Harp – Range of Multiple Harmonics

(Tip no. 68 from “100 Orchestration Tips,” Part 4: Harp)

Left hand multiple harmonics are only practical up to around middle C. Higher than that, the hand position prevents them from speaking with ease.

This is a tip that I’ve not seen in ANY orchestration manual anywhere, period. Most manuals tell you that the right hand may only play a single harmonic at a time, whereas the left hand may play two to three – so long as the spacing is not too far apart. This has to do with the position of the hands in relation to the strings – since the harpist has the body of her instrument leaning against her right shoulder, her reach on that side is somewhat limited, and the position of the wrist does not allow for more than one harmonic. The left hand has a great reach, and a better angle to create harmonics, so it may play more at once.

But here’s the thing. In order to get into a proper position for multiple harmonics, the left hand must be a certain distance away from the player. Too close, and the hand gets into an awkward position (though the left hand may easily play single harmonics in a closer position as well as the right). There’s a further level of complexity at work here: two harmonic notes at once, though a bit tricky, is a common technique. Three at once is very rare, and one can’t just assume that every harpist is experienced with playing harmonic chords.

What’s more, the greater the amount of simultaneous harmonics requested, the shorter the available range (and the more preparation time required to find the correct nodes). Single left-hand harmonics are good across their entire viable range: C3-A5. Double harmonics are playable in any configuration from C3 to G4, above which 2nds and 3rds are most practical up to C5. Triple harmonics have a functional span between C3 and E4 – not very large, admittedly. Pushing multiple harmonics higher than these limits risks having them fall apart due to the awkwardness position of the palm against the string. Going lower is problematic as well, as the harmonics become increasingly unstable and difficult to distinguish from normally-plucked  strings.

Fig 68a: range of left hand harp harmonics: single, double, and triple.
Fig 68a: range of left hand harp harmonics: single, double, and triple.

A little related bonus tip: every harpist I’ve every worked with prefers to read harmonics at the pitch to be played by the hands, sounding an octave higher. It’s a far better system for the player, who instinctively moves her hands to the correct position on the strings without having to work things out. Some orchestration manuals seem unclear about the consensus on this issue, and to make matters worse some notation software programs default to harp harmonics written at sounding pitch. This presumption has added hours of annoyance to every harpist’s life. The confusion has become so pronounced that there is no longer a default approach, and composers must indicate which system they’ve scored.

Fig 68b: harp harmonics at pitch played and pitch sounding.
Fig 68b: harp harmonics at pitch played and pitch sounding.

Here’s an additional bugaboo regarding multiple harmonics: the nodes shift vertically depending on the position of the pedals. In the flat pedal position, the exact centre of the string is a bit higher than in the natural position, and even further away than sharp position. To make things even more confusing, there’s a slight upward curve across the whole range of central node positions, following the rising sweep of the harp’s neck. In order to play an G© minor root triad, for example, a harpist might elect to tune the chord enharmonically to A¨ minor, so that the node positions line up straight. Even in double harmonics, this strategy may need to be used.

Fig 68c: node positions and enharmonic tunings of a harmonic chord.
Fig 68c: node positions and enharmonic tunings of a harmonic chord.

The simplest option? Don’t write harmonic chords for the harpist’s left hand. It’s usually quite enough to write one harmonic for the right and two for the left. Any more than this might be swallowed up by the glowing resonance of the overall tone. You may even be able to get a glowing tone if the right hand plays normal intervals or chords which are played above but sound below the left hand’s harmonic note. It all depends on the register and context of the music.

Fig. 68d: A harmonic chord, with practical solutions to simplify the technical demands.
Fig. 68d: A harmonic chord, with practical solutions to simplify the technical demands.

To the right are a few staves for 1st and 2nd harp from Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentale. Note how Ravel disregards the rule by asking the first harpist to play G5 3rds with the left hand, and the second harpist to play G4 3rds. There’s a notational issue here. If Ravel is asking for the sounding pitch instead of the played pitch (which would be an octave lower), then those harmonics are easily playable by the second harpist, but quite tricky for the first. If, on the other hand, the notes are intended to be played at the notated pitches, then the second part is very hard, and the first part is essentially impossible. Perhaps in all cases, the harpist may simply split the harmonics between the two hands, as they’re easily playable.

Fig. 68e: Ravel, Valses Nobles et Sentimentale, harp part bars 1-4 of Fig. 5.
Fig. 68e: Ravel, Valses Nobles et Sentimentale, harp part bars 1-4 of Fig. 5.
Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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