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What Type of Harp is Right for Me?

We begin with a look at the two main types of harp and the differences between them.

A harp is basically a series of parallel strings stretched across a triangular frame. Modern harps are generally tuned to the seven notes of a diatonic scale, just like the white keys of a piano. It is then possible to play in two keys: the major key to which the harp is turned and its relative minor. In order to play in any other key without retuning, it is necessary to find a way of providing additional semi-tones (or, if you like, adding in the black keys of a piano). This increases the harp’s range from seven available notes per octave to twelve.

One way to do this is to incorporate two of three independently tuned rows of strings into one harp to allow a full range of tones and semi-tones. Examples of this are the Welsh Triple Harp and the Spanish Cross-Strung Harp. While they do provide our additional semi-tones, they are complicated to make and play and have not become universally popular.

Another way is to have a lever, blade or hook attached to the top of each string. When activated, this lever presses sideways upon the string to shorten its length and sharpen its pitch by a semi-tone. This the fundamental design of today’s lever harp (also know as folk, traditional, non-pedal, small, Celtic, Irish, Scottish harp or Clarsach).

The ability to change semi-tones allows the harp to be set into the required key at the beginning of the tune, but if a semi-tone change is required mid-piece, we are dependent upon the player having time to activate the lever by hand whilst playing the strings. By the late eighteenth century, when composers were introducing more and more key changes within a single piece of music, another mechanism to introduce semi-tones had to be found. The solution – a harp with pedals, as opposed to levers – was patented in 1810.

The pedal harp works on the same principle of sharpening a string by shortening it with the application of a metal pin or rod. However, the pins are connected to pedals which are activated by the player’s feet. There are seven pedals, one for each note of the scale. Unlike the lever harp, activating one pedal affects that particular note across all octaves. As pedals have three possible positions – up, neutral and down – it is possible to change a note to sharp, natural or flat.

While still not truly chromatic (the ability to change key depends upon the manoeuvrability of the player’s feet), the harp was able to tackle contemporary classical music and take its place in the orchestra for the first time.

Today’s full sized pedal harp has 47 strings and stands roughly six feet tall at the pillar. ¾ size pedal harps are an option for beginners or those who need something smaller. Strings are tuned to Cb major (seven flats) so that when all pedals are in the middle position, the harp is in the key of C major.

Meanwhile, the lever harp remains much less standardised. Sizes vary greatly: some are small enough to be played on the lap, while others are supported by legs, or a stool. The largest lever harps are comparable in height to ¾ sized pedal harps. 34 strings tend to be a minimum requirement for educational use, but harps range from about 22 to 40 nylon, gut or wire strings.

Tuning is also less standardised. C and Eb major (occasionally Ab major) are used most often. Tuning in C major means there are less lever changes necessary to put the harp into sharp keys (useful if you want to play in folk sessions), but it also means that you cannot play in any flat keys. Tuning in Eb is the more versatile key as it allows flat keys as well as sharps, although more levers need to be set.

Up until recently the lever harp has been viewed by many as a beginner’s harp – the first step towards playing a pedal harp. However, alongside the rise in popularity of Scottish and Irish traditional music, the lever harp has become increasingly acknowledged as an instrument in its own right. Acceptance from the Establishment occurred last year when the Associated Board of the Royal College of Music created an exam syllabus for lever harp which allows the player to progress to the highest grades without – as previously – being obliged to change to pedal harp.

So far, I have talked about how the need for additional semi-tones influenced the development of both types of harp. Of course, the extent of its ability to change key also has implications for the music most suited to each harp.

The lever harp will always be most at home in the world or traditional – particularly Celtic – music, as the modal nature of this music requires few semi-tone changes. That said, some players are pushing the boundaries of the instrument to the limit and developing astonishingly dexterous lever technique. Alongside them, composers are writing serious, demanding music especially for lever harp and arrangers are finding ways to make much classical and popular music playable on the non-pedal harp. Realistically, though, a pedal harp is necessary to achieve the fluidity of key changes demanded by most jazz and classical music. For this reason, the first step in deciding which harp to play depends upon the music you ultimately want to play upon it.

Posted on: November 16, 2011.

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