Tuning Your Harp
We know. You look at all those strings and you think, “Wow, tuning this thing is going to be a real pain.” Trust us, it may look that way but that isn’t the case. It’s actually really easy to tune a harp and it only takes a few minutes. There are several different methods but we recommend using an electronic chromatic tuner because it is the easiest. You can obtain one from us or which, unlike some tuners, does a reasonable job sensing the frequencies at both the high and low end of your harp.
In this world of the internet the easiest way for a beginner to learn to tune a harp is to view the raft of resources available on YouTube. One of the big names in the lever harp world, Sylvia Woods, has a first rate video on how to tune your harp .
This is a great video, by Darlene Walton, on how to tune our Harpsicle® Harps. She shows tuning with the harp lying on its side and, of course, if you are tuning a Rees Concert Line harp your harp will be standing up, but her description of how to use the chromatic tuner is especially clear. Darlene, by the way, has a great web-based teaching series which we also recommend.
If you prefer step-by-step written instructions, we have that too! If you are a more experienced harper and you have been wondering about tuning in E-flat Major, harper Marta Cook explains. We really love this video by harper Christy-Lyn as she does an excellent job of explaining how and why you should learn to tune by ear. Finally, we throw in a couple of notes, below, about tuning based upon William's knowledge and experience.
Let's Start at the Very Beginning. A Very Good Place to Start...
As a beginner you will be tuning your harp to the key of C. This is sometimes call the Do-Re-Mi scale after the song from The Sound of Music.) On a lever harp the C strings are red.
1. Turn on your tuner and clip it to the harp being careful not to fasten any metal clips directly onto wood. We usually just clip onto a tuning pin which is in the general vicinity of the string we are tuning. Across the distance of a 36-string harp we usually move the tuner three or four times.
2. Pluck middle C. The indicator lights and/or needle on your tuner will show you what note the string is producing. If your harp is new it will probably read something other than C. In most cases your harp is going to be flat. If the indicator light reads B, A or G the string is low and you are going to raise the pitch by tightening the string until the indicator light reads C. Place your tuning wrench on the middle C tuning pin and turn it to tighten the string. If you pluck the string, you will actually hear the pitch sliding up while the string is getting shorter. Make sure that when you reach C the “sharp” light does not turn on. C sharp is higher than C. If you have never tuned a harp before, you will be surprised at how little you have to turn the tuning pin to get a big change in the note. Be gentle.
3. Now that the indicator light reads C look again at the meter. If the needle reads left of center it means that the C is low and you need to tighten the string a little. If the needle reads right of center the C is high and you need to loosen the string a little until the needle is in the center.
4. Be careful when tuning that you place the wrench on the same tuning pin that you are plucking. This may sound funny but tightening one string while plucking and listening to another happens to everyone.
5. Now pluck the D string (the next shorter string to C) and repeat steps 1, 2, & 3.
6. Repeat the process with the other strings. Tuning the harp for the first few times may take awhile, but after you get accustomed to it you will be tuning the harp up in about 3 minutes time.
7. Especially with a young harp or a new string, it is often wise to go through the entire tuning process more than once. You will find that after tuning up all the strings, the ones you did first may be flat again because the tightening of the others raised the soundboard just enough to reduce the tension on the original strings.
Having followed all of these steps, your harp is now tuned and ready for you to begin your first of many musical adventures a la harp.
Chromatic Tuners and High Strings
Are you having trouble getting your electronic tuner to work on the higher strings? Here are some tips that will help.
1. Clip the tuner at the access hole on the back of the harp or better yet, if your harp is small and you can still see the tuner, clip it to the midrib inside the harp where the string notes are located.
2. A clear tone is important on the higher strings. Pluck the higher strings very lightly with your fingernail creating a clear bell like ring. If you start getting frustrated and plucking more vigorously or with the flesh of the finger you defeat your purpose because the string tone will wobble. So go back to plucking lightly with the fingernail creating that ringing tone.
3. Also the lower strings may produce sympathetic vibrations while tuning the higher strings. This can confuse the tuner shutting down the signal completely. Muting the lower strings with your hand or a cloth, if your harp is lying on its side, will help.
4. And ----- somedays a tuner will just mess with you because it wants to and it can.
There is a technique that piano tuners use to make their instruments stay in tune longer. It is referred to as "tuning to the flat". This does not mean that the instrument is tuned flat. Tuning to the flat brings an instrument up to pitch and then disengages the strain generated between the pin and the wood.
You know that moment when you have just brought a string up to pitch? The tuning key is still on the pin and in your hand and from the wood in the harmonic arch, through the pin, through the key and into your hand you can feel that there are forces trying to pull the pin back the direction it just came. As the pin has been turned, the spongy cells of the wood have become twisted. This twisting sensation is the wood fiber expressing a mechanical memory, in other words, the fibers want to spring back to the way they were a minute ago. The pins of your harp are held by either wedge friction or by microthreads, neither of which need the wood fibre to be twisted to capture. The twisting you feel is an added stress to the wood in the arch, a place where your harp already has enough string pressure. To relieve this torsion stress, with the tuning key still in your hand and without detuning the string at all, generate enough force to create some backpressure. You will be able to feel the release of the twisting immediately. Do not tune higher and then back down to the desired note. This will release pressure on the string between the pin and the bridge causing slack. When you pluck on the string it will pull this slack over the bridge causing tension on the string to drop and the pitch to lower. You should always tune up to a pitch, not down. If a string is already above the desired pitch, lower it significantly and then bring it back to the desired frequency.
We travel all over the country with our harps. The only time we detune is when we are going from a humid area into a dry one. Dry air causes a soundboard to give up water and pull away from the arch, raising the pitch of the strings and increasing string tension on the whole system. Detuning a half step and then bringing the harp back up to tune after a grace period in the new climate causes the least stress to the thin soundboard woods.