WRITING FOR THE HARP
In 2016 I pledged to video record any original notated music anyone sent me, and post it online by 5pm the next day. However, it could only be 15 seconds long. The response was remarkable and to date I have recorded over 500 miniatures. In 2017 the project was shortlisted for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award. The RPS awards, presented in association with BBC Radio 3, are the highest recognition for live classical music in the UK.
The most helpful way for people to learn is normally by listening to lots of examples, so I hope watching hundreds of other composers' harp writing and reading my feedback helps you with your own music.
There is no need to be scared about writing for the harp. On the page harp music looks very similar to piano music, however, it is important that you are aware of the differences.
Below is a simple guide through the main areas:
Please note I play a full-size 47 string pedal harp.
Essentially all the strings are the white notes on the piano.
Red strings are C, black strings are F.
The strings are mainly made from gut, with the lowest strings made from wire (starting from the second G below middle C).
N.B. Lowest C and D are not controlled by pedals. Therefore, their tuning must be fixed before playing. Also, some harps require pre-tuning of the highest G as not all harps can adjust this note with the pedals.
The harp has 7 pedals: one for each note in the octave.
Each pedal has 3 positions (or notches) to make the notes flat, natural or sharp.
For example, when the C pedal is in the top notch/ position all the Cs will become flat, in the middle position they will all be natural and if the pedal is moved to the bottom position all C strings will sound as C sharps. Therefore, if you want a C natural to be played at the same time as a C sharp use a Db instead.
As the strings are not pinched when in the flat position, notes are slightly more resonant as flats!
Harpists must always set their pedals before playing. Pedal diagrams are helpful but not essential. Ideally draw the first diagram. The diagrams are visual representations of the pedals in their notches.
the above diagram would tell me to set D♭ C♮ B♭ E♭ F♮ G ♯ A♭
If you use Sibelius software you can insert a pedal diagram, however, do check it carefully as they are not always correct!
Harpists can change the position of the pedals while they are playing. You can change 2 pedals at the same time as long as the pedals are on opposite sides of the harp.
The point at which you make a pedal change and where it is written in the music tends to be a matter of personal preference and therefore, many harpists prefer to write the pedal changes in themselves. However, it is important when writing that you know whether notes will be physically possible for the feet to make so it is best to work the changes out as you go.
Write the new pedal position in between the staves. You can write the left-side pedal changes over the right-side or vice versa, just keep it consistent throughout.
The harp is great at producing rich and resonant chords.
Important things to remember:
We only play with 4 fingers in each hand (no little fingers). Chords with more than 8 notes (4 in each hand) are fine but will involve the left hand jumping over the right. This is not difficult unless required at a fast speed. These large chords will always be played spread.
A manageable hand stretch is to the interval of a 10th
Spread chords: one note played after the other
Conventionally we spread with the top note arriving on the beat. Indicate if you want the spread to start on the beat.
Harps are famous for glissandi!
Set the pedals and we can drag our fingers over the strings to essentially play a very fast scale. Glissandi can go up or down and the opposite video shows a normal glissando, then a double and finally a triple (usually played with two hands).
N.B. The bigger the interval between the notes of a double glissandi the harder the harder it will become to keep the spacing.
Pedal slides and buzzes
You can make some great effects with the pedals such as sliding between a semi-tone or a tone using a pedal.
N.B. If you want to slide two pedals at the same time it is easiest to use pedals on opposite sides of the harp.
A pedal buzz is one of the loudest sound effects you can make on the harp. By resting the pedal in between positions the string vibrates against the pins creating a loud buzz. (Notation above)