The Contemporary Double-Strung Harp
by Laurie Riley
The contemporary double-strung
harp is an increasingly popular instrument in the harp world. Many styles of
music can be played on this versatile harp, and it comes in many sizes from
lap-sized to large. Interestingly, its versatility does not diminish with
smaller size as does a single-course harp, so it has become a favored harp
for travel and portability.
The double-strung harp has two identical
(like the white keys on the piano) parallel rows of nylon strings, and two
full sets of sharping levers.
You can tune the
two rows differently from each other when needed. This is especially handy
for pre-setting accidentals so you don't have to flip levers in the middle
of a piece, and also for modulating easily from one key to another. The
styles and effects that can be done on this harp are nearly infinite. It has
many more capabilities than a single-course harp, and in many cases is
actually easier to play. It lends itself very well to jazz, Celtic, South
American, African, Welsh, Scandinavian, New Age, pop, rock, folk, other
ethnic styles, and much classical music. Because each hand has a separate
and entire set of strings to itself, there is a tremendous capacity for
complexity of arrangement and satisfaction of playing. And the strings tend
to ring sympathetically, resulting in rich but not overwhelming harmonics.
Yet the harp is simple in design and easy to play and understand.
Players who are accustomed to a larger harp can
play a small double-strung harp without changing their large-harp
arrangements. The left hand simply plays on the left row, and the right hand
on the right row. Each hand has the freedom to play the whole length without
obstructing the other hand.
Double-strung harp, built by Dusty Strings
compare: on a larger single-course harp - let's use 36 strings as an
example - the left hand normally has about two octaves available before the
limitation of running into the right hand becomes a factor at mid-range, and
the right hand has about 3 available octaves. But if you have a small
double-strung harp with, say, 26 strings per row, the left hand has over 3
octaves to play without interference, and so does the right hand. And
imagine the possibilities with a larger one! But even a 23-strings-per-row
lap model makes many more notes available per hand than a mid-size
single-course harp. A 23-string double is actually a 46-string harp! And you
can reach all the strings easily!
large double-strung harp (33 to 36 strings) has a full tonal range, as would
any other harp that size, a small double-strung harp has less bass range, of
course. On smaller ones, the left hand will automatically overlap with the
right hand (on separate rows of strings). The overlap effect can be done on
purpose on a larger one. This produces a unique and beautiful echo effect,
as well as lovely harmonies.
an historical double-strung harp called arpa doppia, which was used in Spain
and Italy. It differs dramatically from the contemporary double harp design.
The historical harps had three partial rows of strings, which overlapped
slightly. At the bass end, the left row was tuned diatonically (do-re-mi
etc.). A middle parallel row, tuned to sharps, began in the upper
To play the sharps, one reached between the strings of the left row, or
played them with the right hand. This sharped row continued through the mid
range and partially into the treble
range. A third row of
strings, on the far right side, began on the note where the far left row
ended, thereby overlapping with the middle row, but continuing much higher
than the middle row. The style of music played on these harps was mostly
continuo accompaniment to other instruments. Doubling of notes was not
doppia was developed in the 1500's in response to a growing need for
accidentals as music became more chromatic.
Later, triple-strung harps were another answer to the desire to play
chromatic notes. [See also Cheryl Ann Fulton's paper
contemporary double-strung harp was designed in 1990, and has grown in
popularity due to its unique sound and playability. Two harpists, Liz Cifani
and I (Laurie Riley),
came up with the idea simultaneously, conveyed it to each other in a
telephone conversation, and then asked our respective harpmakers if it was
possible to make a harp with two rows of strings and two sets of sharping
levers. Triplett Harps and
Stoney End Harps built the
first two contemporary designs. Triplett's had two identical parallel rows
of strings on two string
ribs, while Stoney End's had two identical diverging rows emerging from
one string rib. They were tuned and played the same way. Later, other
companies caught on, and at this writing in 2006, many harpmakers are
offering double-strung harps.
instructional video for double-strung harp, "An Introduction to the Double
Strung Harps", is available
Laurie's web site .
Listen to Laurie Riley play
Are You Sleeping Maggie and other tunes on the double harp.