Trinity College harp stringing and tuning

I designed the stringing and tuning regime for the HHSI Student Trinity harps back in 2005, based on how I had previously set up my old copy of the Queen Mary harp. My aim then was to present what we knew of the 18th century Irish harp tradition – to have na comhluighe at g below middle c’, and to have a complete octave below na comhluige down to cronan G.

Over the years I have been less and less satisfied with this solution. All of the Trinity -style harps that have used this kind of scheme have either had significantly longer treble strings, allowing a better voice, or have sounded frankly a bit rubbish in the upper mid range and treble. I realised that I was not playing very much in the high treble range of the harp because of the poor tone from the under-tensioned strings.

On my Queen Mary replica I eventually settled on using silver trebles instead of brass, which allowed me to have the range I wanted and also make the harp speak well. I gravitated to a 2 metal solution (silver treble and mid-range, gold bass) on the replica Queen Mary harp, and I think this is a possible solution to a medieval setup. It’s how my replica Queen Mary harp is set up to this day.

However I was also interested in how this could translate to a 2 metal solution using brass and silver. It is clear that a higher pitch is required if the brass trebles and silver basses are to speak cleanly.

I was somewhat influenced by Paul Dooley’s GSJ article, and Karen Loomis’s PhD thesis, but I think they both go too far in the other direction, specifying impractically high pitches for the brass strings. I believe the strings of an Irish harp speak best at significantly below their maximum tension, but exactly where they speak best might be a case of trial and error.

The other thing that influenced my new scheme is my ideas on how we might compare the 18th century Irish harp gamut, with sub-bass strings, and cronan G, and na comhluighe g, and with the F strings movable to give either f sharp or f natural, on one hand, and the medieval Guidonian gamut on the other, with the shifting sonority at b natural and b flat. My solution is to throw out the idea that cronan G and Gamma Ut are the same; I have placed Gamma Ut three notes lower than cronan C, so that na comhluighe is on middle c’, as suggested many years ago by Alasdair Codona.

I never restrung my replica Queen Mary harp like this for various reasons; I love the all-silver and gold decadence, and I did not want to jeapordise the fragile gold bass strings by removing them. But when my HHSI Student Trinity came back here I knew that this was an easy chance to test these ideas.

Here are my Youtubes for before and after.

I am sorely tempted to recommend this new regime for any and all copies of the Trinity College and Queen Mary harps. The disadvantage is that they will then no longer match the 18th century harps such as the Downhill or the Mullaghmast. But on the other hand, I think that they should not. I don’t think people should expect to easily play the 18th century Irish harp repertory on a replica medieval harp. Using this scheme would highlight that the repertory and idiom of the medieval Gaelic harp is not the same as the repertory and idiom of the 18th century Gaelic harp.

What do you think? Would you restring and retune your Trinity or Queen Mary copy according to this new scheme?

8 thoughts on “Trinity College harp stringing and tuning”

  1. Great! Yes, you’re right, the 18th-c. setup does not necessarily belong on the medieval harp.

    I’ve been happy with na comhluighe at c’ on my Lamont since changing the tuning back in 2010. And I think it was you who originally mentioned this possibility to me. It does seem to make more sense on the instrument.

    Two questions:
    Do you have a string chart for your revised Trinity setup?

    With na comhluighe shifted up to c’, are you now playing your repertory higher up the harp towards the treble? (I assume yes) The wrist wear on the edges of the Trinity harp is farther up the soundbox than (I think) players of replicas have generally been placing their hands (esp. the left hand), and I’ve wondered if having na comhluighe too low down the harp might be a reason for this.

    1. Thank you Karen. I will be adding this chart to my list at – the only question is whether this new chart will totally supercede all previous charts for the Trinity and Queen Mary harps.

      Yes of course everything is played a 4th higher, because the placing of na comhluighe and cronan are what set the tessitura of the repertory.

      On one hand it makes everything shockingly high-pitched, a 4th above how people would place it on an 18th century harp and a 3rd above where it would sit on my replica Queen Mary. But on the other hand it forces me to ask – what is the repertory of the Trinity College & Queen Mary harps?

      It is this challenging philosophical question that interests me most – what is the Student Trinity harp? Is it a stripped-down simplified medieval Gaelic harp? Or is it an entry-level mini 18th century Irish harp?

      1. Really interesting to read your thinking on this. I’m coming late and know I haven’t yet read all you’ve written on this, but I wondered whether you considered including the three strings below cronan as described by Bunting, for stringing the Trinity?

        Would moving the sisters up three strings in this way, while keeping them at ‘g’, be enough to account for the difference in wear patterns that Karen has identified? The advantages I see with this approach are that the pitch remains at a similar level to the 18th harp and that the top strings would seem more usable to me (how often would we use that highest F without a G to go to/from?)

        1. Hi Niamh, thanks for your comment

          There’s constraints on how high or low you can pitch it, you can’t have sisters g and three below cronan on a harp as small as that.

          I wrote up my ideas more rigourously in Early Music Performer 40, Spring 2017. You can get the issue as a PDF download.

  2. Do you have any historical evidence for gold strings on harps at all, and for silver a) earlier than the 17th C, and for anything other than the very bottom????

    1. Hello Mike, no there is very very little hard historical or archaeological evidence for how to set up these harps, though more is gradually turning up all the time.

      My web pages at gather what evidence I have found so far for string materials.

      Obviously, choice of strings affects pitch and tuning regime, but there are so many possibilities, it is all rather unsatisfactory. So I end up making almost arbitrary choices and then evaluating them on aesthetic or intuitive grounds.

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