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How Are Harps Tuned?

This article relies on a basic understanding of the concepts of pitch, note, key, key signature, sharp, flat and natural. If these terms are new to you, this brief explanation of music theory will be useful.

Harp string are always coloured in the same way for ease of identification and always represent the following notes:

Red = C
Black / Blue / Purple = F
White = D, E, G, A and B

They can be identified as below:

However, as any musician will tell you, each note has three permutations: natural, sharp and flat. On a harp, pedals or levers alter the pitch of the individual string in semi-tone increments to produce our naturals, sharps or flats. The mechanism on a Pedal harp is able to alter a string in three ways, which means that each string is able to sound as a sharp, natural or flat. Lever harps are only able to alter a string in two ways: depending on the tuning of the string, you will get a flat and a natural, or a natural and a sharp.

Pedal harps are always tuned in the same way and the pedal position determines the exact note as follows:

Photo of pedal positions showing, from left to right, pedals in a down, middle and up position.

Lever harps are more complicated. To begin with, tuning is not standard. The most common tunings are the keys of C and E Flat and, to a lesser extent, A Flat. In addition, individual strings can be re-tuned for special effects, or as a means of playing accidental notes (naturals, sharps or flats which are needed at some point, but do not appear in the piece’s starting key.)

Let’s identify the note of each open string (without the lever engaged) in each key:

When the levers are engaged, the pitch is raised by a semi-tone, giving us the following notes on each string:

*These two notes are enharmonic, which means that they sound at the same pitch.

Combine the two above tables and we can see all our available notes for each of the three standard lever harp tuning keys:

From the above, we can work out which keys are available to us in each tuning:

Lever Positions for C, E Flat and A Flat Tunings

This series of images demonstrates the lever positions for each key with the harp tuned in C, E Flat and A Flat.

Pros and Cons for Each Tuning

There are pros and Cons for each Tuning:

Key of C

Pros

A lot of tutor books and elementary music for beginners are written in the key of C, so no lever changes are necessary to play many easy pieces.

Tuning with an electronic tuner is also simplest in this key as there are no sharp or flat notes to confuse matters.

Cons

The harp needs to be re-tuned to play in any key which uses flats.

Singers are generally more comfortable in flat keys, so if you are a singer, or if you are accompanying one, you may find that you do need to tune to either E Flat or A Flat.

Key of E Flat and A Flat

Pros

This is the most versatile way to tune your lever harp, as it allows you to play in both the most common sharp and flat keys. The choice between E Flat and A Flat, is primarily a matter of deciding whether you are most likely to need a D Sharp (if so, tune in E Flat) or a D Flat (in which case, tune in A Flat).

Flat keys are more resonant than sharp keys.

Cons

You need to engage levers more often, which takes time. It also causes wear on the strings. Finally, if the levers are not well regulated, i.e. correctly in tune (as would be the case with a poorly made harp), then your harp will sound out of tune when the levers are engaged.

Conclusion

As you have probably realised, the lever harpist will tune their harp according to which key or set of notes they anticipate needing most often, taking into account the type of music they perform and the type of ensemble they play in. Its worth stating that there are regional variations: England and Wales tend to tune in E Flat, while A Flat is popular in Scotland. C is the most common tuning in the United States.