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Harp Playing Techniques

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Harp Playing Techniques { also applies to all instruments with open strings like lyres, qanoon,etc]

The strings of harps were always plucked with the fingers or a plectrum.

Ancient Egyptians were familiar with a whole series of playing techniques, as evident from tombs throughout Ancient Egypt’s dynastic history. Both one-handed and two-handed playing techniques are presented, as follows:

1. One-Handed Playing

With harps, every note has an individual, ‘open’ string. The one-handed technique is based on the divisive method of obtaining musical notes by stopping the string at certain proportional lengths. When this method is applied to the harp, only one hand is manipulating (shortening) the string for a specific ratio, which allows the other hand to pluck the shortened string (providing the note).

In order to locate the exact proportioned length of the string, and to ensure a firm contact at the proportional point, one of the left-hand fingers stretches and presses the string for the proportioned distance against a rod-shaped object (like a fingerboard), thereby shortening (stopping) the vibrating length of the string. The left hand was guided by frets, which were loops tied about the fingerboard at given points. This shortened length of this particular string can then be struck to produce the sound. This one-handed technique allows an unlimited possibility of tones.

There are many examples shown of harpers performing this technique. They clearly show that the plucked string forms a slight angle. Examples:

• In a relief [shown below] from tomb 11 in the Luxor (Thebes) area [New Kingdom 1520 BCE], a harper shortens the string with one hand and plucks with the other. The bent string is clearly shown.

• In Idut’s Tomb [ca. 2320 BCE], two of the five depicted harpers pluck with only the right hand, while the left one holds down the string.

2. Two-Handed Playing

The two-handed technique is based on the ability to pluck each open string with one of the player’s fingers. Both hands can pluck the strings either individually, simultaneously, or one after the other i.e. playing a chord or polyphony. Unwanted strings can be further dampened (muted) with the palm of the other hand.

[An Excerpt from The Enduring Ancient Egyptian Musical System - Theory and practice by Moustafa Gadalla]