Notations: The Blog of Composer Malcolm Caluori

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Stuff You Never Knew About Music: Harp Pedals

Competant orchestration comes with many joys. I simply love the fine details marked in a score that indicate things that people just wouldn't even think about! This is what "Stuff You Never Knew About Music" is all about.

We've all seen a harpist's fingers dancing impressively across the innumerable strings of their instrument. But how many of you have ever noticed that their feet are also playing around on several pedals at the base of the harp? Pedals? Yes. Like bass notes on an organ? No.

Although there is such a thing as a "chromatic harp", the instrument that we will typically see, and the one standard in the orchestra, is called a "double action harp", so called because of its tuning and pedal mechanism. A chromatic harp, one which would would have a separate string for each chromatic note - every note on the piano, black and white keys - would have LOTS of strings, and would make playing certain types of figurations that we have come to expect from a "harp" impractical if not impossible.

A double action harp doesn't have a string for every note. Surprised? How do they play then, and what strings DO they have? Well, Consider your basic C major scale that everyone can play on the piano. If your harp strings were like that, then it would make lots of things easier, scales, runs, simple common chord formations, etc. But if your harp is tuned like a scale, then it's only good in the key of that scale. There is an even bigger price to pay for this: Accidentals.

The note A and the note B are one step apart, right? But there is another note in between them, a "half-step" up or down from each. This note can be called either A# (A Sharp) or Bb (B Flat), depending on the context of the notated harmony. But either way, it's the same pitch to our ear. When we want to use notes that aren't a part of the key we're in, but our harp is tuned to the scale of the key, those extra notes, those "accidentals" aren't on our harp. Enter the double action harp's pedal mechanism.

Dsharppedal.jpgA major scale has eight notes, that is, seven distinct pitches and then a duplicate of the first at the end, an octave apart. Any of these seven pitches can have a "sharp" version, a "natural" version and a "flat" version, right? Well, there are seven pedals. Each controls one of the seven pitches - one for all the A's on the harp, one for all the B's on the harp, etc. And each pedal can be adjusted into one of three grooves - a flat groove, a natural groove, and a sharp groove. Pressing a pedal all the way down into the bottom groove tightens the strings associated with that pedal, making them "sharp" notes. Springing the pedal loose and letting it rise to its highest position loosens the strings associated with that pedal, making those strings - those notes - all "flat" in their tuning. The middle groove is for "natural" pitches.

So, any key signiture will clearly show a harpist which notes need to be sharp or flat, and which need to be natural. And that harpist can easily set their pedals ahead of playing, and voila! they can play in any key, not just the one key that their harp is tuned to (which, incidentally, is C flat major, all pedals up).

But again, what if you want to play those in between notes that aren't in the plain old scale? In order to get these notes, the harpist must change the pedals as needed WHILE they are playing. There is a limit to how many pedals can be changed at once, and to how quickly changes can be made. While a good orchestrator should know and understand the mechanics of any instrument that he/she writes for, the harp - because of its pedals - has been a burden to avoid for many, and a fascinating game for others. But the harp must be written for idiomatically; it is NOT a piano without keys. It's design lends itself to a particular type of writing. Intricate and tricky virtuoso harp pedling doesn't necessarily make the music SOUND any more virtuosic, and the great trouble that the performer goes to in such shifty, chromatic music is often lost on the listener entirely.

Never-the-less, harpists have an intimate relationship with their pedals, and will carefully mark their music with pedal markings - which pedal(s) to change and WHEN, according to their own way of pedling. So even if an orchestrator doesn't write pedal markings at all, leaving it to the harpist, they still need to understand what they're asking for from the performer, and if it's reasonable. I write pedal markings, because it makes me sure that I'm paying attention to what I'm asking, and it makes me more fluent in my understanding, through exercise. The harpist can still make markings of their own - they will anyhow - and I'm not offended.

5:58 am edt          Comments

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