It is hard to believe, but it has been 40 years since I wrote the
Teach Yourself to Play the Folk Harp
book way back in 1978. Wow! How time flies when you're having fun playing the harp!
book is in the key of C (or A minor), with no sharping levers needed on any of the pieces. This is because sharping levers were pretty much non-existent when I wrote the book. The ones that did exist tended to be blades that you turned sideways to make the sharp. They were very inaccurate, and the strings sounded pretty bad when they were engaged. The early actual "levers" that you flipped up tended to gnaw away at the strings, causing excessive breakage. And, once again, they didn't sound very good either. A lot of harps didn't even have sharping blades or levers as an option at all! You had no way of making sharps without actually re-tuning the strings.
In the late 1970s I was a member of the group
Robin Williamson and His Merry Band
. As with most Celtic bands, we played pretty much everything in the keys of G or D. So I actually tuned my F strings to F#s when I tuned them with my tuning key, so I didn't have to use the F levers at all. That way, the F#s always sounded good and in tune!
As the saying goes, "We've come a long way, baby" from those early days of the 1970s and 1980s. Lever harpists now have a variety of excellent, accurate, and easy-to-use levers to enhance their playing. At the risk of sounding like an "old-timer," you young whippersnappers have no idea how good you have it! (Tee hee . . . I just couldn't resist that comment.)
Most of you are aware that there are 2 main ways that players tune their lever harps.
With all of the levers down they tune:
#1. to the key of C . . . all naturals, like the white keys on the piano. Using this method you can play in the key of C and all sharp keys, but you cannot play any flat keys.
#2. to 3 flats. All B, E, and A strings are tuned to flat. Using this method you can play in keys from 3 flats up to 4 sharps. *
(If you tune your harp this way, please see the footnote at the bottom of this article.)
If you have any questions about these two tuning methods, watch the video on my website called
Tuning Your Lever Harp to C or Flat Keys
that explains everything.
The tradition in Europe and the British Isles has generally been to tune to 3 flats. Here in the US people usually tuned to C in the early days. As the lever technology has improved, more and more people are using the 3-flat method.
Because of the 2 different ways of tuning, I always try to be very specific on my web site, telling you things like, "this book contains 5 pieces: 1 in the key of C, and 4 in flat keys." This explanation lets you know that you probably don't want to buy this book if you tune your harp to the key of C, because you'll only be able to play 1 piece.
Personally (and this is totally only personal preference), I always tune my harps to C. First of all, I find it easier for beginners to understand tuning and using their levers. Second, I find that flipping levers are much easier when tuned this way. A lever in the up, engaged position is always a sharp, and a lever in the down position is always a natural.
Whereas, when tuning to 3 flats, sometimes an up lever is a sharp and sometimes it is a natural. And a lever in the down position is sometimes a flat and sometimes a natural.
But, as I said, which tuning method you choose is really personal preference. A lot depends on what music you want to play, who arranged it, and if you'll be playing with other people. If your teacher tells you how they want you to tune your harp, always do what they say!
You may be wondering why I'm discussing methods of tuning today. Read the next article, and you'll find out why!
*An important note on the correct way to tune if you tune your harp to 3 flats.
You should NEVER flip your levers up on the B, E, and A strings and then tune the strings to the natural notes. Instead, always flip ALL your levers down when tuning. There are several reasons for this. If you have high-quality levers, the lever mechanism is
tightly holding the string where the sharping lever engages, ensuring that you get a clear tone. If you tune a string with the lever engaged, you're over-tightening the top part of the string between the sharping lever and the bridge pin. And, you're trying to pull the string through the lever where it is supposed to be held. This causes extra strain on the string and on the lever. Also, since you're over-tuning the top part of the string, when you release the lever, the pitch will not be accurate. This is why harp technicians and harp makers tell you to always tune with your levers in the "down" or "disengaged" position.