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Thread: Writing for harp

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    Default Writing for harp

    I know that there are no real harpists here. But my question isn't particularly complicated and I think that it takes more general knowledge on instrumentation to answer, so don't leave this thread thinking "I don't play harp so I won't even read the question".

    My problem is that I'm afraid to write something unplayable. For harp, like for piano, you write in two lines, one for each hand. Do I have to consider pitch locations? I mean, must I learn it before I write apreggio in left hand while right is busy so the player won't be able to skip through too wide interval? How limited is non-arpeggio chord on this instrument? What restrictions so I have to bear in mind?

    Perhaps I'm just inventing unreal problems and I can write for harp just as I do for piano (just considering lesser range)?

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    Senior Member Nix's Avatar
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    Nope, harp is actually probably one of the most complicated instruments to write for, and I don't think anyone will be able to explain it to you in one post. Find a composition teacher or a harpist and learn from them- thats the easiest way. Or at the very least find an orchestration book.

    And just to give you a heads up for what yours in for, you'll have to consider: limits with intervals and speed, pedaling, how to write chromatically, writing in flat keys as opposed to sharp, and extended techniques.

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    Uhm, that sounds discouraging but thank you for this information. I planned to read about it but it suddenly turned out that I have to write piece I've planned with harp earlier and bla bla bla... we'll see. Thanks again.

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    Unlike the piano, harp music NEVER contains more than four notes in each hand. You also need to understand the mechanics of a harp - that each note (string) (across all octaves), via the pedal mechanism at the base of the harp, can be in a flat, natural or sharp position. There are only seven strings per octave - A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Each string can only be in one position at a time (eg the 'A' pedal adjusts ALL 'A's at once), so one cannot have an 'A' and an 'A-flat' played at the same time (although one can have an 'A' and a 'G-sharp').

    When writing highly chromatic music, you have to allow enough time for the pedal shifts - and remember that the harpist has 7 pedals and only 2 feet! Don't try to indicate pedalling changes in the music - harpists HATE this. A harpist will spend quite some time working-out and writing-in the necessary pedal changes themselves.

    Enharmonics can often be used to cancel unwanted notes when glissandi are required (eg E#'s to double F's, A#'s to double Bb's, etc).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Delicious Manager View Post
    Unlike the piano, harp music NEVER contains more than four notes in each hand. You also need to understand the mechanics of a harp - that each note (string) (across all octaves), via the pedal mechanism at the base of the harp, can be in a flat, natural or sharp position. There are only seven strings per octave - A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Each string can only be in one position at a time (eg the 'A' pedal adjusts ALL 'A's at once), so one cannot have an 'A' and an 'A-flat' played at the same time (although one can have an 'A' and a 'G-sharp').

    When writing highly chromatic music, you have to allow enough time for the pedal shifts - and remember that the harpist has 7 pedals and only 2 feet! Don't try to indicate pedalling changes in the music - harpists HATE this. A harpist will spend quite some time working-out and writing-in the necessary pedal changes themselves.

    Enharmonics can often be used to cancel unwanted notes when glissandi are required (eg E#'s to double F's, A#'s to double Bb's, etc).
    Many thanks for these hints. It seems complicated indeed, but considering I have to write not some great sonata but acompaniament for voice (a short songs with harp instead of piano is the concept) I may somehow manage to do it.

    What worries me the most for now, is that one of these songs as I planned them for piano begins with cluster with all pitches in one octave except cis, dis and h (c-d-e fast triolas) and four other pitches going like (f-fis, g-gis, a-ais with... uhm... white keys being like grace notes)

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    I dont think a harp could do that. A harp cant play a F and a F# at the same time, unless you write it as a Gb in which case you disable the Gnatural.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Aramis View Post
    What worries me the most for now, is that one of these songs as I planned them for piano begins with cluster with all pitches in one octave except cis, dis and h (c-d-e fast triolas) and four other pitches going like (f-fis, g-gis, a-ais with... uhm... white keys being like grace notes)
    This doesn't look feasible. As I tried to explain before, each note (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) can only be assigned ONE pitch at a time (because all are affected together by pedal positions). Also, you ONLY have those 7 strings per octave, so you are restricted as to the 'clusters' you can create.

    f - fis would have to be written (and performed) as f - g-bemol and a - ais as a - b. You could have a - b - c - d - e - f g-bemol pedalling to make this work.

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    That's the point, I wrote it for piano as "moving cluster", that is f and fis etc. are not played together but f is like grace note to fis, then g to gis and a to ais. During that time left hand repeats c-d-e and the holding sustain pedal makes it sound like cluster. But technically it's not. So the problem is - can harp player move to fis just after short f and so on while having c-d-e fast apreggios in other hand?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Aramis View Post
    can harp player move to fis just after short f and so on while having c-d-e fast apreggios in other hand?
    It depends on how fast it is. Some composers have actually used the effect of asking a harpist to strike a note and move the pedal up or down a semitone while the note is still sounding (it can be quite effective). You might consider trying having the player strike the f and pedal-up to fis in this way. Another alternative would be to use the eis as 'f'. you could then have eis, fis, g, a and b. BUT could would have to miss your gis/a-bemol because you have run out of strings.

    A harpist can pedal two notes at the same time. They might be able to pedal two adjacent notes with one foot (as long as both pedals moved from natural-sharp position) and a third with their other foot.

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    Another alternative would be to use the eis as 'f'.
    I suppose this would spoil the idea of c-d-e arpeggios.

    I've recorded the phrase on keyboard to make clear what I mean:

    http://soundcloud.com/aramistm/tryryryryr

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    Senior Member emiellucifuge's Avatar
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    it should work if you put all the pedals in natural but flatten the g as an enharmonic fis

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    Very well. I shall try to write it down on score and then eventually (after couple of days I guess) come back to this thread and show it. Thanks for all contributions so far.

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    I'm sure approximate pitches are fine, since you can't really hear a harp anyway

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    I'm currently writing a suite for harp, I keep a folder on my desktop with subfolders for each instrument with various pictures, text files, etc that help me write for specific instruments.

    for the harp, I've got a neat little chart of possible finger stretches from Walter Piston's orch book:

    fingers.........intervals possible
    t-i.................seconds, thirds, fourths
    t-m...............fifths and sixths
    t-r................sevenths to tenths

    you can't expect them to use their pinky, so yea 4 notes per hand. if you're doing mutes or harmonics be sure you know if it's possible to play them at that tempo, the best way is to ask a harpist virtuoso, otherwise you'll have to use your common sense/practical judgement to the best of your ability.

    keep in mind that you get a better sounding timbre in flat keys because the strings are at their lengthiest in the flat pedal setting. you can work around this with enharmonic spellings in sharp keys but that's headache for all involved imo. you can tune enharmonically for a stronger sonority, especially useful in the higher registers to get the loudness back. you can tune 1-2 pedals at a time on either side, the pedals on the right-foot side are:
    DCB
    on the left foot side:
    EFGA

    (Did Columbus Bring Enough Food when Going to America?)

    so you could adjust DC with your right foot, as well as EF with your left, all simultaneously. Don't expect to do this with say, DB or EG or EA or FA for instance, only when you are tuning one side at a time are such pedal changes possible because it requires both feet. the rule of thumb for proficient harpists is to allow 6 seconds to change ALL the pedals one by one, so about a half a second per pedal. gauge that with the tempo of whatever you're composing.

    unless it's a highly chromatic passage, the only pedal indication you need are at the very beginning, and if you're just using a standard key signature (G minor or A major rather than G harmonic minor or A double harmonic major for instance) you usually don't even have to do that. harpists spend a lot of time going through writing out their own personal pedalings in their part scores, just like organists will write out their own personal manual indicators.

    for harmonics, as long as the entire compass is a fifth or less, the left hand can do up to 3 at a time, the right can only ever do one because the harp rests on the harpists right shoulder so they have to use the right hand a bit differently. that assumes that we're talking about a left handed player.
    Last edited by chee_zee; Apr-18-2011 at 03:54.

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    I agree with Nix. For this a forum topic wouldn't help. Writing for harp is serious business. Google books has a few free orchestration books. Look 'em up. Most of them do have long sections on harp. It'll answer all of your questions.

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