Harps and Harpsichords

The harp is both an orchestral instrument and a percussion instrument, depending how it is used by the composer. Harps, small ones, are shown in reliefs and pottery from the days of the pharaohs, 13th century BC. It is also an instrument of Welsh and Irish folk music, being included in both Celtic folk bands, Irish ceilidh band and Welsh Twmpath bands. These instruments are relatively small compared with the concert harp, which has 47 strings. The harp reached Western Europe in the 12th century, when it was played in England and Scandinavia, and then moved over to Ireland, where became the national instrument. In Wales it also became a national instrument, many of the harpist from the Midsummer music website Welsh.

In the early 1800s the double-action harp was introduced, where each string could be tensioned or slackened by a pedal. In this form the instrument is tuned in sea flat. Each string can be stretched or slackened by the pedal. Each of the 7 strings of the octave for one pedal operate all the C strings, and other all the D strings and so on. Each pedal has 3 positions, so that when all the pedals are in the top location, the harp plays in C flat; when the pedals are moved to the middle position, the harp plays a semitone higher in C natural. When all the pedals are in the bottom position, the instrument plays in C Sharp.

The modern piano, which when taken out of its box as a frame and strings that look very reminiscent of the harp, as many ancestors; the harpsichord, virginal and spinet. The main difference between the piano (pianoforte) and earlier instruments is that the strings of the piano it with hammers, wearers with the early instruments the strings were plucked with plectrum mechanisms.

Harpsichords are being made in Italy in the late 1600s, pianos in England in the mid 1800s, where the cast-iron frame was introduced which gave the instrument much greater stability and tuning. Most people think of pianos as instruments for playing piano concertos, both rhythms and tunes in a jazz band, and as the harmonic backing in a Scottish ceilidh band, but within an orchestra normally used for their percussive effect. (Here I am talking about their use within a symphonic work, and not playing a piano concerto with orchestral accompaniment, which is quite a different kettle of fish.)

But consider now the percussion instruments that don't have a particular pitch. Drums, as opposed to the timpani which is pitched, can be divided into 2 families; those consisting of a single skin stretched across one end and those which have to skins, one at either end of some tubular wooden, metal or earthen ware former. At the 2 extremes of size lie the tambourine (the version with a stretched skin as well as the tiny metal symbols, and not the version that contains the symbols alone) and the bass drum.

The tambourine has been around for at least 2000 years, with little change in this design. In posh versions that single skin can be tightened or loosened by brass tuning nuts. It's a versatile instrument, but can be rather annoying when overused. Outside the orchestral setting it is used in barn dance bands, in Trad jazz bands and in junior schools to teach rhythm.

The side drum, tenor drum and tabor are really very similar. The side drum has 2 or more pieces of gut or wire spring stretched across one of the skins. These snares give the drama peculiar rattling quality which makes drum rolls much easier to achieve. The telegram is midway in size between the side drum and the bass drum. Its cylindrical frame is traditionally made of ash. It doesn't have any snares and producers a rather sombre tone. It is quite popular instrument in certain types of English barn dance band.

Other common instruments are the triangle, cymbal, Gong and castanet. It always amazes me how much noise a little bit of metal rod bent into a triangle shape, can make. It can cut right through a full orchestra at maximum volume. Perhaps that's why triangles were used as fire alarms. (They have the advantage that they don't need a battery!) The best gongs traditionally come from China, perhaps it's because of their skill in making woks? There are all sorts of other weird contraptions including the wind machine, used with such brilliant effect by Vaughan Williams in Symphony Antarctica (I played in an orchestra that performed this work some years ago, and the chief percussionist swore never to perform it again because the instrument nearly induced heart attack. It's a kind of mechanical fan device, a bit like the thing used to provide the drag on some designs of exercise bike. Turning the handle was VERY hard work. It did however, improve his waistline!)

Now we've got to the really good bit, the strings (well, I am a string player so I would say that wouldn't I!) The history of stringed instrument is very complicated, so as not to bore you are limit my ramblings on this. On one side of the evolutionary tree of the guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, banjo which all derived from the mediaeval lute. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a big family of flutes, which have almost become extinct, though we do have a few lutenist's on the Midsummer Music Agency website. Sometimes there is distinction made between the lute and the Qatar family, because of the very different construction methods, but in simple terms they are the same. They will have a group of string stretched over a hollow resonating box, the strings being plucked either by the fingers or by using a plectrum.

The guitar is probably the most common of all instruments, the equivalent of the Seagull amongst birds, being found played as a classical guitar, in folk bands and ceilidh bands, in jazz bands and in pop bands, either in their acoustic form or electric development. The banjo finds its way into jazz bands of the early jazz era and sometimes into barn dance bands, particularly into American barn dance bands where it is a traditional core of the band. I've never heard of a banjo being played in a symphony orchestra, but I'm sure somebody will have written a piece for Symphony Orchestra and banjo. Mandolins appear in baroque music and in ceilidh and barn dance bands, but I can't recall having ever heard them played in a jazz band.

The other branch of the tree of stringed instruments is that of bowed instruments (or at least, predominantly bowed and capable of being bowed, although they can also be plucked in the process called pizzicato.) To be able to bow an instrument and play individual strings, the support of the strings (the bridge) has to be curved, so that the straight hairs of the bow can touch one string whilst being above the other strings. Guitars, mandolins and the like have a flat bridge, so that if you did try to play them with a bow you would have to play all strings simultaneously. I've tried using my violin bow on a guitar, just for a laugh, and it definitely was just for a laugh, it made an awful noise. Of course there are instruments, like the Hardanger fiddle of Norwegian folk music tradition, and the Eastern European ceilidh band and clips the band viola, that is used for chordal accompaniment, which have almost flat bridges, so that by pressing hard on the bow and getting a curve on the bow has, you can play 3 or 4 strings simultaneously, but still when lightly bowed play more or less one string at a time.

The bowed instruments have to lines of descent, one the violin family and to the viol family. Although files still sometimes used by purist baroque ensembles, the only descendant in common use is the double bass. The viols were themselves precursors of the violin. Viols definitely possess a charm of their own, that are definitely inferior from the standpoint of tone, volume and the range of possible playing techniques. They come in 3 sizes: the treble or descant viol, the tenor viols and the bass viol. There were various evolutionary forms before the violin was arrived at 350 or so years ago, but I won't rabbit on about those now.

The violin family has 3 instruments in this range, the violin itself, the viola and the violoncello (normally just referred to as a cello). With other instruments of the orchestra there often a separate version of the instrument for each part that is equivalent to the vocal quartet. This isn't the case with the violin family when playing string quartets, where violin one takes the soprano part equivalent and violin two tends to play a little lower on its register and is the equivalent of the alto part. If one looks at the orchestral equivalent, and include the double bass, you then have 4 separate instruments, cello, double bass, but this wouldn't be acceptable as a view to the purists.