Rich, Warm, Round: How to Create Your Sensational Harp Sound

I always envied my harp teacher’s sound.

My harp teacher for nearly all of my harp studies was Marilyn Costello, former principal harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. As you can imagine, she was a fabulous harpist, but it was her tone that was so compelling. Her sound was lush and plummy, liquid and full. I could recognize her playing anywhere just by the sound. In fact, if you study the recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra from the Ormandy years, you will hear exactly what I mean. That richness wasn’t electronically enhanced in a recording studio; it was simply her amazing tone.

I often thought that if I had the same kind of fingers as she did - strong and fleshy - that I could have her beautiful sound too. But my fingers are slender and bony, so it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to rely on nature to provide me with a beautiful tone.

As I progressed through my studies, I learned that Miss Costello didn’t rely on nature for her tone either. Certainly she had wonderful fingers, but her sound was truly an intentional creation; she worked at it. Her tone was always a focus in her technical work, and she always listened carefully and critically to her sound, counting it as one of the important factors of her musical expression. 

Even more important to me, she taught me how to listen to my sound and how to develop it into my own musical voice. My sound may never be as magical as hers, but I am confident in its power and depth. And you can have that confidence in your sound too, by developing each of the four ingredients necessary for a sensational sound.

Four Ingredients of a Sensational Sound


This is to many people the most elusive element of tone. It’s not easily measurable, but you know what it is when you hear it. 

The essential harp sound is likely what drew you to the harp originally. It’s that magical liquid sound that makes you feel warm all over. The words most often used to describe an ideal harp sound evoke that warmth: rich, lush, round, full, deep, complex, resonant, vibrant, alive. 


Projection is the aspect of sound that fills a room. A sound that projects has a core that adds depth to even the softest dynamic. Think about how an actor projects his voice in the theatre. Your sound should have that same quality, a core that helps the music be heard beyond the column of your harp.


Clarity of sound relies in part on the removal of all extra noise from your playing. Finger buzzes caused by inaccurate placing, or noises from pedal or lever changes detract from the music and from your sound. Clarity is also achieved by developing equality and evenness of your fingers. When your scales and arpeggios sound seamless, your tone will sound richer and more vibrant.


Once the other ingredients are in place, you can begin to add variety to your tone, using different sounds to express different musical ideas. For instance, one piece may call for a crisper sound, while another may need a more legato, mellow touch. This is merely adding more colors to your tone palette. 

Creating Your Sound

Creating your sound begins with your best technique. Use the fullest finger action possible in order to release the sound from the string with a minimum of effort and tension. Staying relaxed is key; tension is the number one enemy of a beautiful tone. 

It’s not only the actual playing of the note that is important. Just like in hitting a ball, follow through is critical. Raising your hand after playing, even slightly, gives the sound life and projection. Some harp methods use raising as a follow through; others relax the hand downward. Whatever the method, these gestures serve the dual purpose of releasing the sound and releasing tension, both of which add to the quality of the sound produced.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to develop your tone is to listen to it. I don’t mean to record yourself; it’s hard to judge the true quality of your sound from a recording. It’s the focused listening that you do as you practice and play that will have the greatest impact on your sound. Spend some time not concentrating on notes and fingering, but just listening to your tone, analyzing your technique and making the adjustments you think necessary. A few minutes of this every day will help you create and be confident in your sensational sound.


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