University of Limerick
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Harp tuning practice in Medieval Ireland and Wales

posted on 2023-11-02, 08:02 authored by Paul Dooley

This thesis investigates the scaling, stringing, tuning and temperament of the harp in medieval Ireland and Wales. The topic is one that has received little attention from scholars—efforts to date have been mostly concentrated on broader aspects of the harp tradition such as repertoire, technique and melodic structure. When tuning and temperament have been considered, it has generally been assumed that Pythagorean tuning, which apparently prevailed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, was used as a matter of course. However, what little evidence pertaining to the medieval harp survives suggests otherwise. The core of the research presented here focuses on the intonation issues inherent in the Robert ap Huw manuscript, copied in Anglesey ca. 1613 (London, British Library, Add. MS 14905) and the Iolo Morganwg manuscript (London, British Library, Add. MS 14970), which also includes related material. These manuscripts contain a substantial body of music written in a unique tablature for the medieval harp. This was the High Art music known in Wales as Cerdd Dant—the craft of string. Based on the interval usage in the extant repertoire and relevant materials found in contemporary manuscript sources it is proposed that the medieval harpers had at their disposal a variety of prescribed fine-tunings optimized for particular modes or types of pieces. The proposed tuning scheme is elegant and yet complex. An examination of the evidence for harp tuning in contemporary sources reveals compatibility with the proposed tunings, which in turn suggests possible explanations for previously obscure terms and passages. The scheme is tested on reproductions of period instruments through the analyses of audio recordings of performances of a number of exemplars from the extant repertoire and isolated samples. A detailed study of the capabilities of surviving harps, in light of the results of a series of experiments with strings made from copper alloys of varying compositions shows that medieval harps were designed with great precision, maximizing string performance. The analyses demonstrate that certain behaviours of string tones produced from harps lead to quirks in tuning that would have enabled the harpers to devise elaborate yet reliable tuning strategies. In drawing attention to this largely unexplored layer of sophistication in Cerdd Dant, this work sheds new light on the harp tradition and provides further understanding of its role in the evolution of traditional music and of its importance in the history of music in general.



  • Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences


  • Doctoral

First supervisor

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin

Second supervisor

Sandra Joyce

Department or School

  • Irish World Academy of Music & Dance

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