Berklee Today

Writing for the Harp

By Associate Professor Felice Pomeranz

  Felice Pomeranz
  Felice Pomeranz is the owner and coordinator of the Gilded Harps, a harpist's network. Visit
  Farnsworth Blalock photos

When the String Department at Berklee added harp as a principal instrument in January 2002, many composers were eager to try their hand at writing for this ethereal but complex instrument. With its seven-octave range and many colorful timbral possibilities, the harp can enhance any composition. It has been a thrill to witness the enthusiasm with which the harp has been embraced at the college. What follows are some guidelines that I hope will encourage more composers to write for the instrument.

Similarities and Differences

The harp has a range similar to that of the piano and is played with the melody primarily in the right hand and accompaniment in the left hand. The harp differs significantly from the piano in that sharps and flats are produced with the harp's seven pedals. The left foot moves the first three pedals affecting the notes D, C, and B, and the right foot manipulates four pedals affecting the notes E, F, G, and A.

Each of the pedals has three positions, and whenever a pedal is moved, the pitches of all strings corresponding to that note are changed. When a pedal is in the uppermost position (the flat position), all the strings that a given pedal affects will be flatted. For instance, when the A pedal is in the uppermost position, all of the A notes on the instrument will sound as Ab. With the pedal in the middle position (the natural position), A naturals are produced. When it is in the lower, all A notes are sharped.

Common mistakes that composers make occur when notating the accidentals in highly chromatic music. Let's say an unusual chord voicing contains both a Gb and a G natural. Harpists can play a flatted note and a natural note at the same time by thinking of the flatted (or sharped) note enharmonically. The Gb, therfore, would be written as an F#. Things become complicated if an F natural should be desired in the same chord. In that case, the F natural could be written as an E# . Hence, to produce a voicing with F, Gb, and G natural would require moving three pedals. The E and F pedals would be placed in the lower or sharp position, and the G pedal would be in the middle or natural position. It should also be noted that harps never read double flats or double sharps. The enharmonic equivalents of such notes must be written instead.

Pedals on opposite sides of the instrument can be easily moved simultaneously. For example, playing an Ab to A natural and Db to D natural is easily accomplished by moves of the right foot and the left foot together. It is more difficult to move three pedals at once or two pedals on the same side of the instrument, let's say the F and G which are both on the right side. Several pedals can be moved at slower tempos. For faster tempos, writing a beat of rest for the harpist will help the setup for chromatic passages. In most cases, a composer should not indicate pedal changes. No two harpists think exactly alike, and most prefer to put in their own pedal changes.

Musical Examples

When writing for the harp in popular and jazz styles, chromatic passages can be challenging because of the many pedal changes required to move from one key or chord change to another a half step away (see "The Girl From Ipanema" example 1). In the bridge, the shift from the Gb major chord to B7 is done easily by playing the B7 as Cb7. However, accommodating the sharps of the F# -7 and D7 chords that follow requires some fancy footwork!

Pop songs that modulate up a half step, such as those by Stevie Wonder (e.g., "You Are the Sunshine of My Life") are challenging because all seven pedals must be rearranged to move from C major to Db major. Be aware of the number of pedal changes needed to modulate to other tonal centers. To modulate by a perfect fifth or fourth: one pedal change, major second: two, a minor third up: three, a major third: four, a half step down: five, and tri tone: six, a half step up: seven.

Like a pianist, a harpist can play chords with both hands, but harpists use only four notes per hand. The span of the chord in each hand should not exceed an octave and a fourth. Note that large chords in succession are difficult to play rapidly. A composer or arranger may also indicate how the notes of a chord should be played: arpeggiated (broken) or plucked simultaneously. An arpeggiated chord can be played from bottom to top or top to bottom, as the composer wishes (see example 2). If no indication is given, the harpist will generally play each chord with a slight arpeggiation. Keep in mind that fast melodic arpeggios in the upper register sound terrific on the harp (see example 3), but fast accompaniment arpeggios and repeated figures in the left hand in the low register will sound muddy and inarticulate (see example 4).

Idiomatic Sounds

One of the most beautiful and idiomatic sounds that the harp produces is the glissando. It's played by rapidly sliding over a succession of adjacent strings with one or more fingers and can be executed with the left, right, or both hands. Glissandi can be played ascending or descending and can be written in parallel or contrary motion. They can be played as diatonic or enharmonic glissandos. A diatonic glissando is played using all the notes of the scale of the key you are in. An enharmonic glissando will suggest a particular chord ( a G7 for example). Popular pieces scored for large ensembles often use an enharmonic glissando at the ends of phrases (see example 5). The writer should always indicate the notes or harmony wanted in the glissando. Since it is not possible to pluck specific strings in a glissando, doubling notes with their enharmonic equivalents eliminates unwanted tones such as the fourth and sixth degrees in the chord scale of the G7, as shown in example 6. In addition to indicating the notes you want in a glissando, you may also provide pedal diagrams at the beginnings of phrases.

Harmonics on the harp have a pure, bell-like quality, and are indicated by placing a small circle directly above the notes to be played as harmonics. The harmonic sounds one octave above the written note. As many as three notes in close range can be played by the left hand and one note in the right hand. See example 7 for the practical written range of harmonics.

The harp is a versatile instrument that works well in both classical and popular music. Listening to the music of Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss will provide a sense of the harp's palette of sonic and expressive capabilities. Don't be put off because of the seeming complexity. With a little preliminary study and perhaps some consultation with a harpist, you too can write effectively for the harp. The harp's pure tone adds an aural texture unlike any other instrument whether, it's playing solo, with voice, or with other instruments. Put the harp on your menu of musical possibilities.

"The Girl from Ipanema" chord progression with harp pedal diagrams

Chords arpeggiated upward (note downward-facing arrowhead)

Upper-register right-hand arpeggios work well

Poor left-hand accompaniment choices

Repeated chords B. Low-register arpeggios

Diatonic and enharmonic glissandi (Harp excerpt from "Sarah" written by Donna McElroy, arranged by Richard Evans. Used with permission.)

Pedaling diagram for enharmonic glissando on a G7 chord

Practical range for harmonics Range for double left-hand harmonics