I want to end my piece with the following orchestral harp glissando/arpeggio (not sure which term best applies), starting with Ab2 on the fourth beat, using only the first and fifth note of each octave it travels through (Ab2-Eb3-Ab3-Eb4-Ab4-Eb5-etc.) until the final Ab6. I want this final note to flow seamlessly int the thrum of the two bass staff notes (Ab2+Eb3).

My question is twofold: First, which is the correct way of notating this: a) using an arpeggio line/arrow, b) by writing the notes out in a 9:8 tuplet, or c) with a glissando line with some special marking to indicate which notes to use? (Method c) not pictured below.)

Screencap: Two harp grand staves featuring two different ways to notate an arpeggio

Second: Is this kind of glissando/arpeggio even possible to play on an orchestral harp at a tempo of 75 bpm? I’m still learning what can and cannot be done on this instrument.

Finally, if this is either impossible to play on a harp, or if it is possible but neither method pictured above is correct, how would I write this specific sort of glissando/arpeggio, keeping the same starting and ending notes and sticking only to firsts and fifths?


I’m assuming that everywhere you said A and E you actually mean Ab and Eb, right? The answer definitely isn’t c), glissando should only be used for sweeps across all strings, but there’s no pedal position that can produce exclusively 2 pitches. In fact, out of all 2,187 possible pedal combinations, the fewest distinct pitch classes possible is 4, and only 42 position are capable of that small of a pitch collection.

The difference between a) and b) is more of a musical decision than a correct notation decision. Both would create an arpeggio, but a) would be more up to the performer’s interpretation. That being said, a) would almost certainly be much quicker. In either case, I would notate the lower pitches in the bass clef staff using cross-staff stems or beaming.

This shouldn’t be problematic for an experienced harpist, large arepeggios are common for harp. Each hand can easily cover a spread of a 10th, so in this case they could easily play the first 3 notes in one hand and the next 3 in the other. While the second group of 3 are being played they would simply move their first hand up to play the top 3 pitches.

  • Thanks for all the info, it’s much appreciated. I wasn’t sure whether to mention the accidentals in the note names – I’d seen similar examples where they weren’t included – but I’ll go and edit the OP. I went ahead and switched the arpeggio (b)) to use cross-staff beaming. – Walter Apr 27 '18 at 11:25

According to Piston (Orchestration) & Blatter (Instrumentation and Orchestration), the default manner of playing a chord for orchestral harp arpeggiated and any annotation to the chord changes the speed of the arpeggiation: the arpeggio line denoting a longer, exaggerated arpeggiation, while a square bracket denotes no arpeggiation.

So without any annotations to the chord, it would be arpeggiated. Your options a) & b) would probably end up being interpreted in the same manner by the harpist, although your 9-let does explicitly set out taking up the whole beat, whereas the arpeggio line is left for the player to interpret. Note that all of the chords in the left hand would be arpeggiated by default, unless you bracket the notes or specify that the line is to be played non-arpeggiated (e.g. non arpeggiando).

Pat's point about the reach of a harpists hand is well made & yes, harpists would probably break up the chord you have written in the manner described in Pat's answer.

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