Which key am I in with all the levers down?
If you tuned the harp in the key of C (no sharps, no flats, no levers up) you’re in C.
If you tuned in E-flat (tuned A,B, E to flat or put those levers up before tuning in C) you’re in E-flat.
If you tuned in F (tuned Bs to flat or put up B levers before tuning in C), you’re in F.
A flat would be B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat, or tune in C with those levers up.
Usually people don’t actually tune in G unless the harp doesn’t have levers, but if you did it would be tune in the key of G (tune in C, then either tune the Fs to sharp or put up the F levers after tuning if you have them.)
To clarify, when people tell you to “tune your harp in Eb (or F, or G, or C, or whatever),” what they’re telling you is that this is the key you want to have with all the levers disengaged (i.e., “down”). In fact, it’s really not a great idea to tune with the levers engaged…it’s pretty hard on the strings.
For example, my harp is tuned in F.
If you are in the key of C with the E, A and B lever up that means your harp is tuned to the key of E flat.
The key of C has no flats or sharps. If you levers are up on the E, A and B strings and you are then in C that means that if you put those levers down the E, A and B will be flat.
So with the levers down if you were to play the strings they would sound as:
Eb F G Ab Bb C D
That is the key of Eb Major.
Since the lever harp can’t play in every key without being retuned each individual player needs to decide what key to tune the harp in because different tuning will give you different keys you have access to and others you don’t have.
Someone who plays Celtic music will most likely tune different than people who play American Folk music, who will in turn tune different than someone who plays Classical music because each has a tendency to use a different set of keys.
Eb major is a good key to tune to if you play a lot of classical music.
When I first started I tuned to C, which means that when I had all the levers down my harp played in the key of C with no sharps or flats, like this:
C D E F G A B C
This means that I could play in any key that had sharps, but no key that had flats (without retuning the harp to a different key).
Now I tune to Bb Major, which has two flats: Bb C D Eb F G A
So I can play music that has B flats, and E flats, and music that C sharps, D sharps, F sharps, G sharps and A sharps. Since B sharp is enharmonic (a different name for the same note) with C and E sharp is enharmonic with F I find this tuning gives me the widest range of keys that I am most likely to play in. I can’t play in F# Major or C# Major, but I don’t remember the last time I came across a piece in either of those keys I wanted to play. I also can’t play in Eb Major or anything with more flats than that, but again it is rare I come across something I want to play in those keys.
As mentioned, it is a bad idea to tune with the levers up. Put them down and just tune those strings that would need to have the levers engaged to be in C as flat notes.
The reason for these complications is simply that this is how music works. Different pieces of music is written in different keys, and since the lever harp is not capable of playing in every key without retuning each individual has to decide for themselves, based on the types of music they prefer to play, which key is the best base key for them to tune in so that they have access to the most number of keys that they will need for their individual choice of music.
Why were you taught to tune the way you did? Because your teacher wanted you to have access to the different keys that tuning would give you access to. If you find that this tuning doesn’t work for you then there is no reason not to change it. If it does work for you then you may as well stick to it. It is an individual choice based on what works best for you and the music you play.
If you still have a teacher, it’s much, much easier to understand all this with the harp in front of you–ask her/him at your next lesson. Ray Pool also has a booklet called “tuning the lever harp in E-flat” that some people have found helpful.
Me, if a student has no musical background, I’ll let them tune with levers up for a couple of weeks till we get to the point where they start to understand what a key signature is. Yes, it’s harder on the harp, but it’s so much easier on the student.
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