the subdominant, start the key in as many sharps as possible.
  • Imperative to indicate the pedal settings at beginning of score.

Blatter, A (1997). Instrumentation & Orchestration. 2nd ed. USA: Schirmer. Pgs 252-260
Einarsdóttir, G. (Unknown). Notating pedal changes. Available: Last accessed 18 May 2016


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