If I had not loved the woman who was playing the harp even more than I
loved the sound of the harp itself, I would never have voluntarily
written any pieces that keep the same sharps or flats all the way
through. But once I did write a few songs for the harp, I discovered
that using jazz melodies and chords that did not modulate sounded
more original than following the expected jazz changes. Those
modulations which are the basis of modern popular music have become
formulas which can hinder creativity if we forget that it is not always
necessary to use them.
One thing that opens up when you begin composing diatonically is a
greater use of modes. We listeners of Western music are most familiar
with two modes: the Ionian (go from C to C on the piano's white keys),
which we call the major scale,, and the Aeolian (go from A to A),
usually called the minor scale. Try the other ones, too, again on
the white keys, or on the harp in the key of C:
D to D - Dorian mode
E to E - Phrygian
F to F - Lydian
G to G - Mixolydian
B to B - Locrian
The three major modes, with the first and third notes constituting major
thirds, are ionian, lydian, and mixolydian. The three minor modes are
dorian, phrygian, and aeolian. locrian is the abandoned stepchild of
the modes, with a minor third and a flatted, or diminished, fifth. If
you spend enough time improvising and composing with each of these
modes, you will eventually be able to recognize them after hearing only
a couple of measures.
Then the fun starts of passing from one mode to another, or playing
chords from one mode against chords from another. The best way to
contrast chords and modes is for the harp to play one, and another
instrument to play the other, which can lead to the world of jazz
chords, with notes piled on one another in intervals of sevenths,
ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths!
Any chord can also be voiced in a variety of ways by putting parts of it
in different octaves, putting a note other than the root on the bottom,
or leaving out certain notes. Or try having one instrument play the
same note while chords are changing above it, or play the same melody
twice with a different bass part each time. Each of the variations will
change the personality of any given chord, and will open up new
possibilities for you to try, giving your ear more choices to work with.
Of course, if you're the harp player in a group, there are a few ways
that you can modulate to some other keys:
- With levers set in G major, for example, you can play in A, B, C, D,
or E major, omitting the 3rd degree of the scale and leaving it to other
- Preset a lever, say a D#, to allow the sound of both E natural and
Eb; someone else can play the D natural if it occurs.
- Let the others play while you flip a few levers.
In this day of information overload, when it is possible to study so
many different kinds of music, the harp provides a kind of center for
modern music to build around. When you concentrate on the keys
available to the folk harp, your music becomes narrow and deep, rather
than shallow and broad. It will no longer be possible to sound like
everybody, but it will become easier to sound like yourself. And this,
I feel, is at least part of what music needs to be great music.
(The original [unabridged] article appeared in the Folk Harp Journal No. 52, March, 1986.