The Composer’s Harp Pedal Tracker
What follows here assumes that you know how the concert harp’s pedalling system works. If not, please look at How the harp’s pedals work below. And please note, I am not a harpist! Merely a composer who had to learn this stuff in order to write a few tricky harp parts.
Writing for the harp: the problem
If your music is very chromatic or atonal — and if you’re diligent enough to provide pedal settings for the harp part — keeping track of those settings can be a real nuisance. You would normally put a full pedal diagram such as this:
at the beginning of the piece and main sections, or after a long rest. However, during the course of the music, as the player needs to change a pedal here (say, G♯), another a bit later (say, E♭), a couple more a bit further on (C♮ A♭) and so on, it’s customary just to put those separate indications in the part, not the full diagram. As a consequence it’s all too easy to lose track of the settings — I want a B♭ here, so was B last set to ♭, ♮ or ♯? Or should I use A♯? — and you end up leafing back through the score to trace B’s last setting. If the harp part’s very busy this can become a real, time wasting nuisance.
Yes, the solution is at hand! Well… you could use Scrabble tiles, like someone I know… but I have knocked up this little utility in the form of a large pedal diagram which lets you change each pedal setting here as you mark them in the score.
- Slide each ‘pedal’ (those black rectangles) into the new position.
- As you do so, it will give you audio feedback by playing the old note when you start to drag, then the new note when you let go.
- If this annoys you, you can turn it off by clicking the little speaker icon at the bottom left. Click it again to turn it on.
- At any time, you can play a scale (in the octave below middle C) with the current settings by clicking — yes! — the ‘Play scale’ button (this works whether or not the audio feedback is enabled).
- At any time, you can reset everything to natural (C major) by clicking — you’re ahead of me here, I’m sure — the ‘Reset to C major’ button.
- It keeps track of your settings, including whether audio feedback is on or off, between sessions (unless you disabled cookies).
- Click the ‘Pop out’ button to separate the tracker into its own little window. That way you can keep just that window open while you work on your score, without cluttering your screen up with a big browser window and all this blurb. Your settings are maintained between the main and popout windows (again, unless you disabled cookies). Note: your settings won’t be transferred from the popout back to the main window if you click the system’s close button — you must use the button at the bottom of the popout for this to work.
The harp sounds used here are from the Harp module available for Modartt’s Pianoteq 5, which ingeniously mimics the actions of the pedals, hence the subtle difference in sound between, for example, C♯ and D♭.
How the harp’s pedals work
The concert harp is essentially a diatonic instrument, which is partly what makes writing chromatic or atonal music for it such a challenge:
- The strings are equivalent to the white notes on a piano keyboard (there are those who say that, strictly speaking, it’s the ‘harp in C♭’).
- There are seven pedals — one for each note class — to control which notes are flat, natural or sharp. When the A pedal is in the bottom position, all the A notes become A♯; in the top position they are all A♭; and in the middle position A♮.
- The pedals control, in left to right order: D, C, B; E, F, G, A. The left foot controls, from the centre outwards, B, C and D; the right foot the other four (though occasionally a foot might stray to the opposite side).
- This means you cannot, for example, write a chord containing F♮ and F♯. However, enharmonic equivalents are commonplace in harp writing, which results in some very (to non-harpists) odd-looking chromatic spelling (you might find yourself, for example, having to write an E major triad as E, A♭, B — or possibly C♭!).
- It also means you can do a handy trick to get a bit more power out of a note: set, for example, F to ♯ and G to ♭ and play the two adjacent notes together. As you can tell from looking at a piano keyboard, there are just three notes for which this is impossible, D♮, G♮ and A♮ (the harp’s pedals don’t run to double flats or sharps).
- The exceptions to all this are the two lowest strings, C and D (3 octaves below middle C and D), which are not affected by the pedals and need to be tuned according to the composer’s specifications at the start. They cannot be changed during the piece. On some harps this also applies to the top G string (3 and half octaves above middle C).
I have tested it in all browsers readily available to me on my desktop computer: up to date versions of Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Opera in Mac OS X 10.10.5; and Chrome, Opera, Safari, Internet Explorer and Firefox in Windows 7, running in Parallels Desktop 10.3 on Mac. I have also tested it in Safari on my iPhone and iPad (you get a slightly different version on touch screen devices). The results are somewhat variable!...
Mac OS X
- Safari: fine.
- Google Chrome: fine.
- Firefox: everything works, but there’s a minor audio issue: each note played (including for the scale) is preceded by an annoying click.
- Opera: distinctly flaky. The pedal settings basically work, though sometimes you need to click outside the tracker to ‘let go of’ a pedal. However, this problem disappears when you switch the audio feedback off, so seeing as the audio doesn’t work anyway, it’s the obvious workaround! Finally, settings aren’t transferred between the main window and the popout (though they do ‘stick’ between sessions in the main window).
- Google Chrome: fine.
- Opera: fine.
- Safari: fine.
- Internet Explorer: fine apart from clicky audio (each click seems to come after the note starts playing).
- Firefox: flaky in the same way as Opera/Mac (see above), except that the settings are transferred between the main and popout windows.
- Safari in iOS: fine, except that the scale will only play the first note or two, and any you have changed with the audio feedback on (and therefore already played). I have now established that this is due to limitations deliberately imposed by Apple on the implementation of audio in html. A workaround is to make sure you tap each note at least once before playing the scale.
- Chrome in iOS: ditto.
- Others: More work to be done here, as there are serious problems with both Android and Windows 10 mobile devices. Watch this space...
So Google Chrome is your best bet all round, or failing that, Safari/Mac or Opera/Windows.
I don’t propose to devote my life to working on this thing, but if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to let me know.