Harp Tuning by Ear


Seigneur Lucien de Pontivy, called Leceabh
Pennsic University 2008


The method described here will result in the standard tuning of a small Folk harp for voice accompaniment.  You will need a tuning fork (A-440 is a popular choice) and your tuning key.


Tune Every Day


  • A harp in tune resonates with power and poetic energy – it will literally hum with resonance when plucked.
  • Tuning every day teaches your harp what it ought to sound like, and teaches you what it ought to sound like.
  • Whatever the make and quality of wood used to make your harp, the soundboard could take anywhere from 2-4 YEARS to remember its tuning; daily attention will shorten that span considerably.
  • A harp out of tune sounds really, really bad.

With practice, using the method in this handout, you can develop a tuning habit that sounds lovely and meditative.

 the Brian Boru Harp


The Basics of Tuning

The first string

Find the string that matches the note for your tuning fork (e.g., for A-440, tune the A above middle C).


Gently tap the tuning fork against a hard surface so that it vibrates; then place the single-prong end against your soundboard. The soundboard will resonate in A.


Now: while the A is vibrating in your soundboard, pluck the A string and tune it. This bit takes some finesse: it will be easier to match resonances between the string and the soundboard when they are both sounding together. With your key, loosen and tighten the string until its resonance the resonance in the soundboard.


The Temperament


Once you have your first note tuned, put the tuning fork away. From now on you will tune every string against the first one.


Now pluck the open octave down. Loosen and tighten that string until the two are resonating together.


From A to A is now your Temperament. Tune all of the strings within the Temperament one by one, plucking open fifths and fourths up and down the octave and adjusting the untuned strings’ resonances until each string is in tune.

Most of the workshop will be spent learning how to hear and assess the resonance between strings.

Finding 4ths and 5ths


You will need to recognize these two intervals in order to tune the temperament. If you have not taken a singing or music class in which intervals were taught, just remember the song “Here Comes the Bride”.


“Here comes the bride…” (the interval between “here” and “comes” is a 4th)

“…all dressed in white.” (the interval between “all” and “dressed” is a 5th)


Walking the Harp


Once the Temperament is in tune, tune the rest of the notes of the harp using open 8ths. I tend to move down the harp first, tuning down to the lowest note and then back up again because hearing and comparing lower resonances is easier than higher ones. If you have time, fine-tune the entire harp to internal 4ths , and 5ths within each octave.


Voilá! Your harp is in tune.



Keep Checking


It is likely, particularly with new harps, that the instrument will go out of tune while it is being played. As you play, the internal temperature of the sound box changes; typically the strings farthest from you will go flat, and those closest to you will go sharp, because the harp is warmer close to your body. Take the time to check tuning, even during a performance. You owe it to yourself, and the audience can tell.


The harp is especially vulnurable to changes in the weather: on hot, dry days the harp will go sharp. In the cold and damp, it will go flat.


It is good practice to begin each session of harp playing with tuning followed by rote drills. If there are audience members present, pick a song that you know well and use it to stealthily tune up.



Care and Feeding


The harp will dry out over time, a condition which shortens its lifespan. My teacher’s teacher, a traditional old-country Irish harper, kept an apple in the soundbox of his harp. Over time, his harp kept hydrated by absorbing the moisture from the apple. My teacher insisted that the cider smell made her wonderfully relaxed. My preference is to wet a sponge, placing it in a ziplock bag that has a lot of pinprick holes punched in it, and keep that in the sound box. It works just as well and doesn’t smell like old cider.



The Zen of Tuning by Ear


There are two oddities about the harp that will become apparent if you play with other instruments that are not harps.


If you tune by ear, checking each note against the resonance of the notes above or below it, your ear will tune each successively higher octave just a bit sharper than an electronic tuner. That is because the note’s resonance is actually a bit sharp. It’s quite normal. This gradual sharpening effect won’t matter if you are accompanying yourself, another vocalist, or an instrument with a small range, but if you are playing in a group, before you launch in be sure to check your tuning against other instruments with the same range.


If you tune by ear often enough, and learn to hear the resonances, you will never not hear them. This new facility may impact your enjoyment of acoustic musical performances. You have been warned.




All images public domain. Content ©2008 Myra Hope Bobbitt. This text was first presented as a class at Harper’s Retreat in the Barony of Stonemarche, in 2001.

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