how to play the Harp

Learn how to have fun with the Harp

Hopefully, by this stage, you’ve bought a harp. The next thing should be to actually work out how to play the harp! And luckily for you, this component of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning the Harp’ will allow you to get going.

How To Play The Harp

Getting Started

Begin by sitting behind the harp, ensuring both feet are placed flat on the floor

Tip – if your feet don’t reach the floor at the moment, use as many thick books as you need to create a flat platform for your feet.

To play the harp, lean the instrument back towards your right shoulder, ensuring that most of the weight of the harp is resting on both knees, either side of the harp’s body.

Interesting Fact: The little finger is never used to play the harp – it’s deemed too short and weak to pluck the strings

How to play the harp

Setting The Harp To C Major

Lever Harp

How to play the harp

Lever harps are tuned in Eb – this provides players with the most variety of keys in which they can play.

How to tune the lever harp in Eb – place B E & A levers in the top position, using an electronic tuner, tune the harp to a C Major scale

Pedal Harp

How to play the harp

Place all 7 pedals in the middle position

Why are there 3 positions?

Top – all notes are flat

Middle – all notes are natural

Bottom – all notes are sharp

Now The Fun Begins…

Identifying the notes. Luckily, we have a visual aid from the coloured strings. The red string is the note C. Two strings down from C is the note A – from there, moving up towards the top of the harp, the strings are named after the letters of the alphabet until you get to G. After G, you start at A again. A to A is one octave.

Take note...

The black string on your way up – this is the note F. Coloured strings are there to help us find our way around the harp.

How to play the harp

Other Languages

This system is called the ‘English notation system’. It is the standard used today across most of the world. However, you will always find some countries and people using a different system. The second most popular system is called the ‘Fixed Do system’. You may have heard it from the song ‘Do Re Mi’ from ‘The Sound of Music’. Instead of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, this notation uses Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si.

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What Number Finger Is What?

When learning the harp, we rely upon naming each finger a number, so we can accurately give instructions. Your thumbs on both hands are number one, and the count outwards to your ring finger – which is number 4. If you see any numbers above or below notes, those numbers will correlate as to what finger you should use.

Second finger & thumb

Your first task…

At the very beginning, take some time to familiarise your second finger and thumb with the strings.

Place both fingers on consecutive strings and start by playing 2nd finger, replacing once played, then play the thumb and replace once played – then continue as much as you like.

How to play the harp

Take note… the direction in which the second finger is plucked and the thumb are different. The second finger is drawn into the palm of the hand after plucking and the thumb curls over the top of the second finger – effectively giving the second finger a hug after it’s played.

Give these passages a go, hands separately at first, at a slow speed in order to ensure the sound is rounded and the second finger comes all the way into the palm once played, and the thumb all the way over the second finger.

How to play the harp 1
How to play the harp 3

Once you’ve mastered that, now try playing both the second finger and thumb at the same time. Like so:

How to play the harp 4

Slow Practice

You can ask a handful of professional harpists whether they practice slowly and I bet the majority of them would answer positively to including slow practice in their daily routine. It’s essential in order to strengthen each finger individually and it also gives you the time to listen and watch carefully at how each finger is behaving. Be patient! It may seem boring but your fingers will benefit hugely from the exercise! 

Introducing the 3rd finger

You can slowly introduce the 3rd finger to the pack once the thumb and second fingers have gotten to know each other. The 3rd finger is one of the strongest we have as it’s the middle child and has fingers on either side to protect it from any harm.

Adding a 3rd finger now enables us to play chords!

What is a Chord?

A chord is a group of three notes, from the same scale, that create a specific, pleasant sound when played together. Simple as that!

Chords form the basic sound of all popular music, and most classical music too. The quicker you get to know what the chords are, the faster you’ll realise that most popular music is made up of a simple structure, that can be repeated across different songs.

How are chords identified?

Each chord has a name.  C Major is a good example.  That is telling me the ‘root’ of the chord, or the bass foundation of the chord, is in the scale of C.  This means the first note of the chord is C.

The ‘major’ bit is telling me it’s the happy version of the C chord.  

C Minor is exactly the same chord as C Major, but it’s the sad version.  To make it sound sad, we swap the middle note of the chord for the nearest note on the left – regardless of if that note is a white note or black.

How many chords are there?

There are twelve chords in each variety.  So twelve major chords, twelve minor chords etc.  There are many variations of the twelve chords (we’re just being honest!) – in fact, there are 4017 in total (!), but we don’t need to worry about those variations just yet.

Wait!

Before you head in, all guns blazing with full chords; break them up. Nobody likes to hear a top-heavy or bottom-heavy chord. All three notes should be heard in balance with each other.

These two exercises will give you an opportunity to strengthen each finger individually so when you do play chords, you’ll be able to hear all three notes individually.

Tip: always listen to your thumb. Be aware of the sound it makes, especially in the second exercise. When starting a passage with the thumb, the tendency is to ‘whack’ it out and often the sound is rather unpleasant – take this from someone who is continuously working on their thumb sound…23 years down the line!

Now try playing the chords as one – watch out for that third finger, is it as strong as the second and thumb?

How to play the harp 5
How to play the harp 6
Finally - the 4th finger

The 4th finger could do with a little extra care and attention. It’s the final member of the pack, a long way from the mothership (the thumb) and a little shorter than its predecessor. 

However, once the 4th finger is up and running you’re fully equipped to tackle most things!

Time for some scales!

Playing Scales

Now that you know the numbers for your fingers and the names of the notes, you can apply your learning to play a C major scale. The C major scale consists of eight notes from C to the C. Now as you only have four fingers on each hand with which you can play, this means you’ll need to do a special ‘tuck under the bridge’ movement to be able to play all eight notes smoothly.

The finger pattern is 4, 3, 2, 1 (TUCK) 4, 3, 2, 1 (TUCK) 3, 2, 1 (TUCK) 4, 3, 2, 1 for a two-octave scale going upwards. The pattern follows in reverse order for the descent. 

The ‘tuck under the bridge’ involves a high placed thumb in order to make room for either the 3rd or 4th finger to tuck underneath. Once you’ve ‘tucked under the bridge’, place all fingers back on the required strings as fast as you can. The faster you place, the quicker you will be able to play eventually. Although it may seem simple, ‘the tuck’ is one of the essential skills a harpist needs to learn, so don’t skip over this bit!

Luckily, both hands move identically when playing scales so once you’ve mastered one hand, feel free to add the second.

Placing

Placing is essential on the harp because placing your fingers is preparation.

In the beginning, you won’t be required to place much but eventually, your brain will be trained to see patterns and you will automatically start placing fingers early in preparation for what’s to come.

As you can see in the examples on this page, the bracket above the notes represents the notes that need placing.

When you’re ready to play fast-moving passages, the act of placing your fingers on the string will enable seamless playing and phrasing.

How To Play the Harp - Summary

By now, you should be able to:

  • Set the harp to C major
  • Identify the notes of the scale
  • Play all four fingers 
  • Play chords and scale – hands separately 

Now it’s time to improve your technique…

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