How to Tune Your Harp


                                                                So you have your new harp, all ready to play ??
Sorry, you will still have to tune your harp a lot, as so far there is no successful model for a custom self-tuning-harp ! 🙂 I have had the occasional client ask about this !  That is unless you order one of my custom laser beams harps, which are Always in tune! And actually I am now building hybrid harps with both laser beams and strings, so at least 8 of the ‘strings’ will never need tuning, just programming in your laptop! 🙂

The Tuner

The first step in beginning your tuning adventure is to get an electronic tuner that is going to work for you. It only takes a little time to “get used” to a tuner, and that always makes the task easier.

Prices for tuners range from under $25 to well over $100. The larger the array of lights, the finer your tuning can be. You can see just how far off you are and turn the tuning pin the appropriate amount. Needle tuners are usually too jumpy for me, but the combination of the lights and the needle available in the Korg CA-30 to the left works well. The more expensive tuners last longer than the less expensive tuners and they are rated for a larger note range. If your tuner doesn’t pick up the high notes, sometimes attaching the mic clip (see next paragraph) directly to the tuning pin will allow the tuner to pick it up.

Tuners we have for sale

Chromatic Auto-Tuner

New compact high-tech design SAT1100 gives you an analog needle for highly accurate and sensitive tuning. It has a large clear meter with pointer position calibration. Tuning range is A0-C8. Built in stand and microphone.
$142. plus $6.00 p/h/ins

Chromatic Auto-Tuner

Selectable auto-tuning, manual-tuning, and Sound Modes. Built in microphone. Tuning is A0-C8.
$38. plus $6.00 p/h/ins

                                                                                               Harp Tuner pickup

I think a harp tuner pickup is an essential item. It clips onto the instrument and plugs into the tuner. It allows the tuner to hear the note more clearly and keeps it from hearing extraneous noises, especially when tuning  where there is lots of background nose. ($15, Only $10 when bought with a tuner)

clip-on harp harp tuner pickup

Tuning your harp

If you have a mic clip, find a place on your harp like the T-brace in front or a sound hole in the back to clip it to. (see photos below). It won’t hurt the finish on your harp because it’s padded. Place your tuner on a chair, your music stand or on the floor. I often see people trying to tune holding their tuner in their left hand. Nope! Don’t do this, it will hinder the speed at which you can tune.
I tune with the levers down. Especially in the wound strings, if you tune with a lever up, one of the windings may get caught so that when you lower your lever, you won’t have a true pitch anymore.

I start at the bottom and move up by placing 3 fingers on the lowest 3 strings with the 3rd finger of my left hand. If that is a C on your harp, then you would be on C, D, E, (thumb on E). For the first string only pluck with your 3rd finger to tune. From then on it will be your 2nd finger. Your 3rd finger and thumb will serve to dampen the adjacent notes which will keep the overtones in check, and they will hold your place on the strings so you don’t have to guess which string it was you were tuning. Then you just walk up the strings as each string is tuned, moving your thumb up one string and following with the other 2 fingers.

Now for your right hand and the tuning key. I would suggest that you never leave your tuning key on the tuning peg without your hand on it. If it should fall off, you could have a big dent in your soundboard. I have seen very experienced harp players do this and I cringe every time. I also advocate the black rubber handle tuning keys, because, should they fall on your soundboard (not because you left it on the tuning peg, of course, but because you just out and out dropped it, ooops!), it will probably only leave a little black mark on the soundboard which will come off easily. I have done this (ooops!), so I know!
Once you have the tuning key on the lowest tuning peg, don’t let your hand leave the harp neck. When it’s time to “walk” up the neck with your 3 fingers, feel for the next tuning peg with your right hand thumb. Fit the tuning key onto that peg. You should be able to do this without looking. That way you can keep your eyes on the tuner. Even if most of your harp is perfectly in tune, when you get to that one string that’s off, your tuning key will be in place, and you won’t have to try to figure out which tuning peg tunes which string. You will already be there, because you have followed up the neck moving your right hand and tuning key each time you plucked a new string with your left hand. However, if you are turning the tuning pin and nothing seems to be happening, STOP and check to make sure you haven’t gotten out of line with the string. It still can happen.

The lights and/or needle will give you a clue as to how far out of tune you are. Usually the “dead center” light will be a different color, say green and the sharp or flat lights will be red. If the green light is on, but so is one of the red lights to the left (or if the needle is just to the left of center), then you know you are just a hair flat. Turn the key to sharpen the string just a little tiny bit. If the green light is on with a red light to the right (or if the needle is just to the right of center), then you’re a hair sharp, and sometimes pulling on the string a little bit will bring you right in. If not back off the tuning peg just a hair. You may then have to tune up again as you may have fallen below pitch. If only red lights to the left or right are on, then you know you can turn the tuning peg a bit sharper or flatter to get you closer. Getting a feel for how much to turn the tuning peg takes some practice. It’ll get easier and faster the more you do it.

Occasionally a tuner will be stubborn and not register a note. It picked it up yesterday, but today it’s on strike against that note. I try a few different things at this point, I pluck louder, I pluck on a different part of the string, I quiet all the strings on the harp by damping them with my arm (especially the bass wires), or I as I mentioned at the beginning, move the mic clip. The most successful place to move the mic clip is right onto the tuning pin of that string. I also might tune that string by ear to the same note in the octave below. I have gotten quite good at that with practice although I tend to tune them a tad sharp. This also works easiest in the highest octave but once you are good at that, the lower octaves become easier too.

Most tuners will indicate which note the harp string is sounding. Make sure you are tuning to the correct note. Sometimes your tuner might register one of the overtones of that string. So if you’re trying to tune an E, it might show up as a B on the tuner. It is obviously not a B because you can hear it, right? You actually can tune to that overtone and just get the B to come up to pitch. Or again you can pluck louder, on a different part of the string, quiet the harp, move the mic clip right on to the tuning peg for that string or tune by ear using octaves.

I hope this helps you to tune your harp quicker, easier and more accurately. Your harp will thank you, your audience will thank you and your harp builder will thank you.

                                                         Tuning in Different Modes and Keys

1). Diatonic or Chromatic?

How a harp is tuned partly depends on what type of harp you are playing. Most harps are tuned diatonically (like the white keys on a piano), however some multi-course harps (e.g. cross-strung harps) are tuned chromatically. Diatonic harps obtain sharps and flats by the use of levers, blades, hooks or pedals (depending on the style of harp). Chromatic harps are tuned to a chromatic scale, so the sharps and/or flats are built in. For instance, on a cross-strung harp, usually one row of strings is tuned to a diatonic scale, while the other row provides the sharps and/or flats.
An example of a diatonic scale would be: C D E F G A B C
An example of a chromatic scale would be: C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
For the sake of ease, from this point on I will only refer to “levers” when talking about ways of adding sharps and flats (depending on your type of harp, feel free to mentally substitute “hooks”, or “blades” in the case of wire harps); pedal and chromatic harps can play in any key, so the next section does not apply to them.

2). What Key To Tune To? (C major / Modal & Pentatonic / Flat Keys / Sharp Keys)

There are people who will tell you that one key is “better” or “worse” than another. Like with many harp-related things, it is not so much a matter of right and wrong, but is rather very subjective and individual, and depends on a number of factors, including: what type of harp you have, how much musical experience you have, what style(s) of music you want to play, and how much theory you know. It can even depend on things such as, how much improvising and/or transposing you want to do, and how much you rely on written music (i.e. sheet music). So instead of trying to tell you the “right way” to tune a harp, I’ve presented some of the more common keys/tunings, with explanations as to why some people choose them and others don’t.

3).Tuning with no flats or sharps – the key of C major (also see “modal tuning” below)

Many lap harps come tuned in the scale of C major. There are a couple of reasons for this. Lap harps (e.g. small harps with 19-25 strings) are less likely to come with a full set of levers. They are also more commonly used by beginners than bigger harps. Most beginner books stick to tunes with simple key signatures (usually C major and A minor, which have no sharps or flats, and possibly keys with one or two sharps at most – see (iii) below). Some people may start out with a harp with no levers, and add them on as they need them (for instance, if they start to play with other people, or acquire a book of music where many of the tunes contain sharps or flats, then they may choose to re-tune their harp and/or add more levers). Some people suggest a C major tuning as a good start for beginners since it is less confusing when you don’t have to worry about flipping levers all the time. However, some people come to the harp from a long background of musical experience, and may want to start out right away with a wider variety of keys at their disposal (see other tunings, below). People who are good at improvising or transposing might choose to just keep their harp lever-free, e.g. if they learn by ear. However, people who rely mostly on sheet music, or want to sing with the harp, or want to play in a group, may find the lack of levers (and key variety) restrictive.

4). Tuning in flats: F major, Bb major, Ab major and Eb major tunings

Depending on what type of music you play, flat keys can be quite prevalent in harp music. Some older books and tune collections (e.g. “The Small Harp” by Margaret Hewett, see Method Books) may contain quite a few tunes in flat keys. You will also run across a wider variety of keys if you choose to play Classical or Jazz, or even some Pop/Rock and New Age. For instance, I play in a trio that plays Celtic and Classical mainly, and our keys range all the way from Eb major (3 flats) to A major (3 sharps) and occasionally E major (4 sharps). For that reason, and because I also play many other styles of music, I tune my two main (nylon-strung) harps to the key of Eb, because it gives me the most flexibility. Some people will recommend this because it offers you the maximum number of possible different keys to play in. However, some people may find they don’t need an extensive range of keys, for instance if they only play Celtic, folk or early music. Some people choose to only include one or two flats – e.g., if you want to play medieval music, you will likely come across Bb fairly often, but that’s about it. My wire harp is tuned to be played modally, with no sharps or flats except Bb (since I come across the Bb so often in medieval music, I’ve tuned my wire harp thusly: C D E F G A Bb B C). Other flat keys include Bb major (two flats, B and E) and Ab major (three flats).
Some reasons why people choose not to tune with flats are: they find that the strings don’t ring quite as true with levers engaged, and/or they only play modal tunes or tunes in sharp keys, or they can’t afford to have a full set of levers installed on their harp.
(Back to Top / Back to Beginning of “What Key?”)

5). Tuning in sharps: G and D major

While it’s not as common to tune your harp to the scale of G or D major, people who plays lots of Celtic/folk music and/or hymns will find themselves playing in these keys quite often. Frequently people who play mainly in the keys of C, G and D (and their relative minors) will tune their harp to C major, and only add levers on the F’s and C’s. Since levers can be expensive, this enables you to be frugal and still gives you some variety of keys to choose from. It will also usually enable you to play through one or two levels of beginner books with no problem (most method books and introductory books stick within these keys). The argument for this tuning is similar to the one for C major without levers (see above) – you can always re-tune your harp (and/or add levers) if you find your changing musical tastes or repertoire require it. My very first harp (a 22-string lap harp) had working levers only on C’s and F’s, and I played it quite happily for three years before I started to really long for a wider range of keys. Keep in mind that if you tune your harp to G or D (i.e. your F’s and/or C’s are tuned to F# and/or C#, with levers disengaged), then you will not be able to play in C major or A minor (this is why people usually tune to C and then add F and C levers to get the sharps).
(Back to Top / Back to Beginning of “What Key?”)

6). Modal and Pentatonic Tuning

All of the old Greek modes can be played on a harp with no levers, tuned to the scale of C major (no flats or sharps). Modes, like any other scales, are simply a pattern of tones and semitones (e.g. if you want to play in Dorian mode, you can start on any note as long as you follow the pattern – so you can play in D Dorian, or G Dorian).

For the sake of simplicity, below I’ve listed the main Greek modes as they would be played on a harp tuned in C:
Ionian (same as “major”): C D E F G A B C
Dorian: D E F G A B C D
Phrygian: E F G A B C D E
Lydian: F G A B C D E F
Myxolydian: G A B C D E F G
Aoelian (also known as “natural minor”): A B C D E F G A
Locrian (rarely used): B C D E F G A B

The old modes listed above can be found in many types of music, from many different centuries. People wanting to play medieval music on the harp will often stick to playing in modes, however some of the modes can also be found in modern music. Dorian and Aeolian, for instance, are quite common in Celtic music (and other folk music), as is Myxolydian.
A pentatonic scale is a five-note, or “gapped” scale, e.g. C D E G A C (like a major C scale, but missing the F and B). A pentatonic tuning is probably the most restrictive in terms of limiting the different kinds of tunes you can play, but may be appropriate if you are exclusively playing one kind of music on that particular instrument. It may also be used on a very small instrument, such as a lyre or miniature harp. Pentatonic tunes are actually quite common, especially in folk and roots music .

Thank you for coming to visit my Harp Pages, please let me know how I can bring your Dream Harp to Life !

Follow your Bliss, and live your Life in Joy!

Glenn J. Hill