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For Composers

In working with composers and premiering many new works, I’ve answered all sorts of questions about composing for the harp. Many of these questions center around the pedals of the harp. This is naturally a complex topic, as no other instrument uses pedals for the same purpose or approaches chromaticism in the same way. Rather than attempting to provide a comprehensive guide covering all composing questions, this article provides some basic information and then focuses on the harp pedals. 


A Few Harp Basics

All harps are constructed by stretching strings across a frame. The strings form a diatonic scale, with seven strings per octave: C D E F G A B, or Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si. The strings are color-coded as a visual reference for the harpist, with all of the C strings colored red and all of the F strings colored black. The remaining strings are white. The standard orchestral instrument, formally named the double-action pedal harp, has, at its full size, 47 strings. This is a range of six-and-a-half octaves, from C1–G7. The lowest twelve strings (C1-A2) are always made of steel, commonly called wire strings. The remaining 35 strings are usually gut in the middle registers and nylon in the top one or two octaves. Some harpists will have more or fewer nylon strings depending on personal preference.


                   Example 1: Range of the harp


Harpists read the grand staff, just as pianists do, with the left hand generally playing in the bass clef and the right hand generally playing in the treble clef. Harpists only use four fingers on each hand as the little finger is too short to be used. For fingering written in the music, harpists use the same numbers as pianists: 1 (thumb), 2 (index finger), 3 (middle finger), 4 (ring finger). Unlike the piano playing position, where the hands face in opposite directions with the thumbs next to each other, the harp playing position is symmetrical for both hands. The ring finger is always on the lower notes and the thumb on the higher notes. You could think of this as using the left hand position from the piano, minus the little finger, in both hands. When playing, the harp rests on the harpist's right shoulder and the right arm wraps around the instrument, which physically limits the range of the right hand. The left hand can access the entire range of the harp, although the top octave is a bit inconvenient.

                    Example 2: Range of each hand


The question of chromaticism is approached in different ways depending on the type of harp. The lever harp and the pedal harp are the two most prevalent harps today and are quite different from each other.

Lever Harps

Lever harps, also known as Celtic, Irish, or folk harps, can be surprisingly small, ranging from around 3 feet up to 5 feet tall. They usually have 22 to 38 strings, less than the range of a pedal harp, and each string has a lever at the top of it. When this lever is engaged, is raises the pitch by a half step. This gives you two pitches per string. If, for example, you have a C string tuned to natural, then engaging the lever will raise the pitch to a C-sharp. Disengaging the lever will return the string to natural. You could also tune a string to flat in its unaltered position, such as a B-flat, and engaging the lever would then raise it a half step and change the pitch to a natural, a B-natural in this instance. So each string can move between flat and natural, or between natural and sharp, but never between all three positions.

Consequently, you cannot play in all twenty-four keys on a lever harp without extensive re-tuning. It is most common to tune a lever harp in the Key of E-flat, and then depending on how the levers are adjusted you can play in E-flat major, B-flat major, F major, C major, G major, D major, A major and E major. Due to the limited number of keys that can be used, and how time-consuming it is to change each string individually, the lever harp is better suited to folk-related music rather than classical music with its many modulations and accidentals. The pedal harp is the type of harp associated with Western classical music, and what will be focused on in the following sections.

Mechanics of Pedals

On the double-action pedal harp, each string has three positions, flat, natural, and sharp. The mechanism which controls these positions is located at the top of the strings, the same as on a lever harp, but is then connected through the hollow column of the harp to seven pedals around the base of the harp. The harpist moves these pedals with their feet to change the positions of the strings.

Each pedal corresponds to a single pitch class. There is a C pedal which simultaneously controls all of the C strings, a D pedal which simultaneously controls all of the D strings, and so forth. Each pedal has three positions corresponding to the three positions of each string: flat (the top position of the pedal), natural (the middle position), and sharp (the lowest position). Every time there is a change of key or an accidental, this change is made with the feet, both for the accidental and then to return to the starting pitch. For example, if a piece is in the key of G and is temporarily modulating to the key of D, the harpist would move the C pedal from natural to sharp, and all of the C strings would simultaneously shift to the new pitch. Then, to return to the key of G, the harpist would move the C pedal back to the C natural position.


The pedals are divided into two groups in the following order:

left side             right side

D  C   B              E  F  G  A

The left foot controls D, C, and B, while the right foot controls E, F, G, and A. 


From the standpoint of complex classical music, the pedal harp is advantageous in that the harpist can play in all twenty-four keys, and as one pedal controls many strings, the harpist can shift between keys or accidentals quite quickly.


It is important to note that the lowest two strings of the harp, C7 and D7, only have one position rather than three. They are not connected to the pedal mechanism and do not shift when the pedals are moved. Before playing, the harpist must tune both of these strings to the required pitch and leave them at this pitch for the length of the entire movement or piece (for example, C-flat 7 and D-sharp 7). This is a point that is frequently overlooked by composers.


The harp approaches chromaticism in a very literal sense, which has some limitations, but also creates some unique possibilities, as enharmonics on the harp are unlike enharmonics on any other instruments. For example, to play an F-sharp, you put the F pedal into the sharp position and play the F string, but to play a G-flat, you put the G pedal into the flat position and play the G string. Enharmonics, even though they still sound the same, are physically played with two different strings. This creates several useful possibilities: 

  • Seemingly impossible combinations of pitches can be played simultaneously. For example, a chord containing both an A-natural and an A-sharp can be played using an A-natural on the A string and a B-flat on the B string.

  • You can double a couple of the pitches in a scale, so even though you are still playing seven strings, you only hear five separate pitches, such as a pentatonic scale (e.g. C♮ D♮ E♯ F♮ G♮ A♮B♯) or four pitches in the case of a diminished seventh chord (e.g. C♮, D♯, E♭, F♯, G♭, A♮, B♯) This is especially effective for glissandos.

  • Notes can be doubled to reinforce the sound, with the exception of D-natural, G-natural and A-natural, as there is no enharmonic equivalent for these three pitches. For example, a fortissimo chord might contain both an F-sharp and G-flat to increase the sound.

  • You can oscillate between two different strings, but use an enharmonic equivalent so that only one pitch is heard. Repeating a note quickly is difficult on the harp, both due to the physical motion of continually returning to the string and because it’s quite difficult to get an even, full sound. However, by using, for example, a D-sharp and an E-flat, the performer can easily alternate between the two strings and remove both difficulties. This is also how harpists give the effect of a tremolo, by playing with the physical motion of a trill while using two enharmonically equivalent strings.


From a notational standpoint, harpists strongly prefer that the pitch is written as it will be played. If a D-flat string will be used, it is best to write a D-flat, even if a C-sharp would be correct from a theoretical standpoint. Double flats or double sharps should be avoided completely.

Pedal Notation

Moving pedals adds an extra layer of information to keep track of while playing the harp. Naturally, this means that clear and consistent notation is important. There are some standard procedures which should be followed by the composer, along with a wide range of individual preferences. Harpists themselves always mark the following in their music:

  • The initial setting of their pedals at the start of a piece or movement.

  • Each and every pedal change during a piece of music, including a return to the original pedal setting or the key signature.


Composers should provide the initial pedal setting. Some also provide the individual pedal changes, but some leave this up to the performer, as performers have many personal preferences about how they mark their pedals. Regardless, the composer must keep track of the pedals while writing and be sure to avoid any impossibilities, such as rapid chromatic scales, or chords containing pitches that cannot be played simultaneously (for example, a chord containing a G-natural, G-sharp, and an A-natural).


The most obvious way to provide the initial pedal setting is to simply write out the seven pedals, in order from left to right, and include a flat, natural, or sharp sign after each pedal.

D♮ C♯ B♭ E♮ F♯ G♮ A♭


The above is perfectly acceptable, but keep in mind that the order is important. Writing the pedals in the order of the scale is not correct.

C♯ D♭ E♮ F♯ G♮ A♭ B♭


The other way to show the initial pedal setting is to use a pedal chart or diagram. This is a visual representation of how the pedals look on the harp. The large vertical line represents the middle of the harp with the pedals operated by the left foot (D C B) to the left of it and the pedals operated by the right foot (E F G A) on the right of it. The horizontal line represents the middle (natural position) of the pedals. Each small vertical line represents one of the seven pedals and the position to which it is set: on top of the horizontal line for a pedal in the flat position, on the horizontal line for a pedal in the natural position, and below the horizontal line for a pedal in the sharp position. Pedal diagrams are commonly used by harpists because they are quick to write in and easy to glance at for reference. Here is the same pedal setting shown in a pedal chart or diagram.


                          Example 3: Pedal diagram 


(Pedals shown are:  D♮  C♯   B♭  E♮  F♯   G♮  A♭)

If you want to add individual pedal markings, the correct procedure is to provide simply the letter followed by the flat, natural, or sharp sign wherever a pedal change is needed. Pedal markings can be done in either English (D♯ C♮ B♭ etc.) or using solfege (Re♯ Do♮ Si♭ etc.) Many harpists have a personal preference, but both are commonly used.

Pedal changes are usually written either between the staves or below the lower staff. Sometimes it is simply decided by a matter of practicality, such as notating below the staves because there is more blank space in the score there.


The pedal change should contain only the new position of the pedal, not what the pedal was previously set at. 

                          Example 4: Correct vs. Incorrect pedal notation


Changing Pedals

As noted earlier, the pedals are divided into two groups in the following order:


left side             right side

D  C   B              E  F  G  A


Therefore, two pedals can be moved simultaneously, but only if they are on opposite sides of the harp. C and F are possible to move together, but not G and A. On rare occasions the left foot can cross over and move the E pedal while the right foot is moving F, G, or A, but this is not possible with any other pedal.


When two pedals are being moved by the right and left foot simultaneously, the notation should reflect this. This is done by stacking the pedal changes vertically on top of each other:




rather than the incorrect:

C♯, F♯


There is no standardization for which pedal should be on top. Both are commonly used:

C♯          F♯

F♯          C♯

Harpists have personal preferences as to which order they prefer. Some will mark all of the right-sided pedals on the top with the left-sided below and vice versa. The composer should be consistent in their approach (right over left or left over right) throughout the piece.

Most experienced professional harpists change their pedals directly when the change is needed, rather than in advance. If a chord contains a G-sharp and this necessitates a change, they will write their G♯ pedal below this chord and then physically move the pedal just as they begin to play the chord. Notating this way is especially helpful when dealing with complex chromatic music or atonal music involving many pedal changes, because then the performer can clearly see the connection between the accidental and the pedal change.


This is not a hard and fast rule. Some common exceptions include:

  • If the rhythm is quick or complex, it is wise to put a pedal change on the beat, rather than the last sixteenth note of a group, or possibly on the downbeat of a measure.

  • If there are several measures of rest, such as in an orchestral or chamber piece, it is common to change any needed pedals during the rests to set up for the next passage.

  • If a piece is written for a student harpist, generally pedal changes take place in advance, in order to leave plenty of margin for error, maybe a measure or two sooner than needed, or at the beginning of a phrase.


Sometimes the music itself necessitates a more complex approach. For instance, if a chord requires that two pedals be changed simultaneously on the same side of the harp (for example, F♯ G♯), one pedal should be moved on the previous beat or during the previous measure.


                     Example 5: Pedal change placement


Another common difficultly can arise from the resonance of the instrument. The lower registers of the harp have an especially long decay, and sometimes a pitch might still be ringing when the pedal needs to be moved, which will create an undesirable buzzing noise. There are subtle ways for a performer to compensate for this, such as dampening the specific pitch just before changing the corresponding pedal. Interestingly enough, sometimes when harpists discuss difficulty with pedals in a particular piece, they might be referring to problems with resonance rather than the physical speed needed in moving the pedals.

More information about pedals is presented in the below videos, which are intended as an introduction to pedals and subsequent study for harp students. These are from the perspective of the player, rather than the composer.

Examples from Music

One of the best ways to get a feel for the pedals is to look at some examples from music. Below you will find several standard orchestral pieces with pedals marked, giving a range of parts from those where pedals are not of much concern to parts where pedals are the main difficulty. Click on a part to enlarge it.

Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 by Max Bruch, Movement IV

The opening for this movement is quite difficult because of all the

large chords at a quick tempo, but the pedals are no trouble.


La Mer by Claude Debussy, Movement II, Jeux de Vagues

Debussy uses two harps in this piece and here they are playing in unison. The pedals are quite straightforward in this section.


Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz

In this opening of the harp 1 part, you can see that most of the pedal changes take place during the bars of rest in between arpeggios. Starting on line 3 the pedals are moved while playing. There are some pedal suggestions printed in the music, but I've crossed these out both because they're incomplete and because they're not well-written. For example, at the end of line 2, three pedals are shown being moved simultaneously, which is obviously impossible.


Symphony no. 5 by Gustav Mahler, Movement IV, Adagietto

This movement is not particularly technically challenging, but achieving full resonance, especially regarding the notes in the low registers, can be difficult and generally requires moving the pedals as precisely as possible


Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

This passage comes from near the end of the opera. Wagner is well-known for his chromatic harmonies, which generally result in many pedal changes in his part parts. On the fourth line, I've circled quite a few notes. This is standard harp notation to show that you will be playing these notes with an enharmonic equivalent, that is a different string, rather than the printed note, which makes it quite confusing to read.

Wagner p 1.png

Don Juan, Op. 20 by Richard Strauss

 Strauss writes difficult harp parts in general. I've selected this one because it's rather tricky in terms of pedals, although certainly playable. This is from the slow middle section of the tone poem. If it weren't for the many pedal changes, it would be quite easy to play. 

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