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The Sampled Orchestra: Part 8

Harp, Keyboards & Choir
Published February 2018
By Dave Stewart

Close-up of hands playing a harp.

A glorious suite of extras bolsters the core orchestral sound.

While the four main instrument families (strings, woodwind, brass and percussion) are sufficient to cover the meat and potatoes of an orchestral arrangement, there remain several extra sonorities which will add colour, drama and intensity to a score. The most important of these is the harp, an indispensable symphonic accessory which has been an integral part of the orchestra since the mid-19th Century, either as a solo instrument or in a group with one or more others.

The 47-string concert harp is around six feet tall.The 47-string concert harp is around six feet tall.For broad classification purposes the harp is sometimes lumped in with the strings, but it really occupies a category of its own. A concert harp (or ‘pedal harp’) is about six feet tall and resembles the frame of a grand piano stood on end, with a roughly triangular shape, a distinctive curved top and 47 strings which are laid out vertically and diminish in length as they ascend in pitch over a six-and-a-half octave range.

Harp strings are plucked with the fingers, with the hands positioned either side of the strings: as with the piano, the right hand plays the higher notes while the left hand tackles the bass end. The instrument is tuned to a major scale, which, as SOS readers know, consists of only seven notes; early harps were limited to this tuning, but as musical composition evolved in the late Renaissance period, efforts were made to turn the harp into a chromatic instrument (one which can be played in any key). A major breakthrough occurred in 1820, when a French piano maker invented a foot pedal mechanism which allowed the pitch of the strings to be altered quickly.

Today’s sample collections offer a range of great-sounding concert harps that have been chromatically recorded at multiple dynamics across their full range — a list of such libraries appears below. To see the harp in action, check out Ruth Holden of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s demonstration at

Harp Playing Styles

The straight plucked harp articulation is a delightful orchestral colour. More delicate than a piano, its plump attack and resonant, lingering sustain are well suited to quiet lyrical passages, and can also be a good source of light rhythmic ostinato figures, an example of which is shown in Diagram 1. Written for a film cue using two sampled harps, this repeated 6/4 phrase provides a light, rocking motion, which keeps the music moving without being obtrusive. The harmony is kept deliberately simple and open, allowing a sad, ascending strings chord sequence to unfold on top. Note that the last note of the bar alternates between G and F, the latter introducing a D minor feel over the A pedal note.

Diagram 1: The harp is a good source of light rhythmic ostinato figures, such as the repeated 6/4 phrase notated here.Diagram 1:...

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Published February 2018