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Applications for Contemporary Harp Composition

3.5 Celtic/early European Techniques — 3.6 Latin American Techniques

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Celtic/early European Techniques

The oldest harps in Europe, European lyres utilize many of the same techniques as ancient lyres [see 3.1].  Due to the small range of many Celtic and medieval triangular harps, lyre techniques are also effective on such instruments: overlapped hands (versus a keyboard orientation) optimize available pitches and weave almost three-dimensional textures in apparently limited space, similar to the kora.  Repeated motifs are increasingly used in current early music performance, featuring slight variations to the figure (a condensed version of heterophony), creating a sense of stability without being overly repetitive.  This reminds us again of the kora’s kumbengo techniques.  Even when hands do not overlap they can create polyphonic textures in tight quarters: 182

Example 3.31

Example 3.31


Tuning in very early European music was mostly Pythagorean, much as we have seen above with the other musical genres, since it is such a pure temperament and easy to derive by ear.  Later, other historical temperaments offer additional colorings:


For late renaissance music in which thirds are a consonance, Quarter-comma Meantone with pure thirds produces a rich, warm sound. 183

━ Andrew Lawrence-King

Since the ratios between intervals are simpler (more “pure”) in many historical temperaments - versus the sometimes extremely complex ratios found in equal temperament - the harp strings sympathetically resonate much louder and longer, with strong implications for melodic and harmonic development.  Further, there is much greater difference in color between scales/modes, for example a minor sounds radically different to b minor in the Valotti temperament (in equal temperament the differences are minimal), thereby allowing forgotten color palettes to re-emerge.

Henebry contends early Celtic music was mostly pentatonic (again, as with many early musics), followed slightly later by the modes. 184  He states that in practice Celtic fiddlers actually regularly use quarter tones - an interesting connection with the faraway sounds of the Middle East and India.  Henebry claims that notation is partially responsible for the glossing over of these features, forcing Celtic music into a mold that cannot reflect its subtleties, a situation that music from other parts of the world have not had to deal with to such a degree.  He also speculates that studing Gregorian chant might shed more light on Irish music, since the former is an unbroken tradition.

Creating custom tunings depending upon the repertoire chosen (for example, if a piece contains a lot of thirds and fifths, choices involving compromises will have to be made) was and is also a fairly common practice. 

Beyond actual temperaments, chromatics were handled as with ancient musical practice by string stopping, cross tunings (called “scordatura” on the continent, which is the practice of tuning strings differently in each octave depends on need), plus in the case of European harps, the addition of extra strings.  Levers (in the early form of blades) and hooks started appearing in the latter part of the 16th century and have gone through multiple ongoing improvements. 185

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Articulation and Phrasing:

All the above features invite the development of horizontal, melodically based music as opposed to the vertical chordal focus we see more often today, echoing yet again the heterophonic stance of Middle Eastern and Indian musics.  Phrasing in terms of length, contour and accent becomes fertile ground for exploration.  Harpist Marta Cook describes the current trend in Celtic music to disregard stereotypical phrasing, instead exploring alternate accenting and dynamics.  This is aided by non-standard fingering such as breaking common harp technique rules by placing in 2 directions at once in order to create unique shapes and therefore expressions. 186 Echoes of this technique maybe found in Renie’s teachings but are generally not emphasized.  Attention to the different qualities of each finger is once again important today, as it was for the era of Ann Heymann and Bill Taylor’s academic inquiry, described in greater detail below.

A powerful tool in developing linear music is rhythm: syncopation, variations in tempi, stopping/dampening (reminding us of Gustav Leonhardt’s (1928-2012, The Netherlands) groundbreaking harpsichord interpretations of JS Bach’s music in which sometimes minuscule rests are key to creating not only rhythmic statements but dynamics as well).  Until recently, a great deal of Celtic and early European music was played “straight”, perhaps influenced by notation or Western classical music in general.  Now we see much more rubato and novel use of rhythm.

Strengthening this rhythmic element is articulation, making the use of fingernails very attractive.  Ann Heymann pioneered the use of sharpened fingernails in playing Celtic wire-strung harp, and the crisp sound they impart has been key to the development of her sound.  If fingernails are not possible to grow (most modern harpists prefer to play with pads, for compelling reasons):

In its modern revival, the early Gaelic harp (since the 1970s) has almost always been played with long nails as a 'mark of difference', even by players specialising in the 17th and 18th century repertory. My suggestion, which some of my students have tried with success, is to play 18th century style with the tips of the fingers - not the fleshy pads but the very tips…by the 17th century both nails and tips were used for different instruments, repertories or effects… 187

━ Early Gaelic Harp

Perhaps the most common harp sound in early European music, bray harps have a strident timbre plus increased volume. Harpists today can recreate this sound somewhat by placing objects such as clothes pegs on the strings or weaving paper between them; we see both techniques in avant-garde harp performance. Bill Taylor’s research into the Robert Ap Huw manuscript and Edward Bunting’s work has led him to combine both fingernail technique, bray pins, plus attention to fingering and stopping:

Over the past few years I have been successfully using these patterns in many different early repertoires, and on harps strung with both gut and wire strings: 188

━ Bill Taylor

Example 3.32

Regarding novel fingering, early harp scholar and performer Andrew Lawrence King suggests crossing the thumb under the other fingers was actually fairly common in Renaissance times, whereas it is unknown today. 189 Again this invites the creation of uncommon shapes and colors. King further states:

Just as word accentuation produces Good and Bad syllables, so renaissance music has Good and Bad notes, and a renaissance harpist has Good and Bad fingers. The invariable rule is to put a Good finger on a Good note, a Bad finger on a Bad note. Thumb (1) and middle finger (3) are Good, index (2) is Bad. (Ibid.)


This is in contrast to current harp practice where finger 2 is a very strong (”good”) finger.

Ornamentation: Pibroch:

Fertile grounds for uncovering creative Celtic harp devices is to review Highland bagpipe music ornamentation. As far back as 1903, Henebry prophetically suggested Ceòl Mór (Gaelic for “great music”) pipe works could be a storehouse of preserved harp technique. 190 Known as pibroch (the modernized spelling of the original “piobaireachd”), this highly developed genre of solo music did not experience the persecutions Celtic harp suffered, and for a variety of reasons - such as the harp is older than the pipes - it is believed that the pipes adopted ancient harp techniques, inadvertently preserving them. Pibroch music is quite dramatic and was written for notable events such as salutes, gatherings and laments. Important sources of pibroch music are the Campbell Canntaireachd MS, Daniel Dow:A Collection of Ancient Scots Music (Edinburgh, 1776), among others. Performance-wise, Alison Kinnaird is often acknowledged as the first harper to incorporate pibroch techniques, Chris Caswell applied her findings on his self-built wire harps, and Ann Heymann pushed the scholarship further, making it a fairly well-known field of inquiry today in the Celtic harp world.

Following is a demonstration of pibroch development of a phrase, along with the Gaelic names of the various precisely-named ornaments.  The first 4 bars are the ùrlar (ground/theme), followed by the dìthis, taorluath, and crunluath: 191

Example 3.33

Example 3.33

Although it is of course impossible to capture the fullness of pibroch music via notation, following is further demonstration of pibroch ornaments: 192

Example 3.34

Example 3.34

Posture and Placement:

Moving eastward to Continental European early harp music techniques, Andrew Lawrence King describes the standard finger placement in Renaissance music to be fairly low - somewhere between the middle of the string (our default position today) and pres de la table. This creates a “clear, strong sound.” 193 All the variations in between were used fairly extensively. Later, during the Baroque period when harps had become quite large in size, postures also changed:


Typically, Spanish harp is played in a standing position, so that the player is high and the instrument low. (This is the opposite to Italian triple harp, where the player is low and the harp high). There is evidence to suggest that Spanish single-row harps were played with both hands high on the string (near the neck), whereas Italian harps were played with both hands low on the string…this historical position is the secret to the character of the instrument. [With the Italian harp] You should find that the left-hand register corresponding to the bass clef…is directly ‘in front of your nose’. By leaning forwards slightly, you can reach down to play the extreme bass strings pres de la table: these strings are the special glory of this instrument…Period posture (look at paintings of Kings seated in majesty) with one foot (for harpists, the left) drawn back, and the other foot forwards to display an elegantly bent leg is historically appropriate and practically effective. (Ibid.)


Welsh triple harp is traditionally held on the left shoulder, in contrast to common pedal and lever harp practice of resting the harp on the right shoulder - it is interesting to speculate on how this might have affected compositional style.


Regarding continuo (accompaniment) styles:

Whereas the Italian harp closely relates to the theorbo, the Spanish harp is close to the guitar…On Italian harp, the player sits low, concentrates on the bass, and fills out long notes with shapely upward arpeggios. On Spanish harp, the player stands high, is more aware of the low treble register, and fills out long notes with repeated chords, like a strumming guitar. If a long arpeggio is played, on Spanish harp it would run downwards…(Ibid.)


Polyphony, including crossing registers, was common, again offering perspectives away from the current keyboard orientation.


Much more should be said about Renaissance and Baroque harp techniques, such as an exploration of ornamental style. However, since these devices are fairly well represented in current harp performance today both in Western classical music and Latin American music [see 3.6 next], they will not be extensively covered in this paper due to space constraints.


Of course absorbing the above techniques since it is much younger and thus was exposed to many influences, Celtic and early European harp explores alternate temperaments, and achieves chromatics through string stopping, cross tuning and levers/hooks, although scales available are not as wide-ranging as Middle Eastern and Indian music. Articulation is an important feature, with much use of nail technique mixed with pad technique, attention to the timbre qualities of each finger, novel fingering, and elaborate dampening systems. Timbre is further enhanced by the use of bray harps. Phrasing sometimes goes against established norms. Ornamentation demonstrates some unique colors via pibroch. Posture is greatly varied, from sitting low to high to everything in between, with strong musical ramifications. Polyphonic textures are seen, as well as monophony/heterophony.



Latin American Techniques


As with Renaissance harp [3.5], from which it derives, Latin American harp is held in a variety of stances compared to our more standardized lever and pedal harp positioning.  Common positions are sitting at the harp lower than usual, or conversely, standing, or even holding the harp upside-down and walking as with some Peruvian harp practices.

These different stances allow easy access to extreme ranges, for example, a very bass oriented focus, or again to consider the opposite case, a very treble, brilliant approach.  Sitting far back on a chair with the harp tipped back further than standard allows for a blocking and strumming stance and facilitates techniques similar to those we see with the lyre [section 3.1, Fig. 3.13].

This openness to novel ways of holding the harp reflects the very physical, kinesthetic approach we find in Latin American harp practice.  Indeed, in some cultures, such as the arpa llanera of Venezuela, the harp is primarily a percussion/rhythm instrument as opposed to a melodic/lyrical instrument. 194 Light construction, low string tension, and use of fingernails all encourage bright, fast and virtuosic playing.  Of course, Latin American music in general has developed these characteristics, so the harp was no doubt influenced by its ensemble members as well.

Hand Stance:

A major facilitator to this physicality is an alternative hand stance.  Many Latin American harpists adopt an “all fingers up” position as opposed to the “thumbs up-fingers down” stance we see in the French School and early European harp practice.  This has been described as “claw-like” by Latin American harp practitioners (Ibid.).  Because of this stance, many techniques become possible, including the use of finger 5 which is normally disregarded in harp practice. 

A palm upward stance allows for slap-bass technique (Fig. 3.14).  All the fingers brace against the lowest strings while the thumb plucks forcefully and dampens immediately - this can be done in rapid succession.

The “growl” we hear in flamenco guitar is another common Latin American harp effect, created by placing a chord in upward stance and rapidly arpeggiating it, allowing the adjacent strings to be brushed against for a “dirty” and complex sweeping sound, immediately followed by dampening with the heel of the hand for strong articulation.  An excellent example of this can be viewed at 1:04 minutes into this video:

Dampening the heel of the hand is now readily available due to the palm upwards stance: etoufee is a key feature of Latin American harp technique as a rhythmic and color feature. Techniques such as blocking with heel of hand and playing multiple intervals with the other hand creates unique timbres, while also offering a new way of performing multiple harmonics. This can be achieved by blocking the strings with one hand halfway up the string and plucking with tip of the finger of the other hand, the same harmonic technique as with the guitar and guzheng: view this technique at 0:25 minutes in this video:

Angel Tolosa y Luis Tolosa - Encaminando a Kilim y Ay mi Enriqueta

Angel Tolosa y Luis Tolosa - Encaminando a Kilim y Ay mi Enriqueta

This allows for rapid harmonic playing as well as the posibility multiple simultaneous harmonics, very difficult to achieve in classical harp technique.  Pinching upward to imitate a guitar pick combined with immediate dampening also allows a percussive tone plus yet another option for creating harmonics.

Another possibility the palm upward stance allows is both thumbs interlacing at the same range, plucking out a very hard tremolo high up on the strings, creating a metallic, percussive, almost unpitched effect.  Sometimes this even sounds like the harpist is hitting the soundboard, even though strings alone are being plucked.  Use of this effect on bass strings creates an even more metallic effect.

Unlike classical harp technique, there is not always an emphasis on completely closing the hand after plucking.  Consecutive intervals, especially octaves, are usually played with fingers 1 and 3 without closing the hand between plucks. Ramon Romero describes explosive force from the fingers flicking outwards, basically playing with the other side of the fingers than usual, and emphasizes the physical strength of the hands. 195   Part of this tendency to not close is that much Latin American music is not concerned with sustain due to either rapid texture or the fact the harp construction allows quite a bit of sustain anyway. 196

Pad and Nail Use:

Continuing this exploration of physicality and color, there is much use of pad and nail technique in Latin American harp. Nails are often artificially reinforced in order to withstand the strenuous playing.  Different degrees of nail are used, from a light touch to a deep-seated pluck, creating very contrasting timbres.  Even the back of the nail is used, as we see with tremolos and various glissandi.  Sometimes one hand will have long nails while the other has trimmed nails in order to facilitate pad playing and thus more color differentiation. 


Tremolos are highly developed, including playing with two fingers at once (and even two hands at once) while the palm is braced against the soundboard, or other strings as we get into the lower ranges.

Glissandi may happen with the back of the hand, or with the back of the thumb, braced against other fingers.  Glissandi with multiple fingers are common, creating dramatic cascades.  This can also occur with multiple fingers held close together during a glissando, creating an extremely dry, percussive effect, seen at 2:30 minutes into this video:

Yet more color options are made possible by exploring different placements in the string, from playing at the extreme ranges, as we have seen above, to sliding, which is accomplished with devices such as the tuning wrench or sharping rings.  These devices also allow for chromatics since they can double as string-stoppers for accidentals.


The keys used in Latin American harp music tend to be fairly simple, such as D major and b minor.  The melodies are often straightforward and forms are AB or ABC at most.  We find runs and scales rather than ornaments (Ibid.). 


The focus of development is instead on variation, particularly rhythmic.  These rhythmic devices are apparently limitless within the usual 3/4 or 6/8 fundamental beat.  Syncopation and polyrhythms attain astounding complexity and offer great scope for harp composers and performers. These are all improvised, and would be practically impossible to capture (or read) on paper.  This percussiveness is augmented by use of tapping on the soundboard and combining multiple techniques at the same time.  Rhythm is perhaps the defining feature of Latin American harp, and is derived from practically all he techniques mentioned in this segment.



Like the Renaissance harp from which it was born, Latin American harp is played in a variety of postures, with the addition of sitting far back with the harp tipped low, and even carrying and playing the harp upside-down. These greatly affect the timbres and textures, such as easily allowing blocking and strumming or focusing on extreme ranges of the harp. The highly kinesthetic approach garners a percussive sound which can be unpitched at its most extreme, and incorporates actual percussion on the body of the harp. Rhythm is highly developed, with syncopation upon syncopation evident and polyrhythm the norm. The usual fingers-up/”claw” hand stance allows for many characteristic techniques, such as slap bass, interlaced rapidly plucking thumbs, and the growl, the latter showing influences from guitar – Latin American harp takes many cues from other instruments and genres of the region. The upward stance also allows for much dampening by the heel of the hand, creating many rhythmic and timbre possibilities as well as a unique way to play multiple harmonics. Nails are an important timbre feature, and combinations of nail and pad create further coloration options. Tremolos and glissandi are the primary ornaments. Tonalities are usually fairly simple, augmented by tuning wrench and finger string-stopping for accidentals.

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182 King, Andrew Lawrence. “Introduction to Medieval Harp.”

183 King, Andrew Lawrence. “Introduction to Renaissance (‘Gothic’) harp.”

184 Henebry, Richard. A Handbook of Irish Music. Cork University Press, 1928.

185 Robinson, Robinson. “The Semi-Tone.” Folk Harp Journal no. 2 (September 1973).

186 Marta Cook. Personal interview. April 2013.

187 Early Gaelic Harp. “Fingernails.” © 2010 Simon Chadwick.

188 Taylor, Bill, Sources for Fingernail Harp Technique from Wales and Ireland, Wire Branch of the Clarsach Society, 2012.

189 King, Andrew Lawrence. “Introduction to Renaissance (‘Gothic’) harp.”

190 Henebry, Richard. A Handbook of Irish Music. Cork University Press, 1928.

191 “Pibroch songs and canntaireachd.”


193 King, Andrew Lawrence. “Introduction to Italian Baroque triple harp (arpa doppia).”

194 Wallace, Liza. Personal interview. March 2013.

195 Romero, Ramon. Personal interview. August 2012.

196 Wallace, Liza. Personal interview. March 2013.

Note: due to extensive use of multiple languages, there is great variation in spelling regarding instruments and terms.
The most common spellings will be used throughout, with note made of popular alternate spellings.


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