Which lever for which tone?

Posted In: How To Play

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    evolene_t on #206986

    Good morning everyone,

    I apologise if a similar topic has already been created before but I haven’t found anything in the archives.

    I am very new at the harp, and I intend to practice in particular the Celtic harp for Celtic songs, having grown up hearing this in Brittany (France). Hence, this topic concerns only the lever harps although I suppose we could give informations about the pedal harp here as well.

    I wonder if we could do a compilation of which levers to flip when we want to reach a particular tone.
    What I mean by tone is : “an accent peculiar to a person, people, locality, etc., or a characteristic mode of sounding words in speech.” (Definition by Dictionary.com). Perhaps this is not the correct word used in music in English, you’ll have to forgive my lack of knowledge there as I study music in French.

    So, for example, flipping up the E (mi), A (la) and B (ti) levers and leaving the other levers down gives us the range in C major (gamme en do majeur). The C major is used for most children’s song and standard music.

    I know however that some ranges correspond with particular music styles. In your opinion, what would be the best tone for medieval music? For Irish celtic music? Bolivian harp music? Latino? Asian-style (shamisen) music?
    And which levers would you need to flip to get there?

    I realise that this question might sound ignorant, since you adapt the levers to a specific tune and not to a tone. But what I have in mind is a form of improvisation, sort of what one does when playing Therapy Harp. When playing therapy, you don’t focus on flipping levers, only on the effect the melody has on the patient. In this case, the way the levers are is going to give a different tone to the melody.

    What do you think? Do you have specific palettes in mind that give different tones?

    wil-weten on #207021

    Hi Evolène, you asked a really intriguing question.
    English is a foreign language for me as well and I do understand how hard it is to find the right words and make oneself understood.

    In order to get some answers to your question, it may help to find out which elements play a role in this matter.

    To start with: In Europe it is common that when all levers are down, the harp is tuned in E flat. In the US though, it is common that when all levers are down, the harp is tuned in C.
    So this is really important to keep in mind when the answers will be seeping in.

    I think that when you write ‘tone’ you mean key or mode. You may like to google on that.

    You write: “The C major is used for most children’s song and standard music.” I think you mean that a lot of songs are in a major key. They may often be in C major, G major or D major. These are keys which are suitable for the scope of most human voices (the tonic not being too low or too high).

    More on this in a next message.

    wil-weten on #207025

    In addition to my previous post. Not only are there a lot of modern songs in a major key, but also in minor keys. Nowadays, we tend to think of songs in minor keys of being sad, but this is mainly a cultural thing. Anyway, songs in a harmonic minor or melodic minor way, sound in western ears a lot happier than in the standard minor key.

    One of the things you mention, is that you are interested in celtic music.
    Now, take a song like Are you going to Scarborough fair. This is set in a Dorian mode. This Dorian mode gives a special kind of ‘flavour’ to the song. If you flip your levers to the ones this song needs and start your improvisation on a D, you get the kind of ‘flavour’ that you want.

    I do hope I haven’t confused you too much by now. To make a long story short: you may like to start and learn some music theory. I myself am a great fan of Sylvia Woods ‘Music Theory and Arranging Techniques for Folk Harps’. It’s the one fun (yes, fun!) book on music theory which I think enriches every folk harper’s joy in understanding and playing music.

    To start with improvising: Here you find all you need to start going:

    Feel free to ask additional questions. Finally, have you already discovered the Yahoo-group Virtual Harpcircle? It is a well-moderated group with members from all over the world. I have learnt many a thing there.

    carl-swanson on #207035

    Wil- I have to correct one thing you said in your first post. In America, it is standard to tune a lever harp in E flat, just like in Europe, meaning that when none of the levers are engaging the string, the harp is in E flat. I don’t know anyone who tunes a lever harp in C. If you do that, then you only have sharp keys available to you. The whole point of tuning in E flat is to have a selection of flat and sharp keys available.

    Biagio on #207036

    Not to contradict anyone but I’d just like to observe that in the US, new lever harps are typically in C major in the shop or on the floor. Likewise, most beginner books assume open C tuning. I’ve never taken a survey, but here in the Puget Sound area I’d guess that about half the people I know tune to Eb, the other half to C while wire harpers tune to G.

    I don’t know why this ‘C thing’ is – possibly it stems from the recent US harp maker’s “roots”. These guys and gals came from a background in the Celtic songs – typically in G, D, C or sometimes F. Levers were pretty primitive 50 years ago – more likely blades in fact if there were any at all. So that might be another reason.

    On the other hand,back then the only other lever harps were pre-pedal models like the Troubadour – naturally enough tuned open to Eb.

    Those from a more classical background tune to Eb as Carl observed since it gives a good deal more flexibility in what keys are available. Again, I don’t know but I’d bet that as they become more advanced most lever harpers here choose Eb if they have a full sized instrument.

    None of this rambling on my part actually addresses Evolene’s question huh?

    The point is though that it does not matter what your open tuning is as far as the modes are concerned, or most other typical or non-typical scales. Personally I will sometimes choose the key based on the range available and just transpose if the piece is scored differently.

    If I want to play middle eastern music, or some blues, OTOH (for example) that’s an entirely different question.


    • This reply was modified 4 years, 2 months ago by Biagio.
    wil-weten on #207038

    @ Carl Swan, I think I learnt this from an earlier version of the website of MyHarpsDelight (I could not find the information on the new website) From memory I think that tuning in C may have to do with playing mainly celtic music and/or having just a few levers on the harp. And with the fact that some levers make the string sound a bit more dull.

    Of course, playing in E flat does give more possibilities.

    Biagio on #207042

    Friends, I got sidetracked by the word “levers” and “tune” so I apologize. Rereading the above it is obvious that was not at all Evolene’s question (me duh). So get back on track, recognizing that Evolene’s harp is tuned open to Eb and the few I most often play….but first a note from our sponsor:

    If you are playing solo most of the time probably more intuitive to tune open to C, and more flexible. The score can then be in any key although you will be a half step higher if it’s one of the flat ones. For example, suppose you are tuned open to C and the score is in a flat key. No problem, just flip ALL the levers EXCEPT the indicated flats and play the score as written. Sharp keys are not an issue, obviously.

    Now to return to our program….

    “Celtic tunes” will be predominantly in the key of G (flip B A E and F) or D (flip C as well). Sometimes F (flip A and E). Reasons largely have to do with the fact that they were often composed for wire harp and/or to accompany the bagpipe. They are often modal, Myxolydian Dorian and Aeolian being favorites in addition to Ionian.

    Middle Eastern and Latin – Quite often these will be in a harmonic minor; it will probably be easiest if you are in open C just to keep track of where you are.

    American folk, hymns, and gospel – these are very often scored in F, Bb or Eb in order to accommodate the human voice tenor range.

    Respecting “therapy music”, in Western traditions major keys are considered “cheerful” and minor keys meditative or sad. Soothing music is often in a Dorian or Myxolydian mode – I’m sure we can think of exceptions.

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 2 months ago by Biagio.
    Tacye on #207044

    There are several ways this question could go. Which is most of interest?
    1) What keys is the music most often written in – often as mentioned above because of the most comfortable keys for other instruments.
    2) How the harp sounds different depending on the number of levers engaged, and the resulting shorter string lengths.
    3) The different colourations and moods of keys. This was a strong consideration before equal temperament became ubiquitous.

    To add to the tuning question, it is common for harpists in Scotland to tune in Ab.

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 2 months ago by Tacye.
    Elettaria on #207048

    I’ve heard that there’s a tradition of tuning to Ab in Scotland, but I have yet to meet anyone who actually does it. It seems to be Eb for fully levered harps, and that’s certainly true of harps I’ve tried from Scottish luthiers at the Edinburgh festival, and the harps owned by the Clarsach Society. Is it on the folk scene or something?

    If you use printed music, I’ve found that books of medieval music most often use C major or the associated modes such as D dorian (same levers).

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 2 months ago by Elettaria.
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