Orchestration and Arranging Wiki
A harp
String Instrument
Other Names Pedal Harp
Range B-1 - A♭7
Clefs Treble, Bass
Transposition Sounds as Written

The harp is a multi-stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicularly to the soundboard. Organologically, it is in the general category of chordophones (stringed instruments) and has its own sub category (the harps). All harps have a neck, resonator and strings. Some, known as frame harps, also have a pillar; those without the pillar are referred to as open harps. Depending on its size, which varies, a harp may be played while held in the lap or while it stands on a table, or on the floor. Harp strings may be made of nylon, gut, wire or silk. On smaller harps, like the folk harp, the core string material will typically be the same for all strings on a given harp. Larger instruments like the modern concert harp mix string materials to attain their extended ranges. A person who plays the harp is called a harpist or harper. Folk musicians often use the term "harper", whereas classical musicians use "harpist".

Pitch Range[]

The concert harp is large and technically modern, designed for classical music and played solo, as part of chamber ensembles, and in symphony orchestras as well as in popular commercial music. It typically has six and a half octaves (47 strings), weighs about 80 pounds (36 kg; 5.7 st), is approximately 1.85 metres (6 ft 1 in) high, has a depth of 1 metre (3 ft 3 in), and is 55 centimetres (22 in) wide at the bass end of the soundboard. The notes range from three octaves below middle C♭ to three and a half octaves above, usually ending on G♯. Using octave designations, the range is C♭1 to G♯7. At least one manufacturer gives the harp a 48th string, a high A. The concert harp is a pedal harp. Pedal harps use the mechanical action of pedals to change the pitches of the strings. There are seven pedals, each affecting the tuning of all strings of one pitch-class, and each pedal is attached to a rod or cable within the column of the harp, which then connects with a mechanism within the neck. When a pedal is moved with the foot, small discs at the top of the harp rotate. The discs are studded with two pegs that pinch the string as they turn, shortening the vibrating length of the string. The pedal has three positions. In the top position no pegs are in contact with the string and all notes are flat; thus the harp's native tuning is to the scale of C-flat major. In the middle position the top wheel pinches the string, resulting in a natural, giving the scale of C major if all pedals are set in the middle position. In the bottom position another wheel is turned, shortening the string again to create a sharp, giving the scale of C-sharp major if all pedals are set in the bottom position. Many other scales, both diatonic and synthetic, can be obtained by adjusting the pedals differently from each other; also, many chords in traditional harmony can be obtained by adjusting pedals so that some notes are enharmonic equivalents of others, and this is central to harp technique. In each position the pedal can be secured in a notch so that the foot does not have to keep holding it in the correct position. This mechanism is called the double-action pedal system, probably invented by Sébastien Érard in 1810. Earlier pedal harps had a single-action mechanism that allowed strings to play sharpened notes.


The Harp's chromatic mechanism

The harp is tuned diatonically on a C-flat major scale, which maintained by the use of the pedal mechanism at C Major. Thus each note can be raised or lowered chromatically, although rapid changes and chromatic melodic lines are sometimes impractical.

Timbre & Tone[]

The plucked sound of the harp varies across the range of the instrument, with the lower notes quite dark and growly, the middle register fairly sweet and mellow, and a tightness and lightness in the top notes.


Harps can be muted by the players hands, or by the addition of padding in the resonating cavity, but no comprehensive system of muting (such as the bridge mute used on other string instruments) due to the scale of the instrument.



Harmonics are a possibility on the harp, as they are on all string instruments. Harmonics are most resonant within the register of the grand staff; harmonics sounding an octave above a given pitch are the most common. Only one hand is required to play a harmonic. The left hand is capable of playing up to three harmonics simultaneously; spacing should not exceed a triad. Harmonics are notated with a circle above the pitch, the number of circles should be equivalent to the number of harmonics desired. The written pitch should represent the string played; it will then sound an octave higher.


On the harp, the trill is very different from say, a violin. Instead of alternating between two different notes a semitone apart, a harp trill is two strings, playing the same repeated note, over and over in quick succession. The result is that this kind of trill is much more resonant.


Bisbigliando ("whispering" in Italian) is a tremolando (rapidly repeated notes, not in time) on a whole chord. Because of the pedals on a harp, sometimes the enharmonic equivalents of notes need to be written, to make a bisbigliando chord work. Bisbigliando is written as chuchotant in French and flüsternd in German and murmurando in Spanish.


Glissandi are among the most characteristic effects on the harp. Enharmonics can be used to expand the options for glissandi beyond diatonic scales. In addition to single glisses, multiple glisses are possible. For these, more than one finger on each hand is employed whether ascending or descending. A few points for the composer to consider when writing glissandi:

  • If specific starting and ending pitches are desired, these should be notated.
  • If specific starting and ending pitches are not desired, the general range of the glissando should be shown.
  • The setting for the pedals should be given, either with a pedal diagram or with the first seven pitches of the glissando notated.

Prés de la table[]

Prés de la table is a technique which gives quite a distinctive, metallic, guitar-like tone. It is created by playing near the soundboard. This is most effective in the middle register of the harp (within the grand staff), as there is very little discernible color change when used in the high or low registers of the harp. The position of the notation is important. Above the staff signifies right hand only, below the staff signifies left hand only, and between the staves signifies both hands.

Extended Techniques[]

Possible techniques include:

  • Tapping on the soundboard. The harpist can tap with either hand, using both fingers and fingernails. It is also possible to knock with the knuckles or slap with an open hand. The composer should notate the rhythm and be clear about what part of the hand should be used to produce the sound.
  • Thunder is produced by using the open hand to strike the strings and immediately moving away to let the sound resonate. It is most effective in the lowest register on the wire strings and it is important to note that only the left hand is capable of playing in this register.
  • Pedal Slides are achieved by moving a pedal immediately after playing a string. When the string is still vibrating, the half-step change is audible. This effect does not work well in the high registers of the harp. The second pitch is limited in volume by the natural decay of the sound.