Photo of  Patricia Wooster

Pedal Harp 101
An Informal Discussion of a Beautiful but Seldom-Examined Musical Instrument
by Patricia McNulty Wooster

When I perform as a free-lance harpist I frequently find that I am playing for people who are close to a concert harp for the first time in their lives. Some of them probably have seen one in an orchestra or on television, but they usually haven't had a chance to examine the instrument or ask questions about harps. I like to answer their questions and enlighten them if there's time. Here's what I usually talk about.

Did you always want to know...

  • How much does it weigh? 75 pounds, or 34 kg.

  • How tall is it? 6 feet, 2 inches, or 174 inches, or 1.88 meters, or 188 cm.

  • How much did it cost? The price, new, for this particular model harp this year is about $22,000.

  • How do you transport it? I have a custom harp dolly (or hand truck)designed and built by my husband, which makes it fairly easy to move around and to load into a vehicle. I transport the harp in a minivan with the rear seats removed. Other harpmobiles include a large station wagon, a pickup truck with a canopy, or some SUVs.

  • Do you have to keep your fingernails short? Yes.

  • Do you have calluses on your fingertips? Yes.

  • Do you wish you had learned to play the piccolo instead? No.

  • Are all female harpists beautiful? Absolutely.

  • Do you have to tune it often? Yes, constantly!

  • Do you play with 10 fingers? No, I use only eight of my ten fingers when playing --- the "pinkies" are just along for the ride!

A Brief History

The harp is one of our most ancient musical instruments. Today's modern harp is the result of a long process of development that probably began several millennia in the dim past when some stone-age hunter discovered that his bowstring produced a musical note when he plucked it.

The rest, as they say, is history. Harps and harp players have held important places in many past civilizations, including Africa, China, the prehistoric Middle East, medieval Europe, and, in more recent times, the Celtic lands of Wales, Brittany, Scotland and Ireland and many countries in South America.

During most of that history, the harp itself was a relatively simple instrument, with strings attached at top and bottom of a bowed or triangular shape.

Within the past few centuries in Europe, mechanical devices were introduced that allowed the player to change the harp's key prior to playing or to make occasional accidentals. Their descendants are today's manually operated levers used on folk and ethnic harps.

Around 1810 a harp was invented that permits the player to use pedals to change to any key during the playing of a piece. That invention and subsequent improvements have led to the modern pedal harp like the one I play.

The Parts of the Pedal Harp

Producing Sound

Several of the parts of the harp help to make its sound loud enough to be heard throughout a room or concert hall. The soundboard (usually made of Sitka spruce -- the same wood used in piano soundboards) is caused to vibrate by the vibrating strings that are firmly fastened to it. Then, in turn, the soundboard causes the air within the volume enclosed by the sound box to vibrate, thereby acoustically amplifying the sound produced by the vibrating strings.

Materials Used

As many as eight woods including willow, birch, pine, spruce, and maple, are used in making a pedal harp, and usually several different kinds are used in a single instrument. Some of the most important and complicated parts of the instrument are metal including brass, bronze, gold and several kinds of steel. The lowest strings are steel wire wrapped with copper wire. The rest of my strings are sheep gut; some concert and orchestral harpists prefer nylon strings in the upper registers

The Strings

The harp has a set of strings of varying length, tension, and density. My large pedal harp has 47 strings. These strings correspond to the white keys on a piano. The black keys are not represented! (Their sounds are made by changing the pedals.) The strings corresponding to C are colored red, and the Fs are black or blue. All the other strings are white. The harp is tuned by adjusting the tension on each string (using a tuning key that turns a pin going through the neck) until the string's pitch matches the desired pitch.

Making Accidentals with Pedals

My pedal harp has seven pedals at its base, each with three positions available.

Each of these pedals is connected, by means of a steel push-rod that goes up through the column, to a complicated brass linkage mechanism inside the neck, some of the pedal harp's 1,000 moving parts. Each pedal corresponds to a note of the musical scale (B, C, D pedals on the left side and E, F, G, A on the right). When I move the D pedal with my foot, for example, the D pushrod moves up or down inside the column, and the D part of the neck's mechanical linkage rotates one (or both!) of two small disks located on the neck below each D string's tuning pin.

Each of these disks has two little posts that stick out and straddle the string.

When the pedal is in the top position neither disk is touching, and the whole length of the string vibrates and sounds in its lowest pitch, or "flat". With the pedal in the middle position the top disk is rotated, making the disk and its two posts turn to grasp the string. Thus the vibrating length is shortened so that the string produces a half-tone higher, or "natural" pitch. With the pedal in the bottom position both the upper and lower disks are activated, the string is made effectively shorter still, and it produces the "sharp" pitch. Thus, by moving pedals with my feet, I can obtain any of three different pitches (flat, natural, or sharp) from each of the strings on my harp. In that way, the 47 strings represent almost as many notes as the 88-key piano. What's more, I can make these pedal changes while I'm playing the instrument.

You may not have been aware of the pedals on my concert harp until I pointed them out. If so, that's good, because we're supposed to make the pedal changes so quickly and effortlessly that it's hardly noticeable!

The Significance of the Pedal Harp

Why is the development of the pedal harp so important? Until the pedal harp came along, orchestral composers were unable to use harp extensively because the instrument could not "keep up" with the orchestra's other instruments through the many key changes and accidental passages found in most orchestral music. With the advent of the pedal harp, this limitation was removed. An orchestral harpist can join his or her colleagues in the most challenging music, and more and more composers are adding interesting and beautiful harp "color" to their works.

Special Effects on the Harp

  • Harp players and composers have discovered that the harpist can produce a variety of interesting sounds and sound effects. The normal, rich tones of the harp are produced when the harpist plucks each string at or near its midpoint. Volume is determined entirely by the "touch" of the harpist. Soft plucking produces soft sounds, and strong plucking produces loud ones. The duration of the note played can vary: I can let it ring until it dies out naturally, or I can stop the sound by touching the string gently with the palm of my hand.
  • I can produce a 'brassy' sound by using my fingernails on the strings near the sounding board (called "près de la table").
  • I can make harmonics by "stopping" the string at its midpoint and plucking the string just above that point, producing a note an octave higher than normal, with a clear, bell-like tone.
  • I can rub my fingers or fingernails (or even my tuning key) up and down along one of the bass wire-wrapped strings to produce a whistling or "zip" sound.
  • I can vibrate the tuning key rapidly between two of the bass strings to obtain a unique percussion effect.
  • I can even tap on the sounding board with my fingertips to produce a tom-tom-like effect.
  • Jazz harpists, in particular, achieve "slide" effects by carefully moving the pedals while a string is still vibrating from a note just played.

The Tranquil Harp

One of the more endearing things about harp music is that it can be soothing and unobtrusive. At parties, receptions, or dinners, harp music can provide a pleasant background without interfering with quiet conversation, yet the harp's sound carries well and can still be heard. (This is an advantage for free-lance harpists because it helps us get hired for more "gigs" of the sort where people want to be able to converse.) In recent years the health-care profession has discovered that the soothing quality of harp music helps people recover more quickly from serious illness and can be a great comfort to those patients who are in great pain. For this reason most music therapy programs include harp music.

I am amazed by the variety of things this unusual vocation has allowed me to experience, by the places it has taken me all over the world, and by the many wonderful people it has enabled me to meet and claim as friends. I'm particularly thankful for the many wonderful teachers who helped me, and for the hundreds of students I've had the pleasure to help.

 

For More Information

Salvi Harps has published a brief, informative owners manual covering a range of basic harp care topics including cleaning, moving, stringing, and maintenance schedules. Much of the information contained is applicable to other harps as well. You can find it here.


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