Essential Chord Techniques

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What’s in a chord? Or more to the point, how do I play this chord and make it sound the way it should?
The harp was made to play beautiful chords, and yet they are a source of frustration for many harpists.
In this post I describe the four essential ways in which we encounter chords and what you need to do to make your chords the best they can be.
Be sure to get the one page PDF Chord Practice Sheet too.

1. Flat (unbroken) chords

In a flat chord, all the notes are played at the same time. Sometimes a square bracket like this [ indicates that a chord should not be rolled, but often the choice is left to the performer. This is also the best technique for a beginner to use, as it uses the most basic technical skills.

What are the qualities I am looking for?
All the notes of the chord should sound exactly at the same time, and with the same volume and tone. Not as easy as you might think.

How do I practice them?
Be sure to use impeccable technique, playing each finger fully and precisely. Stay relaxed; you can’t control your fingers if they are tense. Don’t try so hard. Instead play them at a P or mP level or even softer, just to be sure that you are playing the notes so they sound balanced and exactly together.


2. Rolled (broken) chords

Rolled chords are the quintessential harp chords and one of our best expressive tools. They can sound lush or romantic or even heroic, just by the speed and dynamics of the roll. Chords can be rolled briskly or languidly. They can crescendo to the top, or fade away to nothing. Usually, but not always, they are rolled from the bottom to the top. Rolled chords may be indicated by a squiggly line or not.

What are the qualities I am looking for?
Just as in flat chords, the notes must sound at the same volume level, so there are no audible “holes” or “gaps” in the roll. Exceptions to this would occur if the chord needs to include a crescendo or diminuendo, in which case the volume change must be even and gradual. The rhythmic spacing of the notes must also be equal, unless there is a special circumstance requiring an accelerando or ritardando during the chord.

How do I practice them?
Work slowly, concentrating on the technique and tone of each individual finger. Start slowly enough that your chord sounds like a leisurely arpeggio. Be sure that you don’t pull your hand away from the strings in an attempt to roll the chord with your hand or arm. The roll should be accomplished solely by your fingers playing at the appropriate time. Gradually speed up the roll, lightening the dynamic as you increase the speed, so you can stay relaxed and loose.


3. Arpeggios

Arpeggios are simply elongated chords. They can be straight hand-over-hand arpeggios up and down the harp. They can be one-hand or two-hand arpeggios going up, down or both up and down. Learning to play an arpeggio is one of the first accomplishments of a new harpist, and it is a skill all harpists use almost every day.

What are the qualities I am looking for?
As in more basic chords, the evenness of the notes is a primary concern. If the notes don’t sound rhythmically and dynamically equal, the arpeggio will sound jerky instead of fluid. Arpeggios are usually played with an expressive dynamic profile, perhaps a crescendo on the way up and a diminuendo on the way down, which will require a smooth, evenly regulated change of dynamic from note to note.

How do I practice them?
You can use the same practice techniques as those for rolled chords, additionally checking the evenness as you switch between hands or cross over or under. These are the tricky points of long arpeggios. There should be no noticeable difference in tone or volume between your hands and no change in speed. Playing your arpeggios in different rhythmic patterns [link to other blog post] and using a metronome will help them sound their best. Here’s a previous blog post on the 7 different rhythmic patterns that I recommend.


4. Patterns

There are endless variations on arpeggiated chords, playing the notes in different orders and patterns. One example is the famous Alberti bass, a pattern usually seen in the left hand as an accompaniment figure. The first six of Salzedo’s Conditioning Exercises are all patterns of chords, and LaRiviere’s Exercices et Etudes are a seemingly endless catalogue of patterns.

What are the qualities I am looking for?
As always, the evenness of the notes is essential. Sometimes patterns require one note to be accented more than the others; other times they must be exactly equal. (Think about the rippling effect in a piece like “The Little Fountain.”)

How do I practice them?
Practically speaking, even-sounding patterns will require a rock solid technique, and in the various patterns you encounter, you will find different types of challenges. You will discover which fingers are weaker or less independent, or which are harder to keep under control. Practice them slowly, staying as relaxed as possible and keeping your hand steady. Your fingers should be doing the work, not your hand, wrist or arm. Take your time, building up speed and volume level gradually.

I have prepared a one page PDF Chord Practice Sheet to help you practice your flat and rolled chords. Get the file, and be sure to let me know how your chords develop!

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  • Hannah

    Wonderful tutorial, thank you for putting this together!
    I love the Conditioning Exercises and LaRiviere’s too- both great for working on evenness of tone.


  • Fran McGaughey

    Your tutorial is very revealing. I have a lot of basic technique to learn.

    Great harp technique has always been a mystery. Of course, this is very basic, but not so obvious to the person who can easily hear music and just tries to match that imagination through repetition. Of course, that approach is the long, slow road to the wrong destination. Uninformed intentions habits become habitual.
    Now, I aim for good habits to become habitual.

    I am so grateful to you.



  • Darlene

    Thank you – Anne. I am a beginner harpist and I do struggle with rolled chords. I know your tips will really help me. I have so much to learn. I am a lot older than most beginners but I always wanted to learn to play the harp. Thank you so much.


    • SuzanneH

      Hi Darlene, I am a whole lot older then most beginners,but loving the process. I started playing at 62 and thought that was old. haha I had to take 4 years off to care for my mother – but now back at it at 70. Learning to play the harp is wonderful for our soul and for our brains. Good luck and have fun.


  • Anne

    Hi Darlene,
    I am so glad you are beginning the harp! We all were beginners once, so of us long ago, others not so long at all. Welcome to the harp community!


  • SuzanneH

    Hi Anne, I am loving your videos and sooo helpful to learn by. This one on chords was especially helpful. Easy to follow clear and concise. Thank you, Suzanne


  • Beth

    I’m fairly new at learning the harp, where can I find the sheet you mentioned for practising?


    • Anne Post author

      Thanks for asking about this, Beth. I didn’t realize the link was broken. I will send you the sheet directly, and then fix the link so everyone else can get it. Have a great harp day!


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