Category Archives: research

Just intonation

I have been interested in just intonation as a way of tuning the harp since 2009 I think. Recently I was chatting about this and I was asked, is there a simple instructions or directions about how to tune the harp just?

It is not possible to have every interval on an instrument like a harp perfectly in tune. As soon as you make some intervals perfect, others become sour or dull. There are various solutions to this, and I wrote in 2009 describing some of the possible tunings for early Gaelic harp. Equal temperament is the modern scientific solution, making every interval a little bit equally out of tune. Historical systems that are usually used include Pythagorean tuning, which makes all the 5ths and 4ths pure but leaving the 3rds very rough, or Meantone which makes all of the major 3rds pure, leaving the minor 3rds and the 4ths and the 5ths sour. Just tunings on the other hand make different intervals of the same “class” different sizes, so some 4ths, 5ths, minor 3rds and major 3rds are pure, whilst others are out.

Just tunings are the most obvious solution for a diatonic instrument, because you can maximise the amount of consonance without having to take account of all the sharps and flats and key changes that you find in a chromatic instrument.

I have made up three instruction / demonstration sheets which show three possible just tunings that you can try on the harp. The first is pretty much the way I have been doing things, deliberately since 2009 and “accidentally” for somewhat longer I think. This one is pretty easy to tune on the harp, as the 5ths are all pure except the 3rd one in the sequence from a up to e, and if you listen to the sympathetic hum of the harp it is not hard to sound this 5th and tune it narrow so the e sounds pure against the sympathetic g drone of na comhluighe.

The third one is based on Highland bagpipe scales presented by Seamus MacNeill and also by Barnaby Brown. It is tuned exactly the same as the one above except that when you start the cycle of 4ths you push the c wide to make it sound wild and scary, just like on the pipes.

The middle one is a kind of half-way house I have made up. I think it’s harder to tune because your narrow 5th is the second in the sequence, d up to a. The a is not speaking so clearly against the sympathetic drone of the harp, so even though this tuning has more consonances than the other two I don’t think I will end up using it. But it’s in there as an option to think about. You’ll notice that it is a transposed version of the first: scale 2 with f natural is the same as scale 1 with f#.

The circles showing the consonant intervals are also useful if you want to think about the properties of different modes. You might think that the pentatonic scales c-d-e-g-a and g-a-b-d-e and f-g-a-c-d would all sound the same, but a glance at the chart will show that this is not the case at all!

Click on the picture to get all 3 charts as a PDF

strange brass rod

In the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, there is a little wooden box containing three brass or bronze tapered pins. The left and right hand ones are tuning-pins for early Irish harps, but the middle one is a mystery to me. It is labelled and described as a harp tuning pin but this is clearly rubbish – its tapered shaft is hexagonal and its wide end is in the form of a female bust with stubby crossed arms and bare breasts.

I really can’t think what this thing is!

I have looked at it on and off for about 10 years; I kept asking Hèléne La Rue if we could get it out and look at it but we never got round to it. But here’s my recent photo.

Harp string labels

Recently I wrote a new page on, about possible inscriptions on the Queen Mary harp. As part of this I reviewed my photographs of the labels glued on the harp labelling some of the strings, and then I had the idea of photoshopping and cleaning up the photos, scaling them, printing them out and glueing them onto my replica in the appropriate positions.

For those of you with a Queen Mary replica who want to join in the fun, here is the image I ended up with. Print it out at 486dpi onto good old fashioned white or off-white laid paper, cut out along the black edges, and stick on using flour and water paste. The numbers go on the right hand side* of the string band (so they are visible for a left orientation player), and they are upside-down when the harp is in playing position, so the player can read the letters. They go in order, counting from the treble: 1 [illegible], 8 [c], 9 [b], 11 [G], 15 [C], 22 [C].

Any problems or questions let me know! If you send in a photo of your harp with the labels stuck on, I will feature it here!

*Right and left hand side of the harp are described as from the viewpoint of the player, not of an onlooker