Revised & Updated 03/02/09

or: Eire and Back Again
by Joe Bethancourt
A Means of Familiarization with the Medieval
Celtic Harp Designed For the Musically Illiterate.
© copyright 1976, 1989, 1990, 1996, 1997
W.J.Bethancourt III
First published in 1976 by White Tree Publications

Dedicated to Ted Myrick, and to Diana Studebaker and my sweet Lady Wife, Cherie Ruadh, with thanks to Richard Felix, Alexander Platt, and Ed (the Wonder Horse) Hirt.

1996 CE
All Rights Reserved to the Author:
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This text is meant as an INTRODUCTION to Celtic Harp. It is not meant to teach everything there is to know about harps, harpers and harping, but simply to get you started in the right direction with a minimum of fuss and bother.

I strongly suggest that you buy every other book on playing Celtic/Irish harp that you can find, and use this in conjunction with them. The more information you can get, the better off you are.

If you already play the Concert Harp, then most of this information will be old stuff. Read it anyway. The Irish Harp is most emphatically NOT the same instrument as the Concert Harp, and is approached, and played, quite differently. Most of the texts I have seen on "Irish" Harp don't approach it from the angle of pre-medieval and medieval period styles and techniques.


Where, or when, the Celtic harp had its' origins we are not really sure. The concept of "harp" goes all the way back into pre- history, being an obvious development from the primitive mouth-bow, but when it came to Ireland, there developed a unique musical instrument that was accorded the kind of reverence usually reserved for swords, in pre-medieval and medieval times.

The earliest written mention of the Harp per se is found in the Utrecht Psalter, a Carolingian Ms. written circa 816 CE. There are carvings on stone crosses in Ireland, also, that date from the same period, and we can infer from this that the Celtic Harp, in its' present form, must date from at least 800 CE, and probably earlier.

The Irish Triads tell us more information about how the Harp was regarded in the Early Medieval period (ca. 920 CE):

Three things that are essential to a Lord:

A Harp, A Cloak and A Chessboard.

Three things necessary for happiness:

A faithful Wife, a well-padded Chair,
and a Harp well-tuned.

The double-strung Welsh Harp was apparently developed in the 14th Century, with an extra row of strings to give the sharps and flats. This design spread to Italy in the 15th Century, becoming known as the "arpia doppia," or Double Harp. The Germans called it "Doppelharpf."

The triple-harp, with three rows of strings, was developed in Wales sometime at the end of the 17th Century, and is thus out-of- period with our concerns.

This author regards the double and triple harps as a interesting concept, but more in the line of a "solution in search of a problem."

Next, we must define just what a Celtic Harp is.....the true Celtic, or Irish, Harp is a massively constructed harp, with a soundbox very much wider at the bottom than the top, and strung with wire strings. The top-arm is connected to the top of the sound-box in the center of the top, thereby angling the treble strings, and requiring the harp to be held on the LEFT shoulder, the bass being played with the right hand and the treble with the left.

The Neo-Celtic harp is similar, but more lightly constructed with not so trapezoidal a soundbox, sometimes rounded off in back like a modern concert harp, and uses gut or nylon strings. The top-arm is offset at the sound-box, and therefore is usually played with the harp on the RIGHT shoulder, the left hand playing the bass with the right hand playing the treble.....the reverse of the true Celtic Harp. It's OK to play them on the left shoulder, however...but be ready for sharp looks from modern harpists.

The Neo-Celtic harp is a modern development, dating from about 1900 CE, when, among others, Lyon & Healy made some real jewels! (If you ever find one of these, GRAB IT!)

The Continental Harp (used during the Middle Ages and Renaissance) has a soundbox that is very thin, with equal dimensions at the top and bottom, and uses gut or nylon strings. This instrument is played, like a modern concert harp,"backwards" from the Celtic harp; it is held on the RIGHT shoulder, and the hands are reversed. These harps tend to have a very thin tone, but are rather delightful in their own right.

Note, however, that if the top-arm of a Continental Harp is centered on the top of the soundbox, then it should be held on the left shoulder like a true Celtic harp.

The true Irish Harp does not use "sharping levers," while the Neo-Celtic Harps, even though those levers were developed after the Renaissance, sometimes do. There are occasionally small "hooks" for sharping found on some Continental harps, where the string is lifted onto the hook to sharp the tone.

By the way, a player of the Celtic Harp is known as a "Harper," while a player of the Concert Harp is known as a "Harpist."

Now that we have that out of the way.......

The harp is tuned in a simple scale from "C," i.e. "do-re-mi- fa-sol-la-ti-do." This is called a "diatonic" tuning, or "Ionian" mode. Notice that there are no sharps or flats in this scale. This means that you may play in the key of "C"...the white keys on a piano....but not in any others, unless you re-tune.

By the way, if you do not own a harp (oh, poor soul!) then you can mess around with this text using ONLY the white keys on a piano, to at least familiarize yourself with what's going on.

In order to play in other keys, you must either alter your fingering pattern, known as "cross-harp," or you must re-tune the harp. This is NOT as hard as it sounds, and will be covered later.

In view of the fact that the ancient harpers didn't particularly bother with written music, this text will seek to teach the minimum of music and the maximum of how-to-play. After learning the playing techniques, you should be able to puzzle out notation with the help of a modern book of music theory.

There is, however, quite a lot of music theory that must needs be discussed in order that the Harp be fully understood. Take your time, take it slowly, and understanding will come.

In the list of books at the end of this exposition you will find a treatise on Ogham listed that makes a good case for the use of the Ogham alphabet as a form of written music. I refer you to this as an Interesting Thing.


  • Aufhoirshnadhaim*: the string pegs.
  • Com: the belly, or soundboard; the face of the soundbox. (Where the strings attach to the body)
  • Corr: the top-arm, or harmonic curve; where the tuning pegs are attached.
  • Crann Gleasta: the tuning key, or hammer
  • Cruin Cruit: the shoes of the strings.
  • Goloca: treble strings
  • Lamhchrann: the forepillar.
  • Trom-Theda: bass strings
  • Uinaidhin ceangal*: tuning pins.

note: gaelic name followed by * may be incorrect.


  • Ceirnin: a small harp used by priests
  • Cinnard-Cruit: the high-headed harp
  • Clairseach: "little flat thing;" the common harp
  • Crom-Cruit: the "down-bending" harp
  • Cruit: harp
  • Telyn: harp (Welsh, Cornish, and Breton)


Now we need to talk about chords. A chord is simply two or more tones played at the same time, that harmonize with each other.

Certain chords, played in certain patterns, at specified rythmical speeds and intervals, enable you to accompany a melody.

Chords can be classified into GENERIC names:

I II III IV V VI VII denoting MAJOR chords

i ii iii iv v vi vii denoting MINOR chords

Thus, using the generic names, we can construct a chord chart, which will enable the TRANSPOSITION of chords, i.e. changing keys, with ease:

2 frets
from I
2 frets
from II
1 fret
from III
2 frets
from IV
2 frets
from V
1 fret
from VI
C D E F G A B flat
D E F sharp G A B C
E F sharp G sharp A B C sharp D
F G A B flat C D E flat
A B C sharp D E F sharp G
B C sharp D sharp E F sharp G sharp A

Notice the sharps and flats in there. These are caused by the fact that the modern musical scale is arranged in WHOLE TONES (the Ionian mode) and HALF TONES (sharps and flats). Look at a piano keyboard. The BLACK keys are the sharps and flats. We put a sharp/flat between every whole tone EXCEPT between B - C and E - F. Don't ask me why we do it this way....we just do. Everything comes out even that way. Don't worry about it. And, by the way, a tone may be either sharp, or flat, depending on how you're looking at it....F sharp is the same as G flat, for our purposes, for example.
More about Tuning

These chords are called:

I - "tonic" or key chord

IV - "sub-dominant"

V - "dominant"

vi - "relative minor" of I

NB: These names have no relationship to what they might do in the privacy of their own birdbath, however.....

In most songs, the chords most often used are the "I - IV - V" progression. In the older, "Child Ballad" sort of thing, the use of "VII - I" is common. Songs in minor keys tend to use "i - iv - V" a lot. Try to listen for these "changes" when you listen to songs. Don't worry about what key it's in, just hear the changes and think of them by their generic names. This will enable you to play anything, eventually, just by finding the tonic chord and going from there. This takes practice, and experience. With enough experience, you will be able to "hear ahead" in the song; you will know what chord is likely to be coming next!



The Celtic harp, and most harps, for that matter, are tuned to the Ionian mode, that is, the "C" scale. This enables playing in the key of "C". If you want to play in other keys, however, you must retune one or more tones of the scale. ----------------------------------------------------------------------

C scale: do - re - mi - fa - sol - la - ti - do C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

D scale: re - mi - fa (sharp)- sol - la - ti - do (sharp) - re D - E - F sharp - G - A - B - C sharp - D

E scale: mi -fa (sharp)-sol (sharp)-la-ti-do (sharp)-re (sharp)-mi E -F sharp - G sharp - A -B -C sharp - D sharp - E

F scale: fa - sol - la - ti (flat) - do - re - mi - fa F - G - A - B flat - C - D - E - F

G scale: sol - la - ti - do - re - mi - fa (sharp) - sol G - A - B - C - D - E - F sharp - G

A scale: la- ti- do (sharp)- re-mi- fa (sharp)-sol (sharp)- la A - B - C sharp - D - E - F sharp - G sharp - A

B scale: ti-do (sharp)-re (sharp)- mi-fa (sharp)-sol (sharp)-la (sharp)-ti B -C sharp - D sharp - E -F sharp - G sharp - A sharp - B

B flat scale: ti (flat)-do - re - mi (flat)-fa - sol - la - ti (flat) B flat - C - D - E flat - F - G - A - B flat

Therefore, to change from a "C" scale to a "G" scale, we take the fourth tone of the "C" scale and sharp it (raise it one-half tone), and take our key-tone from the fifth tone of the "C" scale, "G," rather than the first, that is, "C."

The above system of listing scales may seem a bit clumsy. I am trying to show (by sharps, mostly, since Celtic harps tend to retune by sharping the tones) how the various modern scales relation to the modes below.

If you are playing with a fiddler, he will tend to play in "D" or "A." Guitarists tend to play in "C," "D," and "G," as a rule.


Some nylon strung harps have little levers that enable you raise the pitch of a given string one-half tone; to sharp it. These were apparently developed in Germany about the end of the 17th Century....they are NOT used on the traditional Celtic Harp.

If you have a harp that is set up this way, you must tune it slightly differently than a "normal" harp:

Set the sharping lever UP, or ON, on the 7th string ("B") of each octave, and then tune the harp into "C." You now may play in "C" with no trouble, and, if you turn your "B" levers OFF, to "B flat," you will wind up playing in "F." Doing this enables you to play in the following keys:

  • F major ( D minor): all "B" levers OFF
  • C major (A minor): all "B" levers ON
  • G major (E minor): all "F" and "B" levers ON
  • D major : all "B," "F," and "C" levers ON
  • A major : all "B," "F," "C," and "G" levers ON
  • E major : all "B," "F," "C," "G," and "D" levers ON
  • B major : all "B," "F," "C," "G," "D," and "A" levers ON

and if you tune your harp to E flat, you can add the keys of B flat and E flat.....don't do that yet, though; wait until you are familiar with the above.

Why are we talking about all this? Simple: This is basic Music Theory, and will, hopefully, enable you to understand what comes to make the chords, on a harp, in ANY key!

Go have a drink.


I have developed a form of Harp Tablature; a means of writing the tones in a numerical form, that does not depend on the key signature.

The first tone of each scale, the key-tone, is numbered as "1," the second is "2" and so forth. The LAST tone of any scale, the tone one octave higher than the key-tone, is numbered "1a," while tones LOWER than the key tone are numbered "1A" and so forth. Thus, the tones of a 27 string harp might be numbered:

lowest low middle high highest


Got that? In other words, this particular harp is tuned, in "C":

sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa- ect.

It is customary for harpstrings to be marked for quick identification by colouring the "C" string red and the "F" string black or blue. This makes knowing your place a LOT easier!

CONSTRUCTION OF CHORDS: order to build chords in any key, you just use the numbers of the strings in that scale. Remember: the "1" string/tone is the key-tone of that scale. When "1" is "C," or "do," then you're in the key of "C." When your "1" string is "G," or "sol," you're in the key of "G."



        I chord: 1-3-5; 1a-3a-5a; 3-5-1a; 5A-1-3; etc.

        ii chord: 2-4-6; 4-6-2a; etc.

        iii chord: 3-5-7; 5-7-3a; etc.

        IV chord: 4-6-7a; 4a-6a-7b; 6-7a-4a; 7A-4-6; etc

        V chord: 5-7-2a; 2-4-5 etc.

        vi chord: 6-1a-3a; 1-3-6; etc.

        vii dim. chord: 7-2a-4a

        Do you see the pattern of the fingering? Look
        at the first numbers/tones given for each chord!
        This is NOT quite the same as on a piano!


Remember, the way it works is simple. Let us take a chord from the above table and assume the harp is tuned in "C." Thus, to play the I chord of that key, you would pluck the "1-3-5" relationship, that is, the first, third and fifth strings in each octave. This gives you a "C" chord, made up of the tones "do," "mi," and "sol."

Then, if we retune the harp to, say, the key of "F," lowering "ti" to "ti flat," we still finger the first, third and fifth strings of the octave to get our I chord in that key, but, as the octave in this key begins, not on "do" as it does in the key of "C," but rather on "fa," the I chord is therefore composed of the tones "fa," "la," and "do," which gives us the "F" chord in this key.

I realize that this is probably completely confusing if this is your first attempt at playing a musical instrument. Keep thinking about it, and remember that "learning by doing" is the best way to learn.

Especially because we now must get into a very strange thing, to modern ears......


Now let's talk about period musical styles. Brace yourself! In the Middle Ages, there was no real concept of sharps and flats. Everything was done in "modes," or "modal" forms. This concept takes any major scale, and converts it to, essentially, six different "keys"...sort of.

The MODES are: (illustrated in "C" scale)

  • IONIAN: a simple major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do)
  • DORIAN: the most commonly used: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D (re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re)
  • PHRYGIAN: E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E (mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi)
  • LYDIAN: F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F (fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa)
  • MIXOLYDIAN: G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G (sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol)
  • AEOLIAN: the "natural minor" scale: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A (la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol-la)
  • The LOCHRIAN, from "B" to "B," was never used in the Middle Ages, so it need not really concern us.

NOTICE that these scales use NO sharps or flats. When a scale uses no sharps or flats, it is a "modal scale." Remember: in the Middle Ages, the concept of sharps/flats was not well understood, so these modal scales were used in ALL keys, without worrying about the sharp/flat concept ..... in other words, you can have a tune in "G Dorian," i.e. the actual tones used would be A - B - C - D - E - F sharp - G - A but it would be conceived as simply "re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re" beginning on "A." This is a difficult concept to grasp, if most of the music you have heard has been modern popular music. Listen to Steeleye Span's recording of "King Henry" for a good example of Dorian Mode.

All of the above modes have "cousin" modes, called "Hypo- (Dorian, Aeolian, Mixolydian &c)" when, rather than the scale beginning on the lowest tone (as the key-tone) the key-tone is the fourth tone of the scale. These modes are known as "plagal" modes, and if you wish to know more about them, take a course in Music Theory....but, FYI:


  • HYPOIONIAN: G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G (key-tone is "C")
  • HYPODORIAN: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A (key-tone is "D")
  • HYPOPHRYGIAN: B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B (key-tone is "E")
  • HYPOLYDIAN: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (key-tone is "F")
  • HYPOMIXOLYDIAN: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D (key-tone is "G")
  • HYPOAEOLIAN: E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E (key-tone is "A")
  • The HYPOLOCHRIAN ("F" to "F" with "B" as the key-tone) was never used in the Middle Ages, either.

It is also interesting to note that the IONIAN and AEOLIAN modes, and their plagal counterparts, were formally recognized at a quite late date, that is in 1547 by Glareanus in his treatise "Dodekachordon," while the others were supposedly established by St. Ambrose, with St. Gregory adding the corresponding plagals...hence, "Gregorian" chant.

Welsh and Irish music, however, made great use of the Ionian since before recorded history (we assume from the old songs remaining, like "Men of Harlech" and "Londonderry Air.")

Just in passing, the harmonies that are three tones apart, the "third" harmonies, were considered "lascivious" by the Church until the 16th century, and thus were frowned upon. The full chord as we now understand it, the combination of root, third and fifth, was regarded the same way. The Welsh and Irish seem to have used them merrily anyway, which figures.

There is also another facet of period music that needs to be mentioned, too, and that is the fact that the tones of the scale used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were NOT QUITE THE SAME as the ones we use now......

You see, in the mid-1700's CE, it was realized that some tones that should have harmonized actually did not; they created a dis- harmony known as a "wolf tone;" a rattling, beating, wobbly sort of sound that messed up the prettiness of the harmonies.

The reason behind this was that the tones of the scale were not "evenly" spaced; they weren't equidistant from each other in terms of vibrations per second.

To solve this, the whole scale was revised, and we got the modern "tempered" scale, which has evened out the scale, in order to eliminate the wolf tones.

The original scales did *not* have even spacing between the notes as it was based on the natural harmonic series. It was people like Bach who wanted to be able to transpose freely on a single instrument that tempered the scale by *evening* out the distance between the notes so that every half-step was the same as every other half-step (hence the "Well Tempered Clavier," a pair of books of preludes and fugues in every key, now able to be played without retuning the clavier between each piece). This is the scale we use today.

In addition, the tone "A" was arbitarily set at 440 vibrations per second, in order that all musicians could tune to each other with a minimum of difficulty. This is why it is not really vital for you to tune precisely to "Concert Pitch" ("A - 440") but rather to the right pitch for the individual harp, unless you are playing with someone else.

Experiment with the Old Scale, if you wish. It is most interesting! If you are wondering what the Old Scale sounds like, listen to Highland bagpipes for a good example of Old Scale Mixolydian mode.

At this point, O Reader, you probably need another drink, so go get one.


Let us now pass to the MINOR scales and keys. You can play in the Aeolian mode, the "natural" minor, by fingering your I chord (if the harp is tuned to the Ionian mode/"C" scale) beginning on the "la" string.

This chord is an "A minor" chord, the relative minor of "C," the key to which the harp is tuned. The IV chord is fingered with the first tone of the scale being "la," thus making it minor, also. Notice it is three half-tones down from the major root.

Play around with finding the V chord....I'm not giving away everything!

By tuning to the proper scale, the relative major of the minor key you wish to play in, you can get almost any minor key with little difficulty. (i.e. as "C" is the relative major of "Am," so "G" is the relative major of "Em," and so forth.


Many chords can be "faked" by playing only two tones of the usual three. As long as you have the "root" tone, you're OK. Simply build the chord with a "root - fifth" or "root - third" relationship, and the subsequent sound will tide you over....this works well when the third tone, or the fifth, of a chord is a sharp/flat that the harp is not tuned for.

You may also play what are called "passing" chords. These are chords that fill in the gaps between the I - IV - V chords (or whatever), and fill out the accompaniment of a song. Just play a few tones of the next chord with your beginning chord, and sort of slide over into each chord that way, rather than jumping suddenly from chord to chord. Sounds nice.

Here is an example of the use of passing chords:

1-3-5; 1-3-6; 2-4-6; 2-5-7.


"Cross" harp is a bizarre thing. In some circumstances that you should learn to avoid, unless you do it deliberately, you may have to play in another ken than the one you are tuned to....say, you wish to modulate (change key) to save your dry and cracking voice, and you don't want to stop the song to can go to the IV chord and make it into the new I chord, with the old I chord becoming the new V chord, but you'll wind up faking the new IV chord, because it's not there completely. Good luck; you'll need it....but if you can pull this off convincingly you are well on your way towards mastering the instrument!

For example: if we are playing in the key of "C" using our I- IV-V arrangement ( the names of these chords are C - F - G ) and we wish to modulate into the key of "F," our I-IV-V relationship then becomes, in actual chords, F - B flat - C.

But there's no way on this green Earth that we can play all three tones of that "B flat" chord without re-tuning, so..........we play the "F" chord as our I chord, but: WE FINGER IT AS IF WE WERE PLAYING IN THE KEY OF "C." The fingering pattern does NOT change, as the harp is still tuned in "C."

Cross harp "F": 4 - 6 - 1a

In the same manner, we play the V chord, "C."

Cross harp "C": 1 - 3 - 5

But the "B flat" becomes a faked chord, thusly:

Cross harp "B flat": 4 - 2 - 4a

This works in a similar manner with the other keys/tunings, and is quite fascinating to play around with. Experiment!



Much of Irish/Scots music uses a chord relationship called the "sub-tonic." This is common in modal music as a chordal accompaniment pattern, and is fun to mess with.

It is the relationship between the V chord and the IV chord, and is quite an eerie sound indeed. The aforementioned "King Henry" song uses this.

The sub-tonic of "G" is "F," the sub-tonic of "D" is "C," and so forth. In order to play a sub-tonic relationship, we must utilize cross-harp play in "G" with the sub-tonic "F" we must tune the harp in "C," and play "G" and "F" in normal IV and V patterns. Tuning to other keys gives you other sub-tonic possibilities, such as tuning to "G" for the "C" and "D" relationship.

Try to create harmonies that are four and/or five tones apart. These are called "fourths" and "fifths," and are the basis for Gregorian Chant... and work VERY well with a sub-tonic relationship, in a modal scale.

By the way: the sub-tonic occurs naturally in the Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian modes as a major chord, and in the Phrygian as a minor chord.


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