page 6a, footnote:
Welsh harp technique

Traditional Welsh Harp Technique
and Middle-earth Music

NEW! audio examples of Welsh harp compositional and performance techniques

The stories of Middle-earth derive in part from, and resemble in some respects, Celtic legends. Tolkien's invented languages are patterned on Germanic languages and, his lyric poetry follows the patterns of ancient Celtic/Germanic lyric traditions. It seems appropriate, then, to look to the oldest Celtic and Germanic musical sources for ideas about how to develop the music of Middle-earth.

Fortunately, there have been some discoveries made of manuscripts of such music. One of them was written by Robert ap Huw in the 17th century to preserve Welsh music of two or more centuries prior. The foremost interpreter of that manuscript is harpist William Taylor who specializes in early harp music from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The following ideas and quotes were taken from an interview with him by Angela Mariani on the U. S. public radio early music show Harmonia in November 1997. All of the audio examples on this page were taken from a cassette recording of that show. [Used by kind permission of Harmonia and WFIU FM; all are under copyright protection, all rights reserved.]

The CD containing these pieces of music and several more (68:50 total play time), Two Worlds of the Welsh Harp, published by Dorian Recordings® (DOR-90260), is now available at

plays a Real Audio clip (G2)
downloads an mp3 clip of same

First, let's listen as Taylor plays us the opening of the medieval Welsh piece "Canniad San Sillan": ,

and says, "That is the first of twelve verses of this Canniad (song). The verses are called ... 'kank,' which in Welsh means "branch." So the pieces are constructed as if they're a growing tree. At the end of each kank is an ending, which in Welsh is called the 'duev.' This functions similarly to a refrain or chorus at the end of each verse.

There are three things that, together, make Welsh harp music unique, interesting, and possibly suitable as a model for Middle-earth harp music: 1) the use of bray pins, 2) the rigorous use of special fingerings like stoppings and trills, and 3) a non-Western style of composition based on patterns of tension and release called measures. Says Taylor, "In Welsh one does not play the harp but rather 'sings' the harp." Even in the modern Welsh dialect, the word for playing a harp is the same as the word for "to sing." The sound of a sustaining bray harp note is described in Welsh poetry as being vowel-like. "As the string buzzes it goes through a diphthong. ... The fingers stopping the strings could be said to be like a consonant."

Bray pins were in common use on harps all across Europe in the latter part of the Gothic period, and Welsh harps were no exception. According to Taylor, "the strings are held into the soundbox by what are called bray pins in English. They're small, crooked pegs that look like little 'Ls.' ... They very lightly touch the strings and cause them to buzz," giving them a tone not altogether unlike that of distortion on an electric guitar. This buzzing enhances the diphthongal character of the strings' tone. The harder a string is plucked, the more "open" it's "vowel" becomes.

Welsh harp technique also involves damping each melody note as the next one is sounded, rather than letting them ring over each other. The various methods used to damp the strings are called "stoppings," and each stopping corresponds with a particular and unique consonant of the Welsh language. He tells us, "The player is asked to manage each and every note" by stopping the strings in various ways. Taylor explains:

"The [ap Huw] manuscript doesn't give us pieces constructed using melody and accompaniment. Instead we're given a vocabulary of patterns which ask the player to perform what might be interpreted as ornaments, decorations. They can be rather active at times." (Hear the fingering patterns "thumb choke": and "half-scratch": )

MEASURES In addition to stoppings, some Celtic harp music was based on combinations of phrases, motifs, if you will, each with its own rhetorical associations (as is the case with many types of non-Western music). These were organized into two types, one providing tension and the other resolution. In ancient Welsh harp technique there are 24 of these contrast patterns in all, analogous (but not corresponding directly) to the 24 poetic feet. Many of them sound like what we would call ornamentation, yet they are the basis of the actual vocabulary of the music itself.

The system of composition relates a bit more to poetry than to modern song. He continues, "In Welsh, poetry translates as 'tongue music,'" whereas instrumental harp is "string music, so they're two sides of the same coin." The patterns of contrast referred to above are called the 24 "measures" of music; "measures" in this case meaning only formulae for patterns of contrasting tension and release, not to regularly recurring numbers of beats. The manuscript contains a binary system, a table of ones and zeros that denote the measures: 1 represents resolution ("home") and 0 represents tension ("away"). For "The White Piper's Tune" the measure pattern is 0011: away, away, home, home:
Hear the first kank of "The White Piper's Tune," as played live in the studio on Harmonia:

"Each kank expoits new ways of moving about," using different fingerings like the thumb choke and half-scratch, within the restraints of the organizing principle 0011. For example, compare the first kank of The White Piper's Tune, above, with kank 10: The trill-like pattern in the highest voice is a four-finger pattern used to beautify the 0011 pattern for that kank. A different fingering pattern is used for each kank. Says Taylor,

"The patterns ... are not ornaments that are added to a melody, they're actually the vocabulary of the music itself." There are four families of fingering patterns in the Robert ap Huw manuscript; they "serve to manipulate the feelings of home and away" created by the measures.
These patterns

  1. join the 1s and 0s
  2. break between the 1s and 0s
  3. complete a 1 or a 0, or
  4. beautify a 1 or a 0 by introducing "contention."

"These patterns serve rhetorical purposes" of contrast, repitition, etc.

In the "Hymn to St. Magnus" the measure pattern is 0101: home, away, home, away; a pattern of rocking back and forth, suitable for a lullaby or walking song:

Bray pins may not be appropriate to Elf music, generally, since it gives an earthy kind of tone rather than a mystical one, as a plain folk harp can have. They might be more fitting to some Dwarf harp music.

The concept of stoppings and consonants, on the other hand, might well be applied to Elf, Dwarf, and/or Mannish harp musics of some or all kinds. In that case, charts would need to be developed from the English alphabet (for Westron), the Tengwar alphabet (for 3rd Age Sindarin Elvish and for Noldorin), and/or the Angerthas alphabet (for 1st Age Sindarin and for Dwarvish) making explicit the correspondences.

Sets of "measures" or motifs could be developed for Middle-earth music of sundry kinds.

Anyone care to help me develop these ideas further? and let's discuss it.


Written by David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL, USA

Page last updated October 17, 1999