April 25, 2023
Blog by Thomas Lack
A beautiful and enchanting collection of 4 harps all played together, this is a truly inspiring library to play in Soundpaint! Following the tradition of the Marimba Ensemble, the Glockenspiel Ensemble, the Piano Ensemble, and the Cimbalom Ensemble, the Harp Ensemble transforms the sound of a single instrument into something truly magical, beautiful, and broad. You won’t want to miss this one!
The harp is one of the most recognizable instruments there is, and various forms of harps have been around for ages - over five millennia! Ancient Harps and lyres (a small, handheld harp with fewer strings) have been found all over the world in different forms, and it has gone through tons of iterations and offshoots. The modern concert harp is a very capable instrument; it is much more complex than meets the eye.
If you have only ever experienced harp as a sampled instrument, there are some interesting facets of the instrument you may have never encountered. If you find yourself writing for a live or studio harp player for the first time, there are some special considerations to make. Luckily, we do not have to worry about this in Soundpaint! But for a seemingly simple instrument, it might be fun to know what the players have to go through.
Live Harp: Challenges and Considerations
This may seem obvious, but the harp only has 7 strings per octave. A keyboard or piano has 12 keys per octave, so we can play any note without having to adjust the instrument itself. But, since the harp essentially only has the white keys, you have to sacrifice a note to get one of the black keys. If you need to play an F#, you can change the F to F# or the G to Gb; either way, you now cannot play one of those notes.
Some harps (aptly named “lever harps”) have levers at the top of every string - these can be used to make an individual string slightly longer or shorter (flat or sharp). For orchestral music, a pedal harp is much more common. Pedal harps have 7 pedals along the foot of the instrument. When these pedals are moved up or down, they make every string of the same note flat or sharp. For instance, if you move the innermost pedal on the left side up, every B will become a Bb. This is great, as it allows players to change keys or pitches without adjusting every string separately; and since the pedals are moved with the feet, the hands can continue to play.
While changing pitches this way is pretty fast, remember that it is not instantaneous, and moving a pedal can be noisy if it is done very quickly. It is also pretty difficult to change multiple pitches at the same time, and the left and right feet control different pitches. From the inside out, the left foot controls B, C, and D, while the right controls E, F, G, and A.
So, how is the pedaling communicated to harpists? Pedal diagrams! A simple figure in sheet music with 7 lines - one for each pitch - indicating which position the pedals should be. Up is flat, middle is natural, and down is sharp, same as on the harp itself! If you are creating sheet music for a harpist, creating harp diagrams is a good idea (although, the player may cross them out and write their own…). Even if you are not creating the sheet music, it is still important to make sure the harp part is playable if it will be played by a live musician.
Speaking of live musicians, remember that their arms are only so long. A harpist will lean the instrument near their right shoulder. This means they can much more easily reach the lower strings with their left hand, while their right hand has to wrap around the instrument a bit and cannot reach as far. So, it reads similar to the piano on a grand staff (left on bottom, right on top), but it might be less realistic for both hands to play in the lowest register.
Harps have a lot of pedals, but none of them do what the sustain pedal on piano does. The strings can ring out for a pretty long time, so the player may need to dampen the strings by hand. They also may need to glance at the strings every so often to orient themselves correctly. On a piano, you know every C is left of 2 black keys, and you can feel the difference between the keys. On a harp, the C and F strings are colored differently, allowing players to find the corect strings faster.
There are also some common techniques that are a bit more complicated than they seem in sample land. Harmonics are a favorite of modern composers, and for good reason! They sound magic, plain and simple. And while you can play as many harmonics as you want in Soundpaint, you can really only play one at a time on a live harp. Harmonics are played by lightly dampening the string at the harmonic node - halfway up the string. To do this with one hand, players will use their palm (typically near the wrist or the base of the thumb) to dampen the string at the node, then pluck the string with their thumb and release their hand at the same time, allowing the string to resonate. As the strings get shorter for higher notes, they may instead use their index or middle finger to dampen the node.
Anyway, all of this is to say that writing for a harp is more complicated than it seems on first blush. And even though we do not have to worry about any of this in Soundpaint, I think knowing a bit more about the instruments can enrich your experience and make you appreciate the instrument and musicians that much more.