Composing for the Harp

Composing For The Harp

by Joyce Rice

 This article gives you some basic knowledge about the harp and how to write for it.  It does not claim to be a complete encyclopedia on the topic, but hopes to be helpful and correct in what it does present.  We will gladly consider suggestions of additions or alterations.

WELCOME, ASPIRING COMPOSER FOR THE HARP!  Are you full of doubts about your project?  Do you feel that you don’t know enough about the harp?  Well, you’re not alone, as you can see by these quotes from several prominent musicians:

“The harp is, in my opinion, the least understood instrument.  Even the greatest geniuses in music have not understood this instrument.”  Leopold Stokowski, in a radio interview by Arnold Michaelis, 1961*

 “What [inexperienced] composers do not seem to realize is that the piano keyboard is a treacherous trial ground for the testing of either the playability or the sound of their harp parts.”  Sylvia Meyer, Principal Harp, National Symphony Orchestra, 1933-66*

 “It is not the harpist’s fault when writing is inconsistent with human anatomy.”  Susan Dederich-Pejovich, Principal Harp, Dallas Symphony, 1977-present*

*From “The Harp in the Orchestra” (p. xii) by Beatrice Schroeder Rose, with her permission.


But take heart.  These words of the late harpist, teacher and composer, Marcel Tournier, offer you a simple objective:

Your goal is “to make the instrument sound well and make the most of its resources…The secrets of the harp are far simpler than certain people imagine, and its possibilities are never-ending for those who have faith.” Tournier, “The Harp” p. 93

And contemporary Boston composer Kevin Kaska  says:

“I thought of the harp as this instrument with all these limitations, and that all it could do were some big glissandi and a little bit of simple ‘piano playing’ (all diatonic, of course).  I didn’t know, and until I sat down with harpists, the mystery had never been  unraveled.  Then I watched Deborah Henson-Conant  and how she played her jazzy music with all the pedal changes, and Ann Hobson-Pilot  playing a Salzedo piece while I followed the sheet music.  I’d had no idea you could jump around on those pedals so fast and play big chords.  Finally, I sat down at a harp and actually played for 30 minutes, and I learned more about the instrument than any book could teach me.

Help is on the way!  Below you will find some basics about the harp family, some musical do’s and don’ts, and examples of what’s easy on the harp and what isn’t.

What is a harp?

“The harp,” goes the old joke, “is a nude piano.”  Well, no, it’s not. They do both have lots of strings, and the harp and the grand piano have similar shapes, and both use music written on a grand staff, but please don’t allow these superficial similarities to fool you.

Music dictionaries tend to define the harp as one of the most complicated instruments, most difficult to play, or limited in what can be played upon it.  True, a concert pedal harp is a complicated instrument with 2000 or so parts, but with thousands of people playing it worldwide, it can’t be that tough.  And true, the pedal harp requires coordination of hands and feet in different tasks. (So what?  So does a pipe organ.)  But is the harp limited?  In some ways, but not at all in others.  Ascending or descending chromatic scales or chords are more difficult on a harp than on a piano, but playing in keys of 6 sharps or flats is sure a lot easier, and pianos can’t begin to touch the beauty of a harp’s glissandos or harmonics.  So why not dismiss these arguments and find out how you can produce music that harpists will find approachable and ready to be played.

Let’s start with a quick review of the basics.  All harps are triangular in shape, but they come in many varieties and sizes 

Basic Harp for Beginners

The five harps illustrated above are some of the most common types.  They are:

1.  Irish low-headed lap harp.

2.  Gothic lap harp.

3.  Medium-size folk harp (also called Irish, Scottish or Neo-Celtic).

4.  Irish high-headed harp (usually with metal strings).

5.  Pedal harp.


     (Also see about Paraguayan harps.)

In this article we will focus on the two most common types of harps: the large orchestral harp with pedals, and the smaller folk-type harp with levers.

Most harps have one set of strings in the order of the piano’s white keys: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The C strings are red, and the F strings are dark blue.  The rest are white.

Concert grand PEDAL HARPS have 47 strings, or six-and-one-half octaves, almost the full range of the piano.  The bottom string is C, three notes above the piano’s lowest A.  The top string is G, four notes below the piano’s highest C.

The large concert harps that you see in the orchestra have seven pedals (below), one for each note in the scale, that are attached mechanically to discs  (below) at the top of the strings and are used to change all octaves of each note by two half-tones, flat (in the highest position) to natural (middle position) to sharp (lowest position). Note that the lowest D and C strings and the top G string do not have any mechanism and are not connected to the pedals, but can be re-tuned beforehand if necessary.


The largest LEVER HARPS usually have 36 strings (a few go up to 38).  Most lever harps range between 29 and 36 strings, or four to five octaves.


Lever harps have a manually controlled device (flip-up lever, cam lever, or blade) at the top of each string that can change each string by one half-tone: flat to natural or natural to sharp.  The left hand usually changes levers.


Pedal harps have pedals that simultaneously change all octaves of any given note, so one pedal change will result, for example, in all F naturals becoming F#, or all B naturals becoming Bb.  Lever harps, on the other hand, can be set however the composer wishes, with one F# and two Bbs, for example, and all the other Fs and Bs natural.

Tuning the lever harp

When a lever or cam is engaged, the string pitch is a half-step higher, and when disengaged it's a half-step lower.  We're using the word "engaged" because while most levers are moved up to raise the pitch and down to lower it, some are the reverse, and some are sideways-moving blades.

Lever harp players commonly use the terms “tuning in C” or “tuning in Eb”.  Those tuning in C (with all levers disengaged) can play in the key of C and the keys with sharps:  G (F#), D (F#, C#) etc.  Those tuning in Eb (tune in C with the B, E, and A levers engaged, which can be disengaged to flat the string) can play in C, in the three flat keys of F, Bb, and Eb, and the four sharp keys of G, D, A, and E.

Here are the notes that are readily available in each tuning:

C tuning: C C# D D# E E# F F# G G# A A# B B#  

Eb tuning:  C C# D D# Eb E F F# G G# Ab A Bb B 

(For more on tuning, click here.)

 Below, see an example by Ray Pool of the use of levers in the chromatic scale harmonized for lever harp tuned in Eb.  (The diamond notes represent levers that must be raised or lowered to make the accidentals, and are not played.)


                                                                                                                        From “Clever Levers”

Writing well for the harp

As we have noted, probably the biggest mistake made by composers is writing for harp as if it were a piano. An apparently easy passage for the piano may be quite formidable or even impossible on the harp. A few fundamental things to remember are:

  1. The harp is a plucked instrument; it physically takes longer to pull a string than to depress a piano key.
  2. The harpist sits at the upper end of the instrument’s range with the right arm wrapped around the instrument, compared to the pianist who sits in the center of the instrument’s range and can move both hands freely in either direction.  This means that the harpist’s right hand cannot reach the lower strings.

  3. The harpist relies heavily on visual cues to locate specific notes (hence the colored strings), unlike the pianist who can feel his location on the keyboard by the arrangement of black and white keys.  (This issue is further complicated by the harp’s orientation to depth, unlike the piano’s orientation to width; the pianist has full use of peripheral vision to find notes, but the harpist does not have this ability.)  Wild leaps and skips in fast-moving passages should be avoided, especially in orchestral parts when the harpist must watch the conductor, the score and the strings, which are all in different directions.

Now let’s look at some specifics.

1. Notation

Write on a piano grand staff, generally with right hand (RH) in the upper staff, left hand (LH) in the lower. 

Occasionally all notes are in the same staff, and then it’s helpful to indicate those played by the LH with stems down, and by the RH with stems up, as in the following example:


                                                                                                                        (Henriette Renié)

Only four fingers are used on each hand:  no pinky!  Therefore the maximum reach in each hand is the interval of a 10th. Please leave fingering suggestions to the harpist, unless you allow a harpist to look over the music prior to publication.

Since harpists use only four fingers, please avoid figures like that in the following:

What makes this figure difficult to play quickly? The second group that appears to be four 16th notes actually needs five fingers to reach from the D at the bottom of the group to the G on the first beat of the next measure.

2.  Range of hands:  in general, because the harpist’s right arm is wrapped around the instrument, the RH shouldn’t be asked to reach below the first metal string [the G one and one-half octaves below middle C].  The LH can play the entire range, if necessary.  Harp strings are closer together than piano keys, however, and harpists are accustomed to reaching a tenth.

3.  Best keys for the best sound:  the ones that have the fewest levers/pedals engaged, because unengaged strings vibrate at their longest length and result in the richest tone. On the pedal harp that would be the key of Cb.  (See Benjamin Britten’s Interlude from the “Ceremony of Carols”.)

4.  The sustain of the harp:  Once strings are plucked, they set their own duration of sound without any other means – pedal, bow, breath – to keep them going.  Therefore, there may be several harmonies lasting over some seconds as the sounds are produced and decay.  The upper notes have very little sustain, so writing long, tied notes in the treble is useless. The bass notes, however, have an extremely long sustain, and often need muffling before proceeding to the next chord. (Country and pop harpist Louise Trotter likes to say that you can play a bass octave and go down to the corner to get groceries. When you get back it will still be vibrating!)

5.  Harmonies and voicing:  the sustain makes thick chords in the lower strings sometimes sound “muddy” rather than “lush”.  It is better to under-harmonize than over-harmonize in a harp composition.

6.  Staccato, legato, sostenuto:  the natural sound of the harp is a sostenuto, with the plucking action creating a tone that rings until it decays completely or the string is plucked again.  The only way to achieve a staccato-like effect is to muffle the strings with the finger or hand immediately after playing, so do not write staccato notes on fast-moving passages, or with large leaps between the notes or chords.  Whatever legato the harpist produces is achieved by phrasing and careful placing.

7.  About rests:   Rests signify the cessation of sound, and for most players that means a separation from the instrument. Wind players stop blowing, string players lift their bows.  Harpists, however, replace their hands upon the strings to stop sound.  When you write quarter note, rest, quarter note, rest, do you want the harpist to stop the sound on the rest, or could two half notes produce as desirable a sound?

8.  Repeated notes:  One cannot repeatedly play the same string in rapid succession as you can on a piano. The best way to accomplish this is by using an enharmonic equivalent, for example setting D# and Eb pedals or levers and alternately playing those strings, so that two fingers can create the effect of a repeated note.  It is played fastest between two alternating hands.  [Harpists who play with their nails long (on some Paraguayan and wire harps) play repeated notes very well with their nails, keeping fingers stiff and moving back and forth across the string.]

9.  Arpeggios can be played very fast when using both hands and alternating them (think of the Nutcracker cadenza as it is commonly played, with arpeggios in the same direction).  If you write the arpeggio in one hand and something else in the other, the arpeggio will be much slower.

10.  Glissandos for the pedal harp can be in any arrangement you want – diatonic, pentatonic, whole note, diminished, etc. – but glissandos for lever harps are limited to the notes available depending on how the instrument is tuned (in C or Eb).  In both cases, remember that every note of the scale must be accounted for (unless you stop some notes, as Ray Pool has experimented with). See A Harpist’s Survival Guide to Glisses, by Kathy Bundock Moore.

11.  Harmonics are produced 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.  Notate harmonics on the string where they are played, not where they sound.  Harmonics sound best on open strings, that is, as a flat on the pedal harp, or with the lever disengaged on the lever harp.

You can see and hear examples of various pedal harp techniques on this video, Discover the Harp,  provided by harpist Gail Barber . You will need the Real Player (and a fast internet connection!) to view this. If you move the viewing slider to about 10 minutes into the video, you will see and hear examples of arpeggios, glissandos, harmonics, and other techniques. The Philharmonia Orchestra web site also has some videos in their Orchestra section that demonstrate various harp techniques.

More about pedals 

1.  Pedal harpists can easily play in keys with six or seven sharps or flats – they just set the pedals and go.

2.  If you write in an unusual sonority, say with A flats and D flats, but B naturals and E naturals, indicate this in the key signature with the B and E naturals in parentheses, then the A and D flats.

3.  Pedals are in this order:


Two pedals can be changed simultaneously and quickly if they’re not on the same side.

Pedals are depressed to make the sound higher, and raised to make the sound lower. You can push the pedals down (flat to natural to sharp) faster than you can raise them (sharp to natural to flat).  Still, both these moves can be done very quickly. 

4.  Pedal changes can create unwanted sounds in some circumstances.  If a string is still sounding and the harpist’s hands are too busy to muffle it, a pedal change on that string may be noisy.  Sometimes this can be avoided by using enharmonic notes.

5. The harp can play any note enharmonically except for D natural, G natural and A natural.  This is helpful to know when working with pedals.  Careful writing can sometimes distribute fast pedal changes more equally between the two feet such as changing D# and F# (left and right feet) rather than Eb and F# (both right foot).

6.  It is usually preferable to leave pedal markings to the harpists, who often have personal preferences.  If you do feel the need, however, write only “F#” rather than the unnecessary “change F natural to F#”, and make that notation directly under the note or chord where the F# occurs.  You might, however, write a small pedal diagram periodically throughout the piece especially in sections where there are rapid modulations, and always at each rehearsal number or letter in orchestral parts:



 [Note names FYI only] (D, C, Bb, Eb, F, G, Ab) 


  (D#, C#, B, E, F#, G#, A)


7.  Every accidental, key change or glissando requires pedal movement – allow time for it.


Special notation

Many symbols have been developed in harp notation. Here as an introduction are some from Marilyn Marzuki’s “The Sacred Harpist”, publ. 1980:


 (Note:  More up-to-date notation usually places the harmonic note where it will be played, and it will sound an octave higher.)


What's easy to play

Harp Spectrum special projects person John Carrington, harpist with the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Symphony, suggests the following: 

1.  Glissandos, preferably with the first octave notated to make perfectly clear what notes are wanted.

2.  Arpeggios – a few up or down, not an on-going chromatic series.

3.  A few rolled chords spread over four octaves in voicing.

4.  A melody over a simple harmonization in half notes.

5.  A perpetual “motor” in one hand with a repeated sequence of running 16th or 8th notes.

6.  A single harmonic that is doubling for extra color the entry of another instrument, i.e. a French horn, piccolo or trumpet long tone. 

What's difficult to play

1.  Abundant rapid chromaticism (think Chopin).

2.  Five-fingered piano-derivative material.

3.  Lots of quickly changing notes and chordal harmonies.

4.  Rapidly repeated attack on the same chords.

And finally, work with a harpist

Even after you’ve learned the theory of how harps work and the basic rules for writing for them, it still makes sense to see if it all fits on a real harp played by a harpist. As you read in the introduction, Kevin Kaska learned from Deborah Henson-Conant and Ann Hobson Pilot that there’s more to harp music than glissandi and diatonic playing.  

Another composer, Mary Elizabeth, says: I suddenly needed a harp part in a chamber/choral Christmas setting, so although I had never even seen a piece of harp music, I included a fairly straightforward part. To make up for my inexperience and lack of knowledge, I took the piece to Heidi Soons, the first chair harpist with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, to check it. Since she graciously gave me the opportunity, I composed a piece for harp and mezzo with a kind of Klezmer feel to show her as well. I didn't know anything of the specialized vocabulary or notation for harp, but I was intrigued by the sound, and Heidi saw through my inexpert notation and choices, and she enjoyed the second piece so much that she said she'd perform with me (and we did several concerts the next year). So she played my pieces and I learned from her about the harp's capabilities, limitations, and notational requirements. As soon as I saw her do a technique, I would include it (as appropriate) in my music. I began to learn about pedaling, fingering, tapping on the soundboard, and enharmonics. I would write something and watch and listen as she tried it and commented on it. Then I revised, as necessary. She still checks any new harp piece I write.

 If you don’t know any harpists, write to Harp Spectrum and we’ll try to hook you up with a harp player in your area.  We’ll be watching for your new works!


More information

Now it’s time for you to get a book. Fortunately there are several available.  Much of the contents of this article was borrowed, with permission of the author, from The Pocket Guide to Harp Composing by Darhon Rees-Rohrbacher.  My sincere gratitude, Darhon, for your generosity.  You can see her many Dragonflower Music publications at, and they are available at most retailers, as well.

I am also very grateful to Beatrice Schroeder Rose for allowing me to use several quotes from her recently published and invaluable book The Harp in the Orchestra.

Here are some very helpful publications.  They may be found at Lyon & Healy (L&H), Sylvia Woods’ Harp Center (HC), or Vanderbilt Music (V)

Master Glossary of Symbols and Special Effects for Harp, by Faith Carman (L&H, V)

Harp Scoring, by Stanley Chaloupka  (HC, L&H, V)

Writing for the Modern Harp (Q&A for a college composition class), by Lucile H. Jennings.  740-594-5520

The ABC of Harp Playing including The Use of the Harp in the Orchestra by Lucile Lawrence  (HC, L&H)

 A Harpist’s Survival Guide to Glisses, by Kathy Bundock Moore  (L&H, V)

Tuning Your Harp in Eb Major, by Ray Pool  (L&H, V)

The Harp in the Orchestra, by Beatrice Schroeder Rose  (HC)

Modern Study of the Harp, by Carlos Salzedo  (HC)

A Quick Reference Glissando Chart, by Sylvia Woods (HC)

Writing for the Pedal Harp, 2nd edition, by Ruth Inglefield and Lou Anne Neill (


British composer F L Dunkin Wedd ( has devised a simple method for keeping track of pedal positions. He calls it The Virtual Harp.


 Also:  Sibelius Notational Software.  Composer Mary Elizabeth says, “the plug-in that adds harp pedal diagrams, by Neil Sands, was for me an educational tool as well as a notational one.”


Permissions and Sources:

Drawing of five harps is from Mel Bay Publications’ Basic Harp for Beginners, by Laurie Riley, MB#95109. 
© 1994 by Mel Bay Publications, Inc. Pacific, MO 63069.  All Rights Reserved.  International Copyright Secured.

Photo of gold pedal harp courtesy of the Swanson Harp Company, with permission of Carl Swanson.

Pedal harp discs photo from, with thanks to harpist/photographer Kari Gardner.

Photo of Triplett Catalina lever harp with permission of Debbie Triplett.

Photo of lever harp with labeled parts is by Wm. Rees, Traditional Harps, used with permission.

The Chromatic Scale, Harmonized is from “Clever Levers”, Harmonic Exercises for Advanced Lever Harpists, by Ray Pool, © by Ray Pool, email, website

The Renié excerpt is from p. 51 of “The Harp” by Marcel Tournier, Henry LeMoine & Cie, editeurs, 1959.

The Notation Guide is from “The Sacred Harpist” by Marilyn Marzuki, Hinshaw Music, 1980. 

Harp video was linked to by permission of Gail Barber.



One composer took our advice to heart and wrote Harp Spectrum for the names of harpists in New York who might help him.  Here's what he had to say afterward:

This past spring, I composed a piece for orchestra. I rarely get a chance to write for such a large ensemble, and my knowledge of the harp was very limited. I turned to the Harp Spectrum for help. I found the articles to be excellent and thorough. I took the advice to contact Joyce Rice about finding a harpist in my area to review the part I was composing. Meeting with professional harpists Ray Pool and Cynthia Otis was absolutely crucial. I can't stress enough how dramatically this improved both my understanding of harp technique and my ability to maximize the instrument's potential in an orchestral setting. The Harp Spectrum and its community are valuable resources for any composer, and I am very grateful for their existence!

-Joachim Horsley
Composer & Producer, New York City
June 2005


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