My article ‘Medieval Gaelic harp setup’ is published in the current volume of Early Music Performer. (no. 40, Spring 2017, p.16-25)
In discussion with Siobhán Armstrong the other day, she challenged me to set out my ideas on how we can use modes to categorise or understand the old Gaelic harp music. Here is the scheme that I think I have been gradually bringing together for a while.
Last night one of my gold strings popped. It was the f below na comhluighe, one of the original strings I put on the harp when it was brand new in 2007, half-hard 18 carat gold from Blundells in London.
Seeing as one of the higher gold strings had gone, I have taken the chance to redo the stringing and tuning. I took off the two gold strings above the one that went, and replaced all three with silver (the upper na comhluighe with one of my own dust-strings). And I tuned the harp to a new pitch standard of approximately A495/370.
The past week or two have continued the making things theme. I have done a series of tuning keys as test-runs; I have made a page advertising them which I will send out for my 1st May Emporium Update.
I also have made the set of pins for my HHSI Student Downhill harp, and today while it was here with my student who has it, I fitted the pins – pulling each of the old steel pins out in turn and then replacing it with a new brass pin. I had to shim all of the brass pins because for some reason they are marginally smaller than the steel pins, and I used thin brass sheet to make the shims. Plenty of the antique Gaelic harps have brass shims in their pin holes and I find it works well.
We instantly noticed how much better the harp worked to tune, with the new pins – the key fits much more snugly on the new pins with their tapering drives, giving a much more positive touch to the tuning. And the new pins look rather good with their decorated drives. I am very pleased with the result.
I have always thought that handmade pins with tapering drives work so much better than machine made steel pins with parallel drives, but inertia has meant I have not bothered doing anything about it until now. Hardly anyone has handmade pins on their harps, even top players with quality decorated instruments. I can only think of 3 or 4 off the top of my head.
I am going to make a few more pins and then I think I will make a page advertising them for sale for the 1st June update! I think that this would make a fantastic upgrade to anyone’s harp, to replace the pins!
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!
I restrung my tiny Anglo-Saxon “Winchcombe” harp. Because it is so small, its pitch is rather high – middle c as the lowest note.
This led me to think, a miniature harp has two possible different roles. Of course, a miniature harp like this can be used as a musical instrument in its own right, and many musicians and indeed harpmakers have this intent for their mini instruments. If you are less interested in the historical harp traditions and want to work on contemporary or traditional music then that is fine.
On the other hand, a mini harp is cheaper than a full size one, and so a student of the old Irish and Scottish harp traditions may well consider that a mini harp such as an Ardival Kilcoy is a lot more affordable than a full size instrument such as a HHSI Student Queen Mary.
Personally I think that a Queen Mary design instrument is quite manageable even by an 8 year old child – it is not too big. I have tended to dissuade people from purchasing the miniature designs for studying the old Gaelic harp curriculum partly because of ergonomic issues – a miniature harp has a number of posture and touch differences from a full size instrument. But the main reason to avoid a miniature design is because they simply lack the important bass range. In the first lesson, we start by finding the sister strings (na comhluighe) and placing our hands on the strings above and below them. This can instantly cause problems if your instrument has one of the sister strings as its very lowest note!
If you are determined to use a miniature harp for studying the old Irish and Scottish harp traditions, I wonder about the possibility of thinking about it as sounding an octave high in pitch – a 4-foot or ottavino harp if you like. This will of course make everything very squeaky and shrill sounding, though that is pretty much inevitable anyway on a tiny harp with no bass.
For example, a 19 string Kilcoy design might be tuned as follows:
16 middle c’
Simply by turning strings 1 to 11 down one note. No need to change any of the strings. Now this is enough notes to play Burns March and all its variations. Accept that it sounds squeaky, as a 4-foot or ottavino instrument is meant to, and you should do fine! You will also be able to fit in with a class of people playing full-size instruments no problem, you will just sound everything an octave higher than them.
If anyone tries this on a miniature harp, let me know.
Discussing what is a suitable extra-small harp for a child (extra-small for both ergonomics of a child’s size, and also to make it cheaper to purchase), the question of the range of the instrument came up.
I think that the medieval gamut, from bass G up to treble e, is an important factor in thinking about the old music. It makes little sense to me to cut off the bass of the gamut only to add in extra treble strings above this, yet this is what many modern harp makers do.
The gamut (including the doubled sister strings) takes 21 strings (centre chart). If you need less than this, then cutting off the bottom as well as the top makes sense. To play Burns March, one of the key beginner tunes, in the usual position, requires from bass c up to treble a, 14 strings including the sisters. Add two more in the treble to get 16 covering 2 octaves (left hand chart).
I would set up a replica of one of the extant medieval Irish and Scottish harps as shown in the right hand chart. The extant continental medieval harps tend to have 26 strings, i.e. 3 less in the treble.
There’s more technical discussion about historical range and gamut on my other site