The Contemporary Double-Strung Harp
by Laurie Riley

The contemporary double-strung harp is an increasingly popular instrument in the harp world. Many styles of music can be played on this versatile harp, and it comes in many sizes from lap-sized to large. Interestingly, its versatility does not diminish with smaller size as does a single-course harp, so it has become a favored harp for travel and portability.

The double-strung harp has two identical diatonically-tuned  (like the white keys on the piano) parallel rows of nylon strings, and two full sets of sharping levers.  You can tune the two rows differently from each other when needed. This is especially handy for pre-setting accidentals so you don't have to flip levers in the middle of a piece, and also for modulating easily from one key to another. The styles and effects that can be done on this harp are nearly infinite. It has many more capabilities than a single-course harp, and in many cases is actually easier to play. It lends itself very well to jazz, Celtic, South American, African, Welsh, Scandinavian, New Age, pop, rock, folk, other ethnic styles, and much classical music. Because each hand has a separate and entire set of strings to itself, there is a tremendous capacity for complexity of arrangement and satisfaction of playing. And the strings tend to ring sympathetically, resulting in rich but not overwhelming harmonics. Yet the harp is simple in design and easy to play and understand. 

Players who are accustomed to a larger harp can play a small double-strung harp without changing their large-harp arrangements. The left hand simply plays on the left row, and the right hand on the right row. Each hand has the freedom to play the whole length without obstructing the other hand.


Double-strung harp, built by Dusty Strings

Let's compare: on a larger single-course harp - let's use 36 strings as an example  - the left hand normally has about two octaves available before the limitation of running into the right hand becomes a factor at mid-range, and the right hand has about 3 available octaves. But if you have a small double-strung harp with, say, 26 strings per row, the left hand has over 3 octaves to play without interference, and so does the right hand. And imagine the possibilities with a larger one! But even a 23-strings-per-row lap model makes many more notes available per hand than a mid-size single-course harp. A 23-string double is actually a 46-string harp! And you can reach all the strings easily!

Although a large double-strung harp (33 to 36 strings) has a full tonal range, as would any other harp that size, a small double-strung harp has less bass range, of course. On smaller ones, the left hand will automatically overlap with the right hand (on separate rows of strings). The overlap effect can be done on purpose on a larger one. This produces a unique and beautiful echo effect, as well as lovely harmonies.

There is an historical double-strung harp called arpa doppia, which was used in Spain and Italy. It differs dramatically from the contemporary double harp design. The historical harps had three partial rows of strings, which overlapped slightly. At the bass end, the left row was tuned diatonically (do-re-mi etc.). A middle parallel row, tuned to sharps, began in the upper bass register. To play the sharps, one reached between the strings of the left row, or played them with the right hand. This sharped row continued through the mid range and partially into the treble range. A third row of strings, on the far right side, began on the note where the far left row ended, thereby overlapping with the middle row, but continuing much higher than the middle row. The style of music played on these harps was mostly continuo accompaniment to other instruments. Doubling of notes was not possible.

The arpa doppia was developed in the 1500's in response to a growing need for accidentals as music became more chromatic. Later, triple-strung harps were another answer to the desire to play chromatic notes. [See also Cheryl Ann Fulton's paper ]

The contemporary double-strung harp was designed in 1990, and has grown in popularity due to its unique sound and playability. Two harpists,  Liz Cifani and I (Laurie Riley), came up with the idea simultaneously, conveyed it to each other in a telephone conversation, and then asked our respective harpmakers if it was possible to make a harp with two rows of strings and two sets of sharping levers. Triplett Harps and  Stoney End Harps built the first two contemporary designs. Triplett's had two identical parallel rows of strings on two string ribs, while Stoney End's had two identical diverging rows emerging from one string rib. They were tuned and played the same way. Later, other companies caught on, and at this writing in 2006, many harpmakers are offering double-strung harps.

 An instructional video for double-strung harp, "An Introduction to the Double Strung Harps", is available at Laurie's web site .

Video Clips

Listen to Laurie Riley play Are You Sleeping Maggie and other tunes on the double harp.

 

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