Tuning, Temperament & Intonation

My Tutor book, Progressive Lessons for Early Gaelic Harp, includes practical instructions for tuning a replica instrument, based on field notes made in the 1790s from the practice of the last of the old indigenous Gaelic harpers.

This page discusses some of the theoretical background.

As far as I am aware, there is no direct evidence for the temperament or intonation used by the old Irish and Scottish harpers; none of our informants wrote down any comments on it. Therefore we are obliged to speculate based on what information we are given.

The old Gaelic harps had metal wire strings attached to a substantial wooden soundbox. The upper ends of the strings were attached to brass tuning pins, which were fixed in a brass strap running the length of the neck or harmonic curve. This means that all the strings are connected by metal-to-metal contact, enhancing sympathetic vibrations. The soundbox produces a very rich mellow tone, with long sustain and complex harmonics.

About half to a third up from the bottom, two strings are tuned to the same note, g below middle c. Known as "na comhluighe" (ne cawlee)1, these divide the treble and bass, and were the first notes to be tuned. In conjunction with the "drone bass" string an octave below (bass G, an octave and a half below middle c) they give an overt or implied G drone to the entire instrument. The other strings are tuned to a diatonic scale in G, with either a raised or flattened seventh.

Tutor book open

Cycle of 5ths and pythagorean tuning

Two different tuning methods are attested by Edward Bunting. One is published in his 1840 book2, and the other is given in his unpublished field notebook of the 1790s3. They are similar (there are some octave differences between them). Each chart gives a cycle of fifths starting on na comhluighe g. A pair of charts is given in each case, to allow tuning with either f♯ or f♮. For the latter case, the cycle of fifths ends on b, and the tuning is completed by tuning 4ths g-c and c-f. For the former case, the cycle of 5ths extends to f♯ and there is only one 4th g-c.

A tuning chart collected in the early 19th century from Patrick Byrne by the collector John Bell4 is similarly based on a cycle of 5ths but includes the final instruction to “sound the G... & B & D , and the octave above which is G which makes a common chord”.

To set out possible ways of interpreting these tuning systems, I have drawn up charts of different possible Gaelic harp tuning schemes. These are presented on the tables page.