I would like to know more about scoring for the harp. I don't really intend to attempt to write music for the harp but I would like to improve my understanding and appreciation. I am considering western classical music and the modern pedal harp.

So, the instrument is tuned to a C♭ scale but there are 7 pedals which can be used to raise a set of strings (e.g. all Fs) by one or two semitones. (I am aware that a few extreme strings might not be affected but this is unimportant to this question.) So, it is clearly possible to set the instrument to play in any major scale.

Now here are the questions, all to do with how often I could reasonably expect the player to change the pedal settings.

  1. I presume that it would be reasonable to require a change between movements. E.g. the first movement is in C but the second is in G and the Fs must be sharpened between the movements.

  2. How about within a movement? Suppose that the movement modulates from C to G, can I expect a change between bars even if there is no rest?

  3. In 1 and 2, do I need an instruction to change the pedals or would the key signature be sufficient?

  4. Within a bar? Suppose that I want 4 F♮ quavers, followed by 4 F♯ quavers and a G. Is that possible? If the last F♮ is still resonating when the pedal is changed, will the note bend or stop prematurely? If I don't want that effect, could I expect the player to sharpen both the E and F strings for that bar and play the F♮s on the E string? They would need to return the E to ♮ in the following bar.

  5. How about minor keys? Obviously we can set the instrument to the key signature of A minor but I will often want F and G to be sharpened. For example, could I request a rising glissando with F♯ and G♯ followed immediately by a descending glissando with F♮ and G♮?

  • Most of the questions seems to come from missing distinction between full concert (pedal ) harp and the much more affordable lever harp (which therefore may be much easier to find). For the lever harp I assume that only question 1 can be answered with yes (but key signature should be sufficient from question 3).
    – guidot
    Nov 4, 2017 at 22:08
  • @guidot Thanks. I was unaware of that distinction. I am considering harps in symphony orchestras e.g. the CBSO which was I was watching when this question occurred to me.
    – badjohn
    Nov 4, 2017 at 22:16

4 Answers 4


You can change the tuning without any break at all, so long as you are not playing a string at the same time as you change it. Since the pedals are operated by both feet, you can change the tuning of some combinations of two strings simultaneously.

In the harp part, tuning may shown by diagrams showing the position of the pedals, or not shown at all if it is "obvious". It is not usually shown at all in the full score, since the conductor doesn't need to know about it.

You can't "instantly" change F# and G# into F and G naturals to get a melodic minor scale.

Harp notation can look a bit strange, because you can't use double flats or double sharps in extreme keys either. And for a diminished-7th glissando (overused in a certain style of film music IMO!) you would set the tuning to C D# Eb F# Gb A B# with pairs strings at identical pitch - for a glissando you need to "sweep" all the strings.

Harp music may look superficially like piano music, but there are significant technical differences - the biggest one being that only four digits are used on each hand not five - the pinky finger is not used for playing notes on the harp.

In the early 20th century a few fully chromatic orchestral-style harps were built, and a few composers (e.g. Debussy) wrote for them, but the concept never caught on and replaced the diatonic harp with pedals. Actually this wasn't a new invention - the traditional Welsh harp has always been fully chromatic.

A good starting point for harp information in general is http://www.harpspectrum.org.

  • Thanks. I had expected that you could not change a string that is being played and presumably I need to consider how long it may resonate. So, I could not expect a complete chromatic scale but is my little sample reasonable: F♮, F♯, G by sharpening the E and F strings? I am guessing that the pedals are not restricted to being set to standard keys.
    – badjohn
    Nov 3, 2017 at 14:51
  • For my ascending and descending melodic minor glissandi, it seems that I would need a pause between them to allow the strings to stop resonating so that the pedals can be reset for the descending glissando.
    – badjohn
    Nov 3, 2017 at 14:58
  • E# F# G is no problem of course. But the pedal harp is basically a diatonic instrument - it's not really suited to chromatic passages. That's one reason why the chromatic harp was (re)invented, at about the same time as 12-tone music. You can damp the strings with the palm of your hand.
    – user19146
    Nov 3, 2017 at 21:24

I've never played the harp, but apparently it's ok to expect a harpist to change keys in only a short break. Holst's Planets (Neptune, the Mystic, bars 43-44) has this:

V:H     name="Harp 1"    clef=treble
z8  (7 ^f,^g,a,^c^f^ga (7 ^c'agfca,g, (7 f,g,a,cfga (7 c'agfca,g, (7 f,g,a,cfga (7 c'agfca,g, (7 f,g,a,cfga (7 c'agfca,g, |
z8  (7 _b,cdf_bc'd' (7f'd'c'bfdc (7 b,cdfbc'd' (7f'd'c'bfdc (7 b,cdfbc'd' (7f'd'c'bfdc (7 b,cdfbc'd' (7f'd'c'bfdc

It's not as bad as it looks – in fact, only C♯→C♮ and F♯→F♮ need to be lowered in the quarter rest, but that at least is evidently doable.

Yes, what keys need to be changed when is generally written in the score, though I suppose you could usually expect the player to figure that out without explicit instruction, at least in simple keys where enharmonics are out of the question.

  • Thanks. That one example answers many of my questions. I have a number of miniature scores but none have any harp parts. The question occurred to me while watching the harp during a concert the other day.
    – badjohn
    Nov 3, 2017 at 13:11
  • I just looked at how you entered that sample; it is not an image but some form of mark up language. Can you point me to some documentation? I post more often in maths where we use a system called MathJax for presenting formulae nicely.
    – badjohn
    Nov 3, 2017 at 13:13
  • There is a typo in the music example - you can't play A natural and A# in the same fast passage. And for your comment on the pedal changes, for a harpist A# and Bb are different notes, played on different strings. In the score you should always write the one that you mean, not assume the player is smart enough to "transpose" the note to another string.
    – user19146
    Nov 3, 2017 at 21:32

Do yourself and your harpist a favor and pick up a little booklet called Harp Scoring by Stanley Chaloupka. In it you will find pedaling rules and tips and lots of examples. Good luck, and thank you for scoring for harp! https://www.amazon.com/Harp-Scoring-Stanley-Chaloupka/dp/B0006DY21E

  • Thanks. However, as I said, I am not seriously intending to write harp music. I just want to understand and appreciate it better.
    – badjohn
    Nov 8, 2017 at 10:11

Just to add to leftaroundabout's answer - I've always wondered how quickly (and quietly) the harpist can change these pedals on short notice. Notice the 2nd measure of this passage:

enter image description here Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 10, 1st Mvmt. Reh. 26 + 3


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