How to Tune Your Harp

musicianship practicing Mar 18, 2013

NOTE: The notes given are for tuning a lever harp tuned in C Major.
Pedal harps should tune in C-flat Major (pedals up).
Lever harps with other tunings must be tuned with levers down.

Tuning a harp is a chore. After all,  we would rather be playing. But tuning is essential. Most importantly, playing on an out-of-tune harp is a bad habit to develop. It teaches your ear to ignore what it hears. This is totally counterproductive! We want to be discerning listeners.

In this post, I outline the good news about tuning, the ultimate commandment of tuning, and a step-by-step system for tuning.

First, the good news about tuning: A harp that is kept in tune, stays in tune. The more regularly and carefully you tune, the less time it will take to tune. Also, your harp will need less tuning when you move it. So tune every day (at least!).

Next, the ultimate commandment of tuning: Never tune with levers up or pedals down. Tuning when you have the levers or discs engaged puts extra wear on your string, leading to a possible premature breakage or a false string.

What is a false string? When a string wears, the width of the string becomes uneven along its length. It’s thicker in some places and thinner in others. This causes the string to vibrate unevenly, and instead of hearing a note with a clear, true pitch, we hear a fuzzy or wavering pitch without a clear center, or fundamental. We call this a “false” note. Occasionally, you may have noticed a note that your tuner indicates as sharp when you think it’s flat or the other way around. One cause of this is a false string.

And now, a step-by-step system:

1. Tune the middle octave of your harp first. Tune each note of that octave with careful attention to your tuner. Why the middle first? First, these strings are the easiest for your tuner and you to hear. Secondly, you will use the middle register as a reference point for the rest of the harp.

2. After the middle register is in tune, tune by octaves down to the bottom of the harp. For instance, starting with your already-tuned middle C, tune the C below it. Check that C with your tuner and confirm with your ear that it is in tune by playing the octave interval of middle C and the C you just tuned. Then tune the C below that, again tuning it with your tuner and checking the octave with your ear. When the C’s below middle C are done, tune the D’s from the middle down, then the E’s and so forth.

3. Go back to your middle register, and use the same octave procedure for tuning the notes to the top of the harp. Again, tune all the strings of one note (all the D’s, for instance) before moving on to the next note.

4. Congratulations! Your harp should be in tune. A couple of quick scales and arpeggios, or a short chord progression (such as in the Lawrence/Salzedo Method for the Harp) can help confirm your accuracy.

Are there other systems for tuning a harp? Yes, of course, but I find several advantages to this system.

Tuning with the combination of tuner and ear not only trains you to use your ear, but helps prevent tuner accidents, like daydreaming and tuning the wrong note. It will also help you catch and correct the tuning of false strings.

Tuning from the middle outward helps ensure that the top and the bottom of the harp won’t be in different pitch universes. For an experiment, try tuning the harp by octaves from the bottom up, or the top down. Then play the bottom C and the top C together. Are they in tune, or are they far apart?

Tuning the bass before the treble is helpful, because the resonance of the bass strings affects the way the entire harp sounds. If the bass strings are in tune, you will get a clearer pitch from the upper notes, making them easier to tune.

One other piece of advice: don’t use repeated plucking of the string as a substitute for listening. Play the string as needed for your tuner to register the pitch, but be sure you listen to the pitch of the string as well. Look at the tuner, listen to the pitch and make the adjustment. Tuning will go faster and be easier on the nerves!

Previous posts in this series:

What does it mean to be in tune? Part 1: The Science

What does it mean to be in tune?Part 2: All about tuners


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