Many composers approach writing for the harp with trepidation. Some find the complexity of the instrument intimidating; others are unaware of the capabilities of the instrument or do not readily associate the harp with contemporary music. As a harpist who both enjoys playing new music and is constantly looking to expand the instrument's possibilities, I have attempted to provide those interested in composing for the harp with some basic information as a starting point. It is my hope that after becoming acquainted with the instrument, composers will feel sufficiently confident to write for the instrument much as they would any other.  A harpist well-versed in new music would then be able to offer feedback to the composer and perform the work.

I would highly recommend the book Writing for the Pedal Harp by Ruth K. Inglefield and Lou Anne Neill as a more detailed resource. In addition to providing in-depth information, the book includes all of the standard harp notation and an audio CD with samples of various standard and extended techniques for the harp.

purchase Inglefield/ Neill, Writing for the Pedal Harp

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The harp is considered one of the earliest instruments developed by man.  Two different kinds of harps  are prevalent today. The lever harp, or Celtic harp, is a small to medium-sized harp, with limited chromatic capabilities - a lever at the top of each string raises the pitch a half-step when engaged.  The pedal harp is the harp associated with Western Classical music and is larger in size than the lever harp.  There are seven pedals around the base of the instrument which are used to form the accidentals (for more information see Pedals).  This article focuses exclusively on the pedal harp and its capabilities.

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The double-action pedal harp has 47 strings and a range of six-and-a-half octaves. There are seven strings per octave, in the order C D E F G A B.  The strings are color-coded as a reference point for the harpist, with all of the C strings red, the F strings black and the remaining strings white.  The lowest twelve strings (C1 - G2) are always wire strings.  The remaining 35 strings are usually gut in the middle registers and nylon in the top one or two octaves.  Some harpists will have more or fewer nylon depending on personal preference.

Example 1: Range of the harp
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Harpists read the grand staff, with the left hand generally playing in the bass clef and the right hand playing in the treble clef.  Harpists only use eight fingers (thumb, 2nd finger, 3rd finger and 4th finger) as the little finger is too short to be used properly.  When playing, the harp rests on the harpist's right shoulder and the right arm wraps around the instrument, which limits the range of the right hand.  The left hand is uninhibited and can access the entire range of the harp, although the top octave is rather inconvenient.

Example 2: Range of each hand
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The harp has seven pedals around the base which are controlled by the harpist's feet. The pedals alter the pitch of the strings, with each pedal corresponding to a single pitch class, e. g. a C pedal which simultaneously controls all of the C strings, a D pedal which simultaneously controls all of the D strings, and so forth.  Each pedal has three positions: flat (the top position of the pedal), natural (the middle position) and sharp (the lowest position).  There can only be seven distinct pitches on the harp at a given time.  Every time there is a change of key or an accidental, this change is made with the feet, both for the accidental and to return to the starting pitch.  It is important to note that the lowest two strings of the harp, C and D, are not controlled by the pedal mechanism.  The harpist must tune each to the desired pitch and leave them at this pitch for the duration of the entire movement or piece (e. g. C# and D natural)

As the harp is unique in this approach to pitch, many composers are daunted by the perceived constraints of the pedals.  Although it is important to understand the limitations of the instrument, it is equally important to understand the possibilities created by the pedals.

Enharmonics on the harp are physically played with two different strings, such as B# and C natural.  This creates several useful possibilities: 

  - all strings can be set to an unusual scale, such as a pentatonic scale (e.g. C D E# F G A B#)
  - initially seeming impossible combinations of pitches can be played simultaneously
(A and Ab played using A natural and G#)
  - a note can be doubled to reinforce the sound

The order of the pedals and the associated physical limitations should be taken into consideration by the composer. The pedals are divided into two groups in the following order:

  left side   right side
  D  C   B   E  F  G  A

A frequently overlooked point is that the left foot controls D, C and B while the right foot controls E, F, G and A.  Therefore, two pedals can be moved simultaneously, but only if they are on opposite sides of the harp (C and F are possible, but not G and A). On rare occasions, the left foot can cross over and move the E pedal while the right foot is occupied with F, G or A, but this is not possible with any other pedal.

Pedal notation has some standard procedures which should be followed, along with a wide range of individual preferences. The composer should provide the initial pedal setting (e. g. D C# B E F# G A). While writing out the letters is perfectly acceptable, a pedal diagram, which is a visual representation of the pedals, can also be used for this purpose (see figure 3).  The large vertical line represents the middle of the harp with the pedals operated by the left foot (D C B) to the left of it and the pedals operated by the right foot (E F G A) on the right of it.  The horizontal line represents the middle (natural position) of the pedals. Each small vertical line represents one of the seven pedals and the position to which it is set – on top of the horizontal line for flat, on the horizontal line for natural, and below the horizontal line for sharp.

Example 3: Pedal Diagram (D C# Bb E F# G Ab)
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After providing the initial setting, the composer is responsible for keeping track of the pedals and being aware of impossibilities, such as a rapid chromatic scale. Harpists always mark each and every pedal change, including the return of the pedal to the original is acceptable to leave pedal markings to the performer , but some composers include this information in the score. Pedal markings can be done in either English (D# C Bb etc.) or French (Re# Do Sib etc.) Each pedal change should be written underneath the corresponding pitch in the score, either between the treble and bass clefs or below the bass clef.  The pedal change should contain only the new position of the pedal, not what the pedal was previously set at (see Figure 4).  Harpists prefer to make the pedal changes rhythmically (e. g. on the beat rather than the last sixteenth note of a group).

Example 4: Correct vs. Incorrect pedal notation
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Pedal notation in specific cases is also important to consider.  Sometimes it is necessary to move a pedal early, for instance if a chord necessitates that two pedals be changed simultaneously on the same side of the harp (e.g. F# G#).  In this case, one pedal should be moved on the previous beat.

Example 5: Pedal change placement
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When two pedals are being moved by the right and left foot simultaneously, the notation should reflect this.  This is done by stacking the pedal changes vertically on top of each other:

rather than C# F#.

There is no standardization for which pedal should be on top. Both are correct:


Harpists have personal preferences as to which order they prefer.  Some will mark all of the right-sided pedals on the top with the left-sided below and vice versa.  The composer should be consistent in their approach (right over left or left over right) throughout the piece.

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Chords and arpeggios are standard and idiomatic to the instrument.  When writing these, the following points should be kept in mind:

- Harpists only use 4 fingers on each hand. Therefore, a passage which is idiomatic to the piano does not necessarily translate well to the harp. 
- Harpists tend to arpeggiate all chords in an ascending manner unless otherwise notated.  To avoid confusion, it is recommended that composers notate whether the chord should be played simultaneously or arpeggiated. There are two ways of notating each; both are correct. A footnote such as, “all chords played simultaneously unless otherwise notated” is greatly appreciated by the performer.

Example 6: Chord Arpeggiation
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Trills, tremolos, and bisbligando are easily played on the instrument. These can include multiple pitches, or if enharmonics are used, only one sounding pitch (e.g. D# and Eb) and are generally notated in the same manner for trills and tremolos for the piano.

Glissandi are among the most characteristic effects on the harp. Enharmonics can be used to expand the options for glissandi beyond diatonic scales (e.g. a  G7 gliss – D Cb B E# F G A). In addition to single glisses, multiple glisses are possible.  For these, more than one finger on each hand is employed whether ascending or descending.  A few points for the composer to consider when writing glissandi:

- If specific starting and ending pitches are desired, these should be notated.
- If specific starting and ending pitches are not desired, the general range of the glissando should be shown.
- The setting for the pedals should be given, either with a pedal diagram or with the first seven pitches of the glissando notated.

Example 7: Correct Glissando Notation
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Resonance is always an important consideration with the harp, especially in the lower registers where decay is much slower.

L. V. (let vibrate) or an open-ended tie can be used to show that the sound should be allowed to continue until it dies away of its own accord.

Example 8: L. V. and open ended tie
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Damping, generally referred to as muffling by harpists, is shown using a symbol that looks like a coda sign.

Example 9: Damping
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It is impossible to notate each and every instance of damping or allowing the instrument to ring. It should be shown at key points throughout the score (e.g. a chord with a fermata over it) or if the composer has a strong inclination. Otherwise, much can be safely left up to the performer's discretion.

Harmonics are a possibility on the harp, as they are on all string instruments.  Harmonics are most resonant within the register of the grand staff; harmonics sounding an octave above a given pitch are the most common. Only one hand is required to play a harmonic. The left hand is capable of playing up to three harmonics simultaneously; spacing should not exceed a triad.  Harmonics are notated with a circle above the pitch, the number of circles should be equivalent to the number of harmonics desired.  The written pitch should represent the string played; it will then sound an octave higher.

Example 10: A triad of harmonics:
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Près de la table (p.d.l.t.) is a common color modification and is achieved by playing near the soundboard (closer to the base of the strings rather than in the middle of the strings as is standard) which produces a nasal and metallic sound. This is most effective in the middle register of the harp (within the grand staff), as there is very little discernible color change when used in the high or low registers of the harp. The position of the notation is important. Above the staff signifies right hand only, below the staff signifies left hand only, and between the staves signifies both hands.  There are two possibilities for notation:

Example 11: p.d.l.t. (both hands)
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There are a multitude of extended techniques possibilities.  Below are listed a few of the more common techniques used.

Tapping on the soundboard is a common technique.  The harpist can tap with either hand, using fingers or fingernails. It is also possible to knock with the knuckles or slap with an open hand.  The composer should notate the rhythm and be clear about what part of the hand should be used to produce the sound.

Thunder is produced by using the open hand to strike the strings and immediately moving away to let the sound resonate.  It is most effective in the lowest register on the wire strings and it is important to note that only the left hand is capable of playing in this register.  Notation is as follows:

Example 12: Thunder
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Pedal Slides are achieved by moving a pedal immediately after playing a string.  When the string is still vibrating, the half-step change is audible.  This effect does not work well in the high registers of the harp.  The second pitch is limited in volume by the natural decay of the sound. Notation is as follows:

Example 13: Pedal Slides
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As it is in the interest of all harpists to expand the repertoire through well-written new music, I am happy to provide what assistance I can to composers. Please feel free to email me with questions.

Click here for Recommended Listening and Score Study

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