Tips on composing for the harp

Types of Harp

There are two main types of harp: those with pedals and those without. The latter are variously referred to as the celtic harp, the clarsach, the lever harp, the blade harp, the Irish harp, the small harp or just the non-pedal harp, while the former are called the concert harp, the orchestral harp, the double-action harp (see below), or just the pedal harp. Within these broad descriptions, however, there are a wide variety of types, differing in shape, size, type of mechanism, tuning and number of strings.

The average small harp usually has 34 strings, most commonly giving a range from C 2 8ves below middle C to A 2 8ves and a sixth above middle C, though many exist with fewer strings or a slightly different range, while the pedal harp will usually have 46 or 47 strings providing a range from either C or D 3 8ves or 2 8ves and a 7th below middle C to F, G or A over 3 8ves above middle C.

The small harp will probably be tuned in Eb (but harps tuned in F, C and Ab exist too) and the notes not in this scale are made available by the use of levers (which the player presses or lifts, usually with their left hand) or hooks which press against the string, preventing part of the string from vibrating and raising it by a semitone.

Thus the harp can play in keys between Eb major with a key signature of 3 flats – where no levers or blades are engaged against the strings, and E major with 4 sharps – where all the levers are engaged against the strings:

Eb major – no levers engaged against the strings,

Bb – A levers only engaged against the strings,

F major – A & E levers engaged,

C major – A, E & B levers engaged,

G major – A, E, B & F levers engaged,

D major – A, E, B, F & C levers engaged,

A major – A, E, B, F, C & G levers engaged,

E major – A, E, B, F, C, G & D (all) levers engaged.

The pedals of the modern concert harp provide a similar function to the levers on the smaller harps. They are attached (via rods in the pillar and further mechanism in the neck) to discs which rotate, gripping the strings and preventing part of the string from vibrating, thus raising the pitch by a semitone.

If, for example, the C pedal is pressed, all the Cs on the harp are raised. In the late 18th/early 19th centuries, the seven pedals (one for each letter name notes) had only one possible movement – up or down – and are called single-action harps. These, like the small harps, are tuned in Eb to obtain the most useful range of keys.

Succeeding these are double-action harps and, as the pedals have two possible movements (3 positions), all the keys are made available. With the pedals in their top position, the strings are tuned in Cb major, in the middle position C major, & in the bottom position C# maj. The modern concert harp therefore has two advantages over the lever harp:

i) It can access all the major and minor keys (though not all the scales as double flats and double sharps are not obtainable) and

ii) One hand does not have to stop playing in order to alter the chromatic tuning.

One advantage the lever harp has is that, because each string has its own lever, it allows for different chromatic tunings to the same letter-named note in different octaves.

Harp Notation

Music for the harp is notated on two staves with treble and bass clefs like the piano (very occasionally on three staves in similar circumstances to where three staves would be used in piano music) but because of the complications added by the use of pedals, playing music written for the piano can be tricky, especially when sight-reading, as the pedal changes will not have been written into the score.

Nevertheless, much piano music is playable on the harp but it tends to be at the simpler end of the spectrum when it is not too chromatic and the key relations are simple. (Furthermore, it must be remembered where lever harps are concerned that not all notes are available.) Similarly, much harp music is playable on the piano, when there is not much use of harp-specific writing such as chromatic glissandi. There are notational peculiarities which we’ll come to but, generally, the notes can be written as they would for a piano.

Plucking the strings

Because most composers are familiar with the piano and because the harp is also a harmony instrument, the music for which often looks superficially similar to that for the piano, many composers write for the harp as if it were for the piano and this is where difficulties arise, so we will deal with some of the differences.

Because the hands are on either side of the strings, the direction of movement upwards is towards the thumb in both hands whereas on the piano this is only true for the left hand.

Only four fingers on each hand are used, the little finger being redundant due to the placement on the strings. [With the first four fingers correctly placed on the strings for the best possible tone production, the little finger cannot reach without distorting the hand position. As the little finger would have, in effect, to pull the strings from behind the string and given that it is considerably weaker than the other fingers, it is omitted.]

The positioning of the hands on the strings makes some figurations more suitable than others for playing on the harp, notably rising or falling arpeggios, this word being derived from the word ‘harp’. The flesh of the fingertips generally creates the sound rather than the nail which is usually used only for special effects.


When one presses on a key of a piano, no preparation is needed to make the note sound fully. Pianists’ hands can therefore dash around the keyboard very quickly. What most non-harpists fail to realize about playing the harp is that, in order to make a full sound, the fingers must first be placed on the strings in readiness, pulled against the strings at the appropriate time and then the fingers must follow through the movement, just as a golfer must follow through his swing after the ball has been hit.

All of this takes time and pianist composers may be disappointed that even the very best harpists are not able to play the notes as fast as they themselves can on the piano (or as fast as their computer sequencer playing a harp sound from their sampler or synthesizer can!)

Likewise, many wide leaps are not easily achievable on a harp in one hand and such figurations are only obtainable if the hands can be interspersed. Do not blame the harpist, a harp is not a piano and players are limited by the constraints of their instruments. (I’d like to see the pianist that could play a diminished 7th glissando as fast as a harpist!) [see below].

The fact that the fingers are in direct contact with the strings allow for a great deal of dynamic and timbral control and both the dynamic and timbral ranges of the harp are very large. Although it is not as loud as a grand piano playing fortissimo, the harp’s pianissimo can be a mere whisper and the timbral characteristics can be altered significantly, not only by the use of notated techniques which we will look at below, but moment to moment by the performer’s use of the fingers.

[N.B. One drawback of this direct contact is that the merest brush of the wrong string can be audible and slightly slippery fingers or even the extra thickness of skin from a blister or callous on the fingertip) can lead to the occasional incorrect note and therefore such ‘mistakes’ are probably slightly more common on the harp than on the piano.]

Use of Pedal and Levers

The levers on a small harp are located at the top of each string.
Each of the seven pedals on a pedal harp is linked to all of the strings for one letter named note so, with the exception of the top … and bottom … strings which are not connected to the pedals, moving the pedal affects all of the strings of that note.

There are three possible pedal positions: with the pedal in its top notch, the notes are in their flat position; with the pedal in its middle notch, the notes are in their natural position and with the pedal in its bottom notch, the notes are in their sharp position; i.e. if the D pedal is in its top position, the C pedal is in its middle position and the B pedal is in its bottom position, all of the Ds will sound Db, all the Cs will sound C natural and all of the Bs will sound B#, etc.

The pedals are arranged around the bottom of the harp from the player’s viewpoint as follows:

The Firebird's Feather CD cover

One of the defining features of the harp is that the pedals or levers must be pressed prior to playing a note which has changed chromatically and this should be written into the score just before the respective note;
e.g. If a C string which had previously sounded as a C natural, is to be played as a C-sharp, C# should be written in between the staves slightly to the left of the relevant note (or earlier). [N.B. If the pedal is to be raised, it still needs to be pressed and unhooked from its position allowing a spring to lift the pedal to a higher notch.]

Although good harpists can do this very quickly, it is not instantaneous and time must be allowed; chromatic scales are therefore very uncommon in harp music. Operating the levers on lever harps takes more time as one hand must be taken away from the strings first.

Two levers may be operated at the same time as long as they are within the span of the left hand, but adjacent levers are easier than separated ones and pressing multiple levers down is usually easier than lifting them (harps are not consistent in the direction of lever operation for raising notes) and moving them in opposite directions is very difficult, if possible at all. Moving more than two at a time is not recommended in any case.

It is not possible to operate more than one at a time on harps on which hooks are turned to raise notes.
On pedal harps, two pedals may be operated simultaneously as long as they are on opposite sides – i.e. the C & G pedals can be changed at the same time, one with each foot, but the F & A pedals cannot as they are both operated by the right foot. Two adjacent pedals – e.g. the E & F pedals – may sometimes be operated with the same foot at the same time as long as both make the same move e.g.: flat – natural or natural to sharp or vice-versa.

More difficult, but possible, depending on circumstances, is the operation of the ‘inside’ pedals (B & E) with the ‘wrong’ foot, so the left foot may operate the E pedal while the right foot presses the A for example. However, this is an emergency measure and should not be relied upon frequently. When it is needed, more time should be allowed to get the foot from one side of the harp to the other, and the player should not be expected to manage this operation if the finger work is virtuosic at that point. Where two pedals are to be operated simultaneously, they should be written one above the other (usually left foot above right foot).

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The great advantage that the harp has is that by manipulation of the pedal combinations, certain harmonic effects are possible which are unattainable on other instruments, especially using the glissando – sliding one or more fingers up or down the strings.

E.g. by setting the pedals as follows:
D Cb B / E# F G# Ab
a diminished 7th chord is playable as a glissando.

This is because some adjacent strings have been enharmonically altered to sound the same note (Cb & B; E# & F; G# & Ab). An understanding of this principle is one of the keys to writing successfully for the harp. If a required note is unavailable due to being used in a chromatic variant at the same time, it will often be available enharmonically on another string.

E.g. You require a C# but there is already a C natural in the harmony: a Db can be used instead (providing, of course, that another type of D is not also required. However, if a D# is needed, an Eb may be used etc. etc.

It can occasionally get very complicated, where the requirement for one note can lead to a whole chain of enharmonic notes. The upshot of this can be a little strange in that, in ensemble playing, everyone else could be playing an E major chord (for example) while the harpist is playing F, A & C strings as Fb, Ab & Cb. While the harpist will be used to this situation, it can surprise someone looking at the score, to whom the written harmony does not make much sense.

One difficulty in writing harp music is keeping track of the position of all the pedals or levers at any given point. There is some notational help here which is used by harpists to be able correctly to position the pedals at any given point in the score during rehearsal. The following type of diagram is often used but with the shorter vertical lines in various positions and without the letter names which are included here to help explain the diagram:

The Firebird's Feather CD cover

The longer vertical line represents the break between the pedals and the position of the shorter vertical line represents the position of each pedal:
above the horizontal line = pedal in its top [flat] position
bisecting the horizontal line = pedal in its middle [natural] position
below the horizontal line = pedal in its bottom [sharp] position.

These diagrams are usually placed at the beginning of the score, the beginning of new sections and other rehearsal marks, and often at glissandos, with only the bottom and top notes of the glissando written in, as this is easier & quicker for the harpist to read than a sequence of chromatic notes and multiple pedal changes.

This diagram can also be of use to composers in keeping track of the pedal positions. Some composers even draw a large version on a sheet of A4 paper with small coins or buttons placed at the initial pedal positions and moved each time there is a pedal change. This can help prevent the insertion of unplayable notes and mistakes in notation of pedals.

Keeping track of levers is somewhat more difficult as there is one for each string and necessitates much turning back to see where the lever was last changed. To help composers keep track whilst writing the piece can only suggest writing the lever changes in large writing and perhaps the use of a different colour during the composition process. [If anyone has a better idea, please let us know.]

Techniques and their notation

There are a number of playing techniques which are specific to the harp so we will cover the main ones.

When chords are played on the piano the player will normally play them straight (unarpeggiated) unless he/she cannot physically do so or unless instructed to arpeggiate them by the insertion of a vertical wavy line before the chord. By contrast, on the harp, most harpists will arpeggiate (or ‘spread’) them automatically unless instructed otherwise.

This can be done either by the insertion of a straight vertical line before the chord or the words non-arpeg. over the top of the stave (or both). The resumption of arpeggiation should be by the insertion of the vertical wavy line before the first chord requiring it, or perhaps the first few chords with ‘simile’ added to indicate its continuation.

The insertion of the arpeggiation symbol in other places may be advisable when you want to ensure chords are played as such or when the arpeggiation is to be more pronounced than usual. Harpists will always play such arpeggios rising from the bottom note to the top unless otherwise instructed.

Downwards arpeggios can be indicated by the use of an arrow on the bottom of the wavy line, with arrows on the top indicating an upwards direction when there is a combination of both. It is possible to play with one hand playing upwards and the other playing downwards, though it is not that common.

We have already mentioned glissandi, the sliding of one or more fingers up or down the strings. Most commonly only one finger is used coming up the harp and the thumb going down. However, two or, less commonly, three fingers on either hand can be used in parallel to produce a chordal glissando.

These are easier coming up the harp than downward ones though. For sheer volume, glissandi are the loudest harp technique (recording engineers take note: a level set by playing loud chords will not prevent distortion if there is a loud glissando in the piece) but, perhaps surprisingly, single-finger glissandi are at least as loud as multiple finger ones, if not more so.

Glissandi are often ‘looped’; i.e. an upwards glissando followed without a break by a downwards one, then another upwards one etc. This is notated simply by straight lines drawn diagonally between the upper & lower notes of each loop.

Bisbigliando (Italian: ‘whispering’)
This is the repeated playing of a note pattern very quietly, usually on the higher harp strings,

Harmonics are possible as on other stringed instruments and this technique is one of the most common techniques on the harp. They are achieved in the same way – by ‘stopping’ the string half way down and playing only one half of the string, producing a quieter and much more ‘bell-like’ tone an octave higher than the same string played normally.

Harmonics on the harp are most effective between the lowest gut or nylon string on the harp (usually G or A an eleventh or tenth below middle C) up to A an octave and a sixth above middle C but good players can produce harmonics a couple of notes higher than this and can also produce harmonics on wire strings – however the tone quality is quite different from those created on gut or nylon strings.

To produce a harmonic, the string is stopped and played with the same hand, but because of the different position of the hands the right hand uses its forefinger knuckle to stop the string and can only play one harmonic at a time while, on the left hand, the side of the hand stops the string and up to three harmonics at a time are playable as long as they are close to each other (depending on the size of the players hand an interval of a fifth overall would be a maximum).

Up to four harmonics can therefore be played simultaneously. Again, because the hands have to be carefully positioned before the notes can be played, harmonics take longer to play than normal notes and there is a limit to the speed with which they can be executed. Because of this and the fact that they are quieter, harmonics are best suited to more reflective passages.

The combination of a harmonic and the string an octave higher played normally is not uncommon as it gives the upper string some of the bell quality without losing volume. Harpists prefer harmonics to be notated by placing a small circle over the note that is played; it will therefore sound an octave higher than written.

Res de la table (PDLT)
Most of the time, the strings are played in or fractionally below the middle, (depending on the technique in which the player has been trained) producing the roundest and fullest tone quality. By playing the strings at the bottom, near to the soundboard, a more brittle, twangy sound is produced which gives variety and contrast to the timbre and is useful for certain passages. This is indicated in score by writing PDLT over the stave. This stands for ‘pres de la table’ which is French for ‘near to the soundboard’.

Trills & repeated notes
Due to the necessity for the fingers to be placed on the strings as discussed above, one handed trills are much more difficult to play on the harp than on the piano and the speed of trills on the piano cannot be duplicated on the harp without using both hands to alternate playing of the strings. The same thing applies to repeated notes but these are made easier still if adjacent strings are tuned enharmonically to sound the same – e.g. an E & Fb.

The mechanism of the piano ensures that when a key is released, the note is stopped unless the damper pedal is pressed. The harp has no such mechanism and the strings will therefore continue to vibrate until they stop naturally or until the player stops them, so to prevent a ‘muddying’ of the harmony the player will frequently place the palm of the hand onto the strings, especially the lower ones which will vibrate longer if left.

The composer can instruct the player to do this with the use of a symbol, similar to the Coda symbol placed on or below the stave at the relevant point. Two such symbols placed one above the other indicate the use of both hands to dampen the strings, while the insertion of a vertical line between a specific note and the dampen symbol indicates that this note alone should be dampened.

If, on the other hand, you want to ensure that the notes are NOT dampened at a certain point, you should write l.v. (laissez vib… or let vibrate).

Pedal glissandi
Operating a pedal immediately after a string which it affects having been played results in the note being bent upwards or downwards by a semitone. When the note is sharpened in this way, there is a slight momentary buzz as the disc initially grabs the top of the string.

When the note is bent downwards, this usually does not occur as the disc is releasing the string. This technique can be notated by a line between the initial pedal position and the changed position (e.g. C – C#) with Ped. gliss. written above.

Use of fingernails
Instead of the string being plucked with the pads of the fingers, the fingernails may be used to give a more twangy sound with a pronounced click. This takes longer to play than normal notes and, as most harpists keep their nails fairly short, a finger plectrum may be required (in which case enough time should be allowed to put in on).

The technique is indicated with a crescent symbol. The backs of the fingernails can also be used, usually by brushing downwards randomly against unspecified strings, producing a somewhat wispy sound.

Other techniques
There are some additional, though less frequently used, techniques including
tapping on soundboard, which speaks for itself; and half depression of the pedal after a note has been played, purposely provoking a buzzing sound for special effect.