Glossary A-M

by Patrica Jaeger, Joyce Rice and Harper Tasche



Click here for glossary N-Z

accidentals: a sharp, flat or natural sign modifying a note from what is in the original key signature.[back to article]


action: The hardware in the neck. [back to article]


agogic: This refers to a rhythm that is altered on purpose in certain parts of the music, in order to improve an artistic rendering. Use of fermatas, accelerandos, ritards, and so on, that tell the player to hasten or slow down the rhythm, are called agogics. [back to article]

amplifying shutters: Hinged doors on the soundholes of pedal harps, much like the swell box shutters on an organ, which were activated by an 8th pedal; introduced by harpmaker Naderman in the late 18th century, on a request by harp virtuoso Krumpholz.. [back to article]

arpa de dos ordenes: (See article by Hannelore Devaere.) The Spanish cross-strung harp which was popular in the17th century. It had light-tension gut strings, and was played with the right hand (treble strings) very close to the neck and the left hand (bass strings) very close to the middle of the strings, because its strings crossed at about one-quarter of the string's length below the neck. It was most commonly used as a chapel instrument, and it was shaped much like the modern Paraguayan harp. [back to article]

arpa doppia: Common throughout Europe ca. 1550-1700, any harp that had additional sets of strings, either double- or triple-strung. [back to article]

arpeggio: The playing of a chord with its notes sounded in succession, rather than simultaneously. [back to article]

artificial semitones: Those created by application of a lever or other mechanism, or by fretting;as compared to natural semitones, which occur within the diatonic scale. [back to article]

atonal: Music which has no significant tonal relationships or a key-center; most commonly associated with the early modern period, with twelve-tone or serial music, and with composers Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. [back to article]

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Baroque: The period of Western music following the Renaissance, approximately 1600-1750, and characterized by a combination of adventurous tonal harmony, complex counterpoint, and elaborate (and often improvised) ornamentation. [back to article]

basso continuo: (See also"continuo".) In Baroque music, a musical bass line with numbers above or below the notes, which indicate the harmony to be played; also called "through" bass or "figured" bass. [back to article]

bass register: The notes in bass clef, below middle C,in the bass, or F clef, played usually with the left hand of the harp player. [back to article]

bequille: Small crutch-shaped devices used in pairs on some early pedal harps to shorten the sounding length of the string. [back to article]

blades: Mechanically simple string sharping mechanisms consisting of a blunt metal tab fastened to the neck of a harp. Each blade is pushed against its string by the player to raise that string's pitch by one semitone. [back to article]

Bermudo, Juan: A Spanish theorist and composer, c. 1510 - c. 1656, and writer of three treatises on music, including many music examples. [back to article]

box type construction: Description of a harp in which the sides, back and top of the soundbox are separate pieces glued together. [back to article]

brackets: Markings over groups of notes in harp music, used to guide the player in placing all of the designated notes under the fingers at the same time. [back to article]

bray harp: Medieval and Renaissance harps which use "bray pins", adjusted to lightly touch each string to create a loud buzzing tone. Bray pins are usually L-shaped, can be moved away from the string for a "regular" tone, and have the additional function of attaching the string to the soundboard. [back to article]

bridge pin: A pin, currently metal, in the neck of a harp over which a string passes in order to bring it into the same plane as the other strings, regardless of how many windings of the string there are, over the tuning pin. [back to article]

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cadence: A momentary or permanent conclusion in a piece of music. There have been numerous formulas for these in the history of music, such as plagal, perfect authentic, etc. [back to article]

cadenza: frequently found in concertos, a musical section occurring shortly before the end of the movement or work, that historically was improvised but today is usually written, and which allows the performer to demonstrate his or her technical brilliance. [back to article]

carved body construction: Description of a harp the sides and back of which are carved from one piece of wood, on which is attached the soundboard; common in early Irish harps such as that found in the Trinity College Library, Dublin. [back to article]

ceili (or céilidh) band: A group of musicians who play together at (formal or informal) Irish or Scottish cultural celebrations. [back to article]

Celtic: Loosely refers to the languages, musical and artistic traditions, and cultures of the ethnic Western European peoples whose ancestral homes are present-day Ireland, Scotland, Wales, The Isle of Man, Cornwall (in southeast England), Brittany (in northwest France), and Galicia (in northwest Spain). [back to article]

Celtic harp: A vague catch-all phrase used to describe any of a number of distinctly different harps from the Celtic lands; most commonly refers to any small to medium-sized harp strung with light-tension gut or nylon, usually equipped with levers. (see also Irish harp, Scottish harp, Welsh harp.) [back to article]

Chinoiserie: A type of painted ornamentation, used on some pedal harps, featuring Chinese-style motifs. [back to article]

Chord: Three or more notes sounded simultaneously. The most common chords in Western classical, popular, and folk music are comprised of three notes which are spaced a third apart, though chords of four notes are also common. Chords with five or more notes, apart by thirds, are most commonly found in jazz; chords built of intervals other than thirds are most commonly found in 20th-century conservatory music. [back to article]

chord voicing: In composition or arranging, the way the notes of a chord are placed in relation to one another (e.g., a "close"-voiced chord's notes are close together; an "open"-voiced chord's notes are farther apart). In performance or musical interpretation, emphasizing one or two notes of a chord over the others. [back to article]

chromatic: Having twelve semitones per octave, for example including both the black keys and white keys of a piano. Most harps become chromatic by using mechanical means (see blades, levers, pedals). Other harps are inherently fully chromatic by having more than one row of strings (see arpa doppia, arpa de dos ordenes, cross-strung harp, triple-strung harp). [back to article]

clarsach(or clairseach): In Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages, any small harp; usually used to refer to either the Irish or Scottish harp. (See Irish harp, and Scottish harp. [back to article]

Classical: The period of Western music between the Baroque and the Romantic eras, about 1750-1830, characterized especially by music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. [back to article]

column block: The asymmetrical piece at the bottom of the column that offsets the column. This is to help the frame resist warping over time from the string tension. (Karen Rokos) [back to article]

common time: 4/4 time, meaning music in which there are four beats to a measure. [back to article]

concert pitch: According to current international standards, the note "A" above middle "C" vibrates at a rate of 440 cycles per second (440 hertz). Many scholars believe that the same "A" was once considerably lower in pitch and has risen over the centuries; along similar lines, some symphony orchestras now routinely tune to A=442 or A=444. [back to article]

continuo: (see also basso continuo) In Baroque music, an accompaniment part usually played by two people. One plays the bass line on viola da gamba, 'cello, bassoon, or other bass instrument; the other plays the bass line and a partially improvised harmony part on harpsichord, organ, lute, harp, guitar, or other chordal instrument. [back to article]

crazing: Minute crackling in the surface finish. [back to article]

cross-strung: A harp with two intersecting courses of strings which are tuned differently, allowing the player to select notes from either course with either hand. These harps vary in size and style from folk-type lap harps to full "concert grand" size floor models, made by a wide variety of luthiers. While a few historical instruments are in museums, most are in active use, as the cross-strung harp is experiencing a remarkable revival, especially in North America. Most cross-strung harps are tuned with a diatonic C major scale as one course, and a pentatonic F#/Gb scale as the other (like the white and black keys of a piano). [back to article]

crochet: On early pedal harps, small metal L's which are drawn by the action towards the neck to shorten the sounding length of the harp. [back to article]

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diatonic: Music, or harp strings, proceeding in the order of the degrees of any major scale signature. The semitones fall between the third and fourth, and the seventh and eighth degrees, both ascending and descending. [back to article]

diminished fifth:See flatted fifth.

disc: A forked mechanism that produces half-steps, invented by Erard. Double action harps have two discs at the top of each string. “When a pedal is moved from the uppermost notch to the middle notch, all the upper discs involved with that particular pedal rotate and engage the string, raising them a half step (for ex. all the C flats become C naturals). When the pedal is depressed to the lowest notch, the upper discs rotate in the same way raising the string another half-step and the C naturals become C sharps. (Roslyn Rensch, Harps and Harpists, p. 182) [back to article]


double action: A pedal harp with pedals enabled to move to two different locations from its rest position.A pedal in a flat positon can be pressed once to move to a natural position, and once more to move into the sharp position. [back to article]

double strung harp: A harp with two parallel courses (sets) of strings. Historically, the two sets were tuned differently. One set was diatonic and set in the middle of the soundboard; the second set was tuned to provide the missing semitones, and was set partially on the left of the diatonic row and partially on the right. The player would reach through the diatonic row for the desired semitone with the right hand for treble notes and the left hand for bass notes. The contemporary double-strung harp has two identical sets of strings which are both tuned diatonically, and is often equipped with two complete sets of levers. (See Laurie Riley's article.) [back to article]

dynamics: The amount of volume or sound; also, words or signs indicating dynamics to be played in music. [back to article]

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electro-acoustic harp: A concert pedal harp with the flexibility of both an acoustic and an electric harp. [back to article]

electric harp: A concert pedal harp having the additional feature of having a custom microphone amplifying literally each string. See Lyon and Healy Harps. [back to article]

electronic tuner: (See also concert pitch and equal temperament.) A device which identifies fixed pitches for every semitone, usually according to modern standards for equal temperament and concert pitch. Most electronic tuners either generate an audible pitch for each semitone, allowing the player to adjust the instrument to match the tuner, or mechanically listens to the pitch generated by the instrument and provides a display indicating whether that pitch is sharp, flat, or exactly matching current standards. [back to article]

enharmonic: A term used to denote different ways of 'spelling' the name of a note (e.g. B# = C = Dbb) [Norton Grove]. On the concert harp, each string can play the flat, natural, and sharp tones, depending on whether the pedal is in its high, middle or low position. Double flats and double sharps must be played on adjacent strings, so a Dbb will be played on C, its enharmonic. Enharmonics are also useful in substituting notes for easier pedaling, or in rapid repetition of the same note (play E#-F-E#-F, for example). [back to article]

equal temperament: (See also temperament.) A tuning system in which all intervals, except the semitone and the octave, are very slightly out of tune according to the physical properties of musical vibration. This is to allow a fixed-pitch chromatic instrument to play in any of the twelve major keys. Over the past several centuries, equal temperament has become an international standard; nearly every electronic tuner uses equal temperament as its default, or only, setting. Most people hear equal temperament as being "in tune", unless they have consciously heard music performed in any of the historical, ethnic, or other temperaments (tuning systems). [back to article]

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fantasia: A composition in which there are few limits are on formal structure, and that is improvisory character. See W. Apel, The Harvard Dictionary of Music. [back to article]

fifths: Intervals seven semitones apart. The fifth is a pleasant, restful interval and is called "perfect", as are fourths and octaves as well. Cellos, violas, violins, and mandolins are tuned in fifths. [back to article]

falling hail: gliding in the center of the strings with the back of the fingernails. (C. Salzedo) [back to article]

flamenco: Folk or gypsy style of Spanish dance music; also, Spanish song from Andalusia. [back to article]

flat: flat: 1) Lower than the desired pitch, as when tuning. 2) Lowering a pitch by one semitone, indicated by the symbol "b" either in the key signature or immediately preceding the note to be lowered (as an accidental). [back to article]

flatted fifth (diminished fifth): An interval of 6 semitones; equivalent to a sharped fourth. Also called a tritone because it consists of three whole steps, this interval was avoided in Western music for centuries, and was known in historical church writings as "diablo in musica" ("the devil in music") because of its strident sound, (especially in unequal temperaments). It is commonly found in jazz harmony. [back to article]

floor harp: (See also knee harp and lap harp.) Any harp, usually with more than 30 strings, which rests directly on the floor to be at a proper height for playing. [back to article]

folk harp: Any harp which is deeply rooted in an unwritten and/or ethnic tradition. Folk harps range from lap harps to six feet tall, from 19 strings or less to 70 strings or more, with strings made of gut, nylon, wire, silk or horsehair, from single or double or triple rows of strings to cross-strung, from Chinese to African to Paraguayan to Celtic and more. Neither pedal harps nor generally historical representations (though historical folk harps exist), single row folk harps often have levers which provide chromatic tones .[back to article]

forked disk mechanism: A device on pedal and Dilling model harps to pinch (or release) the string at approximately 1/18 of its length, resulting in the string sounding one semitone higher.  [back to article]

fretting: A technique for obtaining accidentals, in which the player uses the back of a fingernail, a specially-shaped ring, or some other object to act as a temporary bridge pin near one end of a string to raise its pitch by a semitone. Also, marking the fingerboards of various stringed instruments with narrow strips of wood or metal. [back to article]

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gauge: the thickness of a string. Most harps will have strings with a thinner gauge in the treble area, and thicker gauge in the bass. [back to article]

gilding: The gold leaf that is sometimes applied to the column and crown of pedal harps. [back to article]

glissando:A rapid slide through a series of consecutive tones in a scale-like passage. A glissando is easily accomplished by rapidly drawing the index finger of either hand in an upward motion or the thumb of either hand in a downward motion over the strings of a harp. If no accommodation is made for notes other than those of the current key signature, it is a diatonic scale played in rapid succession from note to note according to desired range. The pedal harp is capable of very complex harmonies during the glissando by setting each of the seven pedals to appropriate pitches of either flat, natural or sharp. Glissandos in a particular harmony are quite limited on lever harps and either certain strings must be re-tuned, or one hand of the player must temporarily muffle (dampen) strings that would not be in the desired harmony. [back to article]

gothic: 1) An historical harp style from the medieval period characterized by a small soundbox, light-tensioned gut strings, narrow string spacing, and a harmonic curve shaped like a "c" resting on its back. 2) A design for the column of a pedal harp patented by Pierre Erard in 1836, featuring angelic figures in pointed archways or an elaborate scroll or spiral, edged with gilded leaves. (See R. Rensch, "The Harp" (1950). [back to article]

Grecian decoration: Roslyn Rensch, in "The Harp", depicts something similar: "On the column of Sebastian Erard's pedal harps, made in the early 1800s, was a little crown of rams' heads; the column itself was decorated with a half-circle of Grecian maidens; and the base depicted winged Grecians holding lyres." [back to article]

gut strung: (See also nylon strung and wire strung.) Having strings made of gut, a by-product of the lamb meat industry. Gut strings have been used for centuries on various musical instruments; when taut, they produce a warm, resonant tone. Many historical harps are entirely strung with gut; many modern harps have bass strings made of wire and gut strings above. Some are strung with nylon in the highest octaves. [back to article]

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harmonic curve: The particular shape of the neck of the harp, which varies with each harpmaker. The harmonic curve is determined by the length of the strings, the pitch at which they are tuned, the type of string material, the amount of tension the rest of the harp design most efficiently responds to, and the tone desired. [back to article]

harmonics: Applied to the harp, these are sounds produced on a string when stopping it in a different place with the hand, just before plucking that shortened portion. Most common is the harmonic produced by stopping the string exactly at its mid-point, producing a bell-like tone one octave above the normal string tone. A note with a small "o" above it is meant to be performed as a harmonic. Single, double, and rarely, triple harmonics may be played at the same moment by the harp player. [back to article]

harp: Technically, a cordophone, such as the harpsichord. A harp is triangular in shape, with strings perpendicular to its soundboard. It is performed in front of the player, who uses both hands on either side of vertical strings. Usually the player is seated, and may have a small harp on the lap, or play one that has a short body supported by legs, or the harp may have a larger base, sit on the floor, and be almost 75" tall, with 47 strings. Probably originating in primitive times from the strung bow of a hunter, harps developed in many different countries at various times. [back to article]

harpsichord: Also a "cordophone", it, however, has a keyboard attached to the strings. Strings are plucked inside the case by quills, giving a unique sound. (See W. Apel.) "The Harvard Dictionary of Music". [back to article]

heptachord: A seven-note scale. [back to article]

hexachord: In medieval music theory, a six-note scale consisting of two whole steps, one half step, and two whole steps (for example, the notes C-D-E-F-G-A). Hexachords were named according to whether they had a B natural or B flat or neither, The G hexachord [G-A-B nat.-C-D-E was called hexachordum durum because it contained the "hard" B (B nat.) on its third step. The F hexachord [F-G-A-Bb-C-D] was called the hexachordum molle because its fourth step was the "soft" or rounded Bb. The C hexachord [C-D-E-F-G-A] was called the hexachordum naturale because it included neither B nat. nor Bb. (Norton/Grove, p. 340.) [back to article]

historical harp: Broadly, any style harp which was used at a documentable point in history. This term generally refers to harps of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, as well as the music which was played on them, the style in which the music was played, and the playing techniques most probably used on these instruments. (See "Historical Harp Society" .) [back to article]

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imitation: In musical composition, repetition of a motif or phrase by different voices or instruments. [back to article]

interval: The distance in pitch between two notes. C and D are a second apart, C and E are a third, etc. [back to article]

Irish harp: Most traditionally, a small or medium-sized carved-body harp with a moderately steep harmonic curve, played on the lap or the knee. It has wire strings (usually brass or phosphor bronze) tuned diatonically, and is most traditionally played with the fingernails. In modern times it often has blades for obtaining semitones. [back to article]

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jig: A lively dance in 6/8 time. [back to article]

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knee harp: (See also lap harp and floor harp.) Larger than a lap harp, this refers to a harp of usually less than 30 strings which is either equipped with (often detachable) legs, placed on a low bench, or comfortably held between the knees to be at the proper height for playing. [back to article]

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lap harp: Small harps up to 25 strings, usually with no levers or a limited number of them. [back to article]

lever: A mechanical means, engaged by the player's hand,. to raise the pitch of a single string by one semitone. Levers are attached to the neck of the harp, and have various designs to either slightly bend or pinch the string. In the U.S., raising the lever engages it; in the UK, lowering the lever engages it (just as lowering the pedal on a pedal harp raises the pitch by a semitone). [back to article]

lever harp: A harp of any size or style (folk, classical, etc) which uses levers to obtain semitones. Most lever harps are smaller and lighter than pedal harps. [back to article]

lute: A plucked string instrument with a round body in the shape of a halved pear, a flat neck with 7 or more frets, and a separate peg box set perpendicular to the neck. [back to article]

luthier: A maker of stringed instruments [back to article]

lyre: Also known as lyra. An ancient Greek instrument with various numbers of strings, played with a plectrum. It is an ancestor of today's harp. [back to article]

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major scale: In Western music, a scale spanning one octave in which the semitones are found between the 3rd and 4th, and 7th and 8th, notes. [back to article]

mechanism: The pedals and pedal rods of a pedal harp. [back to article]

melisma: Music resembling a vocal passage sung to one syllable. Gregorian chant and flamenco song each use melismatic passages in which the singer varies the pitch while maintaining the same syllable. [back to article]

minor scale: In Western music there are three common types of minor scales, each of which spans one octave. "Natural" minor is a scale in which the semitones are found between the 2nd and 3rd, and the 5th and 6th, notes. "Harmonic" minor has semitones between the 2nd and 3rd, 5th and 6th, and 7th and 8th notes. The semitones in a "melodic" minor scale are the same as the harmonic minor scale when ascending, and the same as the natural minor when descending. [back to article]

modes: Primarily any of seven diatonic scales used in music of numerous historical and traditional styles, which are also found in jazz, blues, and contemporary classical music. These scales have distinctive patterns of whole steps and half steps, as follows (w=whole step, or two semitones; h=half step, or one semitone):

Ionian mode w-w-h-w-w-w-h (the major scale)
Dorian mode w-h-w-w-w-h-w (so-called "celtic minor")
Phrygian mode h-w-w-w-h-w-w
Lydian mode w-w-w-h-w-w-h
Mixolydian mode w-w-h-w-w-h-w (so-called "celtic major")
Aeolian mode w-h-w-w-h-w-w (the natural minor scale)
Locrian mode h-w-w-h-w-w-w

Chromatic alterations of these modes are also common.  Perhaps the best-known is the Phrygian mode with a raised third (given a starting pitch of E, the ascending sequence is E-F-G#-A-B-C-D-E), which is known as "Freygish" mode in Yiddish, "Hijaz" mode in Arabic, and is also heard commonly in traditional music of Scandinavia and eastern Europe.  While this mode has the same interval sequence as the harmonic minor scale, they are quite different, as the pitch centers of these two scales are a fifth apart -- much like the major scale and the Mixolydian mode.  Other interval sequences have been created and extensively used as modes by composers such as Olivier Messaien, but are unrelated to the traditional/historical modes described here. [back to article]

Any of these seven modes can be based in any key signature. [back to article]

modulate: To change key within a piece of music. [back to article]

monochord: An instrument resembling a one-string violin with a movable bridge, used to demonstrate and study the division of a string length into intervals. [back to article]

muffling or damping: With the hand, stopping the vibrating string soon after it is plucked. [back to article]

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