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Advice needed on tuning please

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  • #112340
    lyn-boundy
    Participant

    Having played for a little over a year I now know this isn’t just a flash in the pan and made the decision to spend an inheritance on a new harp (a bit sooner than I’d have planned but I was afraid if I didn’t do it the money would just end up getting spent on something else). Anyway, that means I am now in the very fortunate position of having a 34 string Clarsach made to my own design and requirements. It should only be a few more weeks now until the ‘birth’ and there are still a few things I’m not sure of. Don’t get me wrong here, both the luthier and my teacher are endlessly helpful and knowledgeable but I’m still wobbly on one thing in particular and hope someone might be able to help explain.

    I currently play a Sharpsicle which is tuned to C, with 26 strings and sharping levers on C and F and my new harp will have full levers. I always assumed that any instrument that had all the same notes as a piano could be played in any key and that it made the most sense to have the instrument tuned to C and use the levers to change keys. Lately though, several people have talked about their Clarsachs being tuned to E flat because this gives a better range of ‘flat’ keys that can be played in. I’m off to visit the maker tomorrow and he’s going to try to explain this properly with a demonstration but I thought I would ask here too. Surely, by having the full range of notes – C, C#, D, D# etc right the way up I can play anything in any key, can’t I?

    I’m especially confused about the idea of having a different range of flats and sharps because whether you call a note C# or D flat it’s still the same note. Isn’t it? And doesn’t being tuned to C make it easier to play along with other instruments or are most other instruments not tuned that way? I know my music theory is very shaky but I suddenly feel incredibly thick.

    Just one other point of interest – for veggie reasons, I have decided to go for carbon fibre strings instead of gut. I have never played with these myself but I’ve had excellent recommendations from those who have and yet I can’t find any comments whatsoever about them on the internet. I know it’s not long now until I find out myself but I’d still love to hear if anyone has any experience of playing and caring for these strings and if there is anything important I should know. Thank you everyone who has been so patient already with all my queries!

    #112341
    Angela Biggs
    Member

    Hi Lyn,

    Congratulations on your new harp! I hope you’ll post a picture when it arrives!

    Your last question: No matter what key you’re using in at the time, your instrument is a “C” instrument. If you pluck a C string on your harp without the lever engaged, it sounds as a C. Instruments that are “F” instruments, or “Bb” instruments play a C where it is written and actually create an “F” or “Bb” pitch. I believe (someone correct me if I’m wrong, please!) that this only happens with wind/brass/reed instruments.

    Your second question: Db and C# are the same pitch on a harp (though I’ve heard that on fretted string instruments they are slightly different). But because your instrument is a diatonic one — it only has seven pitches available per octave — you lose C natural if you engage the lever to create C#.

    Your first question: If you tune your harp to C, some of those sharping levers will only be helpful for playing enharmonics (the same note spelled differently — like Db and C#), because you will pretty much never see a lever harp piece written with more than four sharps. Personally, I have not yet come across a piece in four sharps (E Major). Most people will full levers tune their harps to Eb because that enables them to make better use of their investment in levers — you can play from three flats to four sharps (in Eb, Bb, F, C, G, D, A, and E major and their relative minors) without retuning. If you tune your harp in C, you may never use the A, E, B, or D levers.

    Put another way, if your harp is tuned in C and you want to play a piece in Eb without retuning, you’d have to set your harp to D#, G#, and A#. (You probably want to go get your harp or look at a diagram of a fully levered harp to walk through this.) The first problem is that you’ve just lost your D natural (the leading tone!) and G natural. The second problem is that you can’t use your B and E strings because Bnat and Enat are not in the key signature. The third problem is that you either need to rewrite the piece for the enharmonics, or you need to see a Bb on the staff and pluck your A(#) string instead (and likewise for the other enharmonics). So — you end up with a 7-tone scale that looks like this: D#, (E), F, G#, A#, (B), C. If you sharped your E and B to create enharmonics for F and C, so that you could use them, you’d get a scale that looks like this: D#, F, F, G#, A#, C, C. Since levers can only adjust a string’s pitch upward by one-half step, it is just so much easier to tune the harp to Eb. 🙂

    I hope that helps!

    #112342
    lyn-boundy
    Participant

    I’m sure it will! Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to write such a full reply. I’m going to need to reread what you have said a few times for it to sink in. Basically though it looks as if you’re saying I should definiterly take my luthier’s advice and ask him to tune to Eb (it will take me a little longer to understand why)?

    Have no fear – when this little beauty is finally hatched I will be boring the whole world to death with photos! I feel so very lucky to have this chance to create an instrument that I hope to keep enjoying for the rest of my life and an heirloom for the kids when I’m gone. Discovering this amazing, helpful forum is only increasing my pleasure!
    Lyn

    #112343
    Alison
    Participant

    Lyn, best ask Emma to explain and demonstrate when you see her, but in the meantime. It’s easier for a beginner to understand if I say put all the A, B and E levers ON and tune the harp in C like your sharpsicle.
    1. Refer to a music theory book for key signatures and you will realise that you now have the flexibilty to flatten the Bs (test it yourself & play scale of F) and next take the E’s off ( so both Bb and Eb to play scale of Bb) and the A’s off (BbEbAb to play scale of Eb).
    2. Put all the A,B,E’s back on (back into C) check out the key signatures with sharps one at a time in this order (F# on, that’s Gmajor) next C# on too (so F# and C# that’s Dmajor) then G# on (so F#, C#, G# makes A major), lastly put D# on (F#,C#,G#,D# gives you Emajor).
    So now you have found 8 major key signatures – hint: look up the circle of 5ths in the index of any book. Additionally you could set some minor keys, but not all, more theory for another day…
    Once you’ve got your head around this, it’s quicker to leave the all levers off, tune in Eb and then put on what you need. With children I generally tune this way and ask a pupil to fix the levers at the start of the lesson.

    #112344
    Angela Biggs
    Member

    Hi Lyn – yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Take the luthier’s advice, and you’ll come to understand why as you begin playing in more keys. I’m looking forward to seeing the new harp! 🙂

    #112345
    lyn-boundy
    Participant

    Me too! I went out to visit and inspect the carving yesterday and I’m more thrilled than I ever imagined possible. Fingers crossed for the end of the month and thanks again for your advice.

    #112346
    emma-graham
    Participant

    Hi Lyn. This is the real difference that the harp has compared to other instruments. #s are #s and flats are flats. G sharp and A flat for example are not the same note even though they sound the same. They are played on a different string and, under certain circumstances can both be played at the same time. On a lever harp you can only get two notes from every string. Either natural and flat or natural and sharp. (On a pedal harp you get three notes from every string. Flat, natural and sharp so pedal harps can play in any key.) With a lever harp tuned in C you can get all the natural notes and their sharp versions. You cannot get any flats, so cannot play in any flat keys. In order to play in the maximum number of sharp and flat keys the harp is most commonly tuned into E flat major. This means you can get 3 flat keys, F, B flat and E flat. With the B,E and A leavers set to natural, the harp is in C major. From there you can then get 4 sharp keys, G D A and E. Hope that helps a bit. It’s tricky to explain without demonstrating on a harp!

    #112347
    lyn-boundy
    Participant

    Thank you all so much for your patience. Am I the only one who has found this so hard to grasp? I think I’m beginning to understand though it’ll only become properly clear when I can experiment in different keys myself and a recent death in the family has left me a bit short on concentration right now (and, sadly, unable to attend the DPAF this year – maybe next) My new harp will be tuned to Eb and I’ll be doing lots of experimenting once I have the full range of half tones at my disposal.

    #112348
    barbara-brundage
    Participant

    No, Lyn, nearly everyone finds it confusing at first. Don’t worry–one day it will suddenly become very obvious. Sorry to hear about the loss in your family.

    #112349
    lyn-boundy
    Participant

    Thank you Barbara – it makes me feel much better to know I’m not beeing even thicker than usual 😉

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