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How are Double-Strung Harps Tuned? [Double-Strung Harp FAQ S1E2]

Hi, I’m Cynthia Shelhart. You can call me Cindy. And it’s time for some Double Talk. Double-strung harp, that is.

My first FAQ episode was a big-picture view of the double-strung harp. If you missed it, please make sure you’re subscribed to my mailing list and get notifications for the next video and future videos. This time, on FAQ Episode 2, we’re talking tuning! We’ll take a closer look at lever harp hardware—the strings, the tuning pins and sharping levers—and how they’re used for tuning the double-strung harp.

Now, if you see me looking down, I’ve got a ton of notes for you. I want to make sure that I get all the information to you that you need about double-strung harps and tuning. 

String Materials & Tension

So let’s get started with the strings. Double-strung harps are like many other lever harps. They have a variety of string materials and tension—anywhere from tight to loose and in between. The most common string that’s used for lever harps is nylon. It’s less expensive, and it has a lighter tension that’s easier for most people to play. They can be monofilament strings (only one strand of nylon), or you can have some of the lower strings wrapped with nylon around nylon, or nylon with a metal core. That depends on the harp builder’s design. Less common for lever harps are gut strings (with high tension like a pedal harp) or wire strings. 

Now double-strung harps, again because they are also lever harps, are very similar. You will usually see nylon strings on these harps. And the tension can vary, depending on the design. It can be tight tension, looser tension, light or heavy. And you may also see some gut or wire strings on double-strung harps. For the most part, you’ll see nylon. Just remember if you want higher tension, the best way to go is gut strings. Talk with your harp builder to see if that is available. Gut strings sound best for higher tension.

Stringing: Parallel vs. Divergent

So for double-strung harps, there’s also something a little different. Obviously, we have not one, but two rows of strings to think about. We also have two methods of putting those two rows of strings on the harp. We call that stringing. And there are two different types.

Parallel stringing—the most common—is when we have strings in true parallel. They are from two different string ribs in the soundboard. The other type of stringing for double-strung harps is divergent stringing. And this means that the strings are angled from one string rib out to either side of the neck, and it almost looks like a letter V. That’s how I remember “divergent,” because it has a “V” in it.

As I record this video, Stoney End harps are the main brand that have divergent stringing on their harps. Most other major harp builder brands have parallel stringing. (You’ll see that in this video, on the Dusty Strings harp behind me, and also in the picture of the Rees harp.)

Now in thinking about stringing, people ask, “Well, is there an advantage to either method?” Some players find it easier to see one way or the other, whether it’s parallel or divergent stringing. And we’ll talk more about this, and getting over what I call “double vision”, in a future episode. Just keep in mind, there may be an advantage individually for you. And the best thing that you can do is, if you have an opportunity, is to try the different stringings and see if there is any difference for you. It’s a very individual preference.

Tuning Pins

Moving on from the soundboard and the strings, lever harp strings wind around the tuning pins in the neck. That’s what happens on the other end of the string; they move up from the soundboard. You play on the strings in the middle, and then the other end is tuned on the tuning pegs—hence the name—the tuning pins in the neck.

You may see two different types of tuning pins. These are both professional and reliable; one isn’t better than the other. Some builders prefer one or the other, but they’re both professional and reliable.

Tapered tuning pins go all the way through the neck. The string winds on one end of the pin, and you tune it with a tuning key on the other side of the neck. It goes all the way through the neck, as opposed to micro-threaded, which are also called “zither” pins. These go partway through the neck, and they wind the string around the tuning pin and tune on the same end of the pin. They do not go all the way through the neck. So for these tuning pins, these are popular with some double-strung harp luthiers because this makes the harp slightly lighter. There is less metal on the harp, so it is a little bit lighter.

Tuning with Sharping Levers

The name “lever harp” comes from the sharping levers that are used for tuning (including double-strung harps). These raise or lower the pitch of an individual string a half step, for example, from an F to an F sharp. 

Before setting your levers, you start by tuning the strings as what we call open strings. You tune each string manually, and tune it without engaging the lever. And you tune them to the notes of a major scale of a specific key. There are usually 1 to 3 different keys that we use when tuning. (We’ll talk more about these later on in this video.)

On a double-strung harp, you have two rows of strings, and they’re tuned in unison, with the same note across from each other: middle C, middle C, D above that, D above that. When it comes time to change keys, you use your levers. They are shortcuts. They are much easier than re-tuning all those strings manually. So you put them in different combinations, of raised or lowered levers, and they do the rest of the work for you. They are your shortcut. More levers on your harp means that you have more musical keys available. 

Levers: Music & Keys

So, moving on from there, you start thinking about choosing the right double-strung harp for you. This also means that you need to think about choosing the levers. The setup for the levers depends on what kind of music you want to play on it. (Not just because the harp looks pretty.) You also need to think about the music that you want to play on your double-strung harp. You need to think about what keys you’ll need for playing the music that’s your favorite, or that you plan to have in your repertoire later on. 

You can certainly play in the key of C. And later on, you might decide to have some other options. That’s where the levers come in. You might want to play in just a few keys: maybe traditional music, church hymns and so on. Or, you might want to play in a variety of sharp and flat keys—and by sharp and flat keys, I mean, harps that are playing in keys that have sharps or flats in the key signature. So if you want to play in a variety of sharp or flat keys, or you might have accidentals or key changes during the piece (sometimes required in classical or pop or jazz music), then you’re going to need more levers. 

Again, if you have more levers, then more musical keys are available to you. You have more options. So which levers do you need for those keys? You’ve decided on the keys; which levers do you need? There are 3 main tunings, as I mentioned earlier, or keys that are used when tuning lever harps, including double-strung harps. If you’re going to play in just a few keys (the key of C only, or maybe a couple of sharp keys), then you might, move on from having no levers at all to having F and C levers. This means that you would order all the F levers and all the C levers that can fit on the range of your harp. And this allows you to play in up to 3 keys: key of C with no levers, key of G with one sharp throughout, or key of D with two sharps throughout (those would be the F’s, and then the F’s and C’s). 

If you want to include a flat key, you can tune your harp in open strings to the key of F. This means that, in addition to maybe ordering the F and C levers on your harp (as mentioned earlier for the sharp keys), you can also add the B levers. This would allow you to tune your open strings in the key of F, and moving from there you can play in 4 keys: the key of F with one flat in the key signature, the key of C with no flats or sharps, the key of G with one sharp throughout and the key of D with two sharps throughout.

But if you want the most options – and this is what’s available from most builders nowadays – you order your harp with a full set of levers on both string rows, on both sides of your harp. And you will tune the open strings in the key of E flat. That’s what I do. And you use that when you have a full set of levers. And this allows you to play in up to 8 keys, anywhere from three flats to four sharps in the key signature, plus the key of C in the middle with no flats or sharps.

Levers: Which Harp?

So from there, we’’ve talked about the strings, the levers, the tuning pins a little earlier. And now that you know the music that you want to play and the levers that you need, you need to find the harp that has these lever options. Some harps are not designed for levers at all. If you’re starting out with a small range harp that’s possibly the Waring double-strung harp or that harp in kit form, it’s a fantastic harp to start on. It also does not have the option for having levers; there is no room for them in the design. So that’s something to keep in mind. If you know you want levers, you’re going to need to look at some other options. 

Some luthiers have only full sets available, and at the time that I’m filming this video, that is the case with most major harp brands for double-strung harps. They all have full sets available. A few others do have options you can pick and choose. At a minimum, I would recommend that you get F and C levers, or possibly add, that B lever so that you can play in one flat key, in addition to the two sharp keys. This is a popular choice.

Are you partial to a specific lever brand? Just like harps come in brands, there are several different manufacturers of levers, the sharping levers. And this could include Loveland, Rees, Truitt and others. Some luthiers will give you options on the levers that they make available to you. Some have a more limited choice. So, this can depend on the luthier. It can even depend on the harp model from the luthier. So if you’re very partial to a specific kind of lever—maybe it’s something that you’re used to from your single row harp, or you want to give something else a try on your double—make sure that the harp you fall in love with does have those levers available. 

Levers: My Recommendations for Double-Strung Harp

So wrapping up, a couple of things to talk about. First of all, I’d like to give you my recommendations for double-strung harp. I do recommend that you get a full set of levers on both string rows, or as many as you can afford, when you buy your harp. You’ll pay more at the beginning, but you’ll be able to do more at the beginning. Not only with keys, but there are other musical things you can do.

But it’s also going to save you some effort in the long run. At the beginning, if you pay more (if you end up with more levers), as you advance, you’re going to be able to do those alternate tunings, the preset keys that take care of some of the accidentals. And you’ll be able to do accidentals during the piece. These are all things that will be available to you right away, or when you’re ready for them. And I’ll talk more about lever settings and the notation for these alternate tunings in future videos. But if you can order a full set, it’s going to give you options down the road.

If what your budget allows you to do is get fewer levers now, and others later to save some money, I understand that; but you will pay later for extra time, parts, labor, and round trip shipping. If you are not conveniently living next door to your harp builder, you are going to need to pay to have it shipped back and forth, when you have the levers installed. So there are costs that are going to happen later on, if you do not get a full set, and then make the decision later on to get a full set of levers.

If you’re concerned about the extra weight of the harp from the extra metal of additional tuning pins, the levers and so on, if you’re thinking that that’s going to be too heavy for you, it’s really not something to be concerned about. It only adds 1-3 pounds maximum of additional weight to the harp. So if that’s holding you back from ordering the full set of levers for your harp on both sides, I wouldn’t count that as a concern. It’s not going to add that much weight to your harp. So the musical benefits definitely outweigh—I know, no pun intended, but it just came out!—it outweighs the possible drawback of having the harp be just a couple of pounds heavier. So do look into having a full set of levers, if at all possible, at the time that you buy your harp, so that you don’t have to deal with all of those costs and logistics later on.

Wrapping Up

So no matter what kind of setup you’ve got on your current (or future) double-strung harp: if you’re going to get a harp with parallel or divergent stringing for the two rows of strings—if you’re going to get just a few levers, or a full set—it helps to know about your double harp hardware, and what it can do for your tuning.

And if you like what you heard today, and you want to find out more, make sure you’re subscribed, so you can be notified about future episodes. And if you want to be the first to get some more Double Talk, head on over to my website, CindyShelhart.com, and sign up for my mailing list. 

In our next episode, if you’ve caught the double-strung harp bug, I’m so excited! I’m going to cover how to choose the double-strung harp that is just right for you. I’ll see you next time. Take care!