Composers' Forum

Music Composers Unite!

For anybody who knows the harp well? Are these lines playable of a harp? (Ignore the bar numbers. They don't apply here. Also, I don't know how to designate a repeated line like this)

In case you're curious, here is the piece it comes from. (PDF attached)

Views: 127


Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I don't know the harp very well, but from what I do know, some amount of care is needed in writing for them.

Basically, the harp consists of 7 strings tuned to a C major scale, repeated over a number of octaves. A set of pedals allow the sharpening or flattening of each of the 7 pitch classes, in order to access notes of other keys. Each pedal changes the pitch of all strings in that pitch class across all octaves (i.e., if you set the pedal for C to play C#, then all the C strings will sound C#; you can't have both a C and C# at the same time even if they are in different octaves).  And AFAIK changing pedal settings also need some time, so you probably don't want to be writing chromatic scales, or require different accidentals on the same pitch class in quick succession.

For example, in m.104 you have G followed by G# -- it would probably be a better idea to write Ab instead.  But then you hit an A (natural) 2 notes later, so that may not be practical either.  Then you descend on E# but have an E natural earlier in the bar.  Perhaps that can be worked around by writing the enharmonic Fb (for E natural), but that means you can't use F# elsewhere.  Now, I don't know enough about harps to know whether it's possible to shift the pedals mid-phrase so that you can hit the same note with different accidentals as long as they are far enough apart, but I'd think twice before writing something that requires that.  At the very least I'd write some rests between notes that require different pedal settings, just to be on the safe side.

If you find these restrictions too onerous, you could perhaps score the part for piano instead -- they sound similar enough in an orchestral setting, and the piano has none of the harp's limitations.  Or use a piano on the side to fill in notes that are too difficult for the harpist to pull off effectively. Alternatively, use two harps with different tunings to give you a wider palette of notes to choose from.

As for the repeat, I believe the standard notation is what is known as "percent repeats" (because the symbols look like a percent sign -- slashes with dots). You can see some examples of these symbols here.

Aha! As to the repeats issue, I believe that I many have seen that notation (under "Percent repeat counters").

As I have understood it, you can't have both sharps and flats within a single key signature. True? So, I take it from your comment that the harp is only capable of diatonic scales for any given pedal setting. Is that right?

I've never known what  enharmonic equivalents are good for. Maybe this is the example. The other pitfalls you bring up give much pause for thought. (I need to check through them to see which ones I can't do without). Thanks, H.S.


Hm. re-reading, I'm wondering. 

Hi Art

Harp still somewhat a mystery to me too.

Think about how they would set the pedals before playing and how much time they would have to reset for accidentals.

Best advice I can give you is to talk to a player.

Mike L

I found some additional material on this question of chromatic scales. Not sure what it all means, yet, but may be relevant. 

Under "enharmonics" in this article.

Actually, Art, if you read the other parts of the article you linked, you'll see that harps can have both sharps and flats in their "key signature", as long as they aren't on the same note. :-)  The enharmonics section talks about how you can tune two adjacent strings to sound the same pitch (e.g., C# and Db) to strengthen that particular pitch, or to play a tremolo that would otherwise be impossible. She alludes to tuning the harp in such a way that it can play a glissando that hits a diminished 7th chord, presumably by using enharmonics to "eliminate" non-chord tones. E.g., C#, Db, E (natural), Fb, G, A#, Bb.

I read through the article and it seems that the pedals can be changed rather quickly after all, but she didn't say exactly just how quickly.  All of the examples she gave involve changing pedals during rests or a beat or two before that string sounds, during which that string is not played, which would seem to indicate that some time is needed to set the pedal, so going from G to G# in quick succession, for example, might be a risky thing to write.

Oh great, Dave! Now I have to learn what Instagram is and how to use it on my Mac. (I don't own a smartphone). But really, thanks).

By tuning "two adjacent strings to sound the same pitch", I assume that you mean tuning one of the strings with some kind or ratchet device, like tuning a guitar. Naturally, that would be impossible during the course of a piece. 

No. I guess she allows email (Dunno where I got the idea that instagram was required.

@Art: no, I mean in-performance adjusting of the pedals.  E.g., set the C pedal to the sharp position so that the C strings sound C#, and set the D pedal to the flat position so that all the D strings sound Db.

Ah, I think I'm getting it. I thought the pedals defined the key of the string set, but now I'm getting that the peals are specific for those exact notes, either un-modulated or modulated up a half tone. I assume that there might be more than one pedal set at the same time. Clarity! I sent this to the lady at the website that Dave cited. We'll see what she has to say.

Read up on harp in Adler's orchestration, or someone else's. Really do. It's one of those instruments which will trip you up every second step if you don't have very good understanding of how it works on the most basic level.

Art, I think you're still not 100% clear.   The way it works is this:  the harp has about 47 or so strings, all tuned to the notes in a C major scale (i.e., C, D, E, F, G, A, B, spanning about 6 and a half octaves).   This means that without using the pedals, these are the only notes you can play, i.e., C#, Eb, etc., are all out of the question.

Thankfully, the harp comes with 7 pedals, one pedal for all the C strings, one pedal for all the D strings, one pedal for all the E strings, etc..  These pedals have 3 settings: flat, natural, sharp.  It's very important to understand that one pedal controls all the strings of one pitch class, that is, setting the C pedal to the flat position will cause all C strings to sound Cb.  It is not possible to have one C string on sharp and another C string (in a different octave) on flat or natural.  Similarly, the D pedal controls all the D strings, so setting the D pedal to flat, say, means that all D strings will now sound Db.  It's not possible to simultaneously have Db and D natural on the harp.

There is only one set of pedals on a harp, there's no such thing as "more than one pedal set".

For example, if you're in E major, you'd want to set the C, D, F, and G pedals to the sharp position, and the E, A, B pedals set to the natural position.  This will give you all the notes of the E major scale.  But what if your music calls for, say, A# somewhere?  Then the harpist will have to shift the A pedal to the sharp position before she plays this note.  Which also means that all the A strings will now sound A#, so any other A note the harp is playing at that moment will also shift to A#. If you don't want that, then you cannot write any other A's at that point in time.  If you need A natural again later, the harpist will have to shift the A pedal back to the natural position after playing the A#.  But she can't do this while the note is still sounding, so writing A#-A in quick succession is probably a bad idea.

What she can do, however, is to substitute A# with Bb (the enharmonic equivalent), i.e., by shifting the B pedal to the flat position. Then she can play A and Bb in quick succession because they're now on different strings.  But that also means you cannot write B natural (or B#) anywhere else at that point in time, because setting the B pedal to flat means all the B strings now sound Bb.  It is not possible to change the accidental on only a single string.

No, I get all that. So, on sitting down to a piece written in E, the harpist would probably set her C, D, F and G on sharp, although if (s)he left, say, the C pedal on natural, (s)he would be paying in E with an E dim 6th chord. I see that a flatted pedal note is also an option. 

Reply to Discussion


Sign up info

Read before you sign up to find out what the requirements are!


© 2018   Created by Gav Brown.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service