Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 2

This is a direct continuation of the preceding post and its discussion of characteristic decorative elements of Irish traditional music (ITM) that are not commonly heard on the autoharp. The music has a prominent position in the repertoire of that instrument and there are many examples of its skillful melodic rendition. However, such performances and the autoharp itself, are rarely encountered near the ITM mainstream in its home country.

The same can, of course, be said about countless other instruments. The suitability of one or another to ITM is a recurring topic of discussion in dedicated online forums, with a recent example here. Opinions vary about how well whatever is being put forward for consideration might fit into, say, a trad session at a pub. However, there is always clear consensus about the overriding importance of the player of any candidate instrument having a thorough understanding of the traditional Irish musical idiom and the ability to project it through their performance.

One essential aspect of that idiom is the extensive use of ornamental grace notes in patterns of varying complexity. The specific embellishments commonly heard on a given instrument are taken from a broader repertoire according to the player’s assessment of what best suits that instrument’s technical capabilities. Shared preferences are often observed within a performer community — both regionally and instrument based — but there is no native Irish style of melodic autoharp playing that can be examined in these or any other regards.

If there were such a thing, it is safe to assume that one of its attributes would be the far heavier use of grace-note ornamentation than in the American style. One purpose of such decoration is to maintain rhythmic momentum. This is done with a separate battery of techniques conceptualized as “fill” in the American frame of reference.

Two specific ornaments that autoharpers wishing to play ITM on its own terms might beneficially adopt were presented in Part 1 of this post. One is a patterned subdivision of a quarter note into two sixteenth notes and an eighth note. It is called a “treble” when played on the same note, and a “triplet” when comprising different notes. However, that usage is commonly inverted and the terms are also treated as synonyms.

I use treble as a general designation below to avoid confusion with other senses of the word triplet. One of them designates the staff notation of a quarter note divided into three equal parts. The same convention is frequently used for writing a treble despite it being a quarter note divided in half, with one of the halves again divided in half. There is a fundamental rhythmic distinction between subdividing a beat in half and in thirds, and it is easy enough to notate the treble as it is played.

It is a mainstay of performance on several instruments in the established ITM lineup and also well suited to the autoharp. Karin Mueller uses same-note trebles liberally in a benchmark solo autoharp recording of The Kesh jig. Tom Schroeder adds the multi-note pattern in a tutorial video about The Rights of Man hornpipe.

The second ornament is the substantially more intricate “roll.” I haven’t been able to locate any similar examples of its use on the autoharp. With apologies to anyone whose work I may have overlooked, it is not clear to me which of its variants might be best suited to that instrument. One purpose of the present text is to consider a few alternatives.

Janet Harbison discusses ornamentation on the Irish harp in a video workshop that covers a number of devices that are also useful on the autoharp. She includes the two basic types of rolls, presenting the “triplet roll” first. Here is the beginning of the reel The Raveled Hank of Yarn (introduced without ornamentation in the preceding post) notated with triplet rolls. Each sixteenth note in the bracketed triplet is played with equal length and the first of them determines the rhythmic pulse and perceived pitch of the three-note aggregate.

One way to execute this on an autoharp is by playing each instance of the principal note with the middle finger, using the ring and index fingers for the notes above and below it. (An alternative using fewer fingers is considered below.) The other hand raises the chord bar just before plucking the string for the first sixteenth note and lowers it again after the third sixteenth note.

Janet continues with a “cut-and-tip roll” that she says is fiendishly hard to play on the harp but well worth the effort, and refers to it elsewhere as “the king of ornaments.” It is named for the single grace notes applied to the principal notes from above and below. The grace notes are significantly shorter than the principal notes and are played so rapidly in this context that they are often conceptualized as articulation (illustrated in the preceding post with links to presentations on the flute and fiddle). Their pitch can be difficult, if not impossible, to discern and the primary note unambiguously determines the pitch of the entire ornament.

The strings in a roll are plucked individually with similar techniques on both the harp and the autoharp. However, the requisite damping is effected in entirely different ways. Individual strings can easily be muted on a harp but not on an autoharp. With the latter, silencing a vibrating string requires the lowering of a bar for a chord that does not include that note, potentially disrupting the harmonic underpinning of the melody to an unacceptable extent.

This means that the clear separation of the rapid sequence of notes in the notated cut-and-tip roll when played on an autoharp, would require the correspondingly swift raising and lowering of the bar for the chord that includes the principal note, for each of the two articulating grace notes. Their lack of clear pitch on other instruments makes the intervals between them and the principal notes a matter of individual preference, steered by the most efficacious way to produce the intended decorative effect on the instrument in hand.

This provides latitude on an autoharp for the grace notes to be adjacent to the principal note in the same chord, rather than same scale, eliminating need for any bar action. However, the space between the strings will vary, placing greater demands on accurate aim. One alternative is to place the grace notes on the strings immediately above and below the one for the principal note. In either case, the roll is accessible regardless of how the instrument is configured or tuned.

The tighter form is easier to target precisely but places greater demands on bar action, which may be so rapid that the bar can only be raised just enough for the grace-note strings to vibrate freely. If gauging that height is problematic, its consistent setting can be facilitated by a finger-switching technique commonly used on the button accordion for same-note trebles, demonstrated here. (The thumb is not used on the one- and two-row diatonic button accordions that are more widely encountered in ITM, and switching between two fingers is sufficient for the autoharp in any case.)

A roll played on an autoharp has one further property that is not displayed by any of the other instruments considered here. Unless each note is plucked with immaculate accuracy, additional strings will contribute to the resulting sound. On a diatonic autoharp this will include double strings and, if a lock bar is engaged, the muted string(s) will add a stuttered effect. If the instrument is multi-keyed, there can also be chromatic additions to the notated sequence.

The familiar technique of dragging a single finger across the entire delineated interval can be employed as an alternative to executing a triplet roll by plucking the central three strings individually. However, this will include all of the extraneous strings and blur the ornament’s rhythmic thrust and perceived pitch. The drag can be applied to the cut segment of a cut-and-tip roll without these offsetting effects.

A further variant retains the convenience of a dragged triplet roll but reinforces its contour and pitch. The core triplet is separated from whatever precedes it by an extra tipped principal note. This both starts and ends the ornament by plucking a string at that pitch, with a further occurrence at its midpoint. Kevin Burke describes and demonstrates this form on a fiddle in a tutorial video about the Irish roll, here.

Concern with undesired strings and onerous bar action can also be obviated simply (even if anticlimactically) by forgoing rolls in favor of trebles. The ample musical potential the latter ornament is demonstrated by Gerry O’Connor on the tenor banjo, and Conor Connolly on a button accordion. However much a hallmark of Irish ornamentation rolls may be, their use is clearly not an essential attribute of a traditional instrumental style.

A pivotal question remains about how much of all this an erudite listener would accept as convincing ornamentation by traditional Irish standards when played on an autoharp. There is little reason to anticipate trebles being rejected but the assessment of rolls is less predictable. I obviously feel that they are worth putting forward and this pair of blog posts is intended as one step in that direction.

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13 December 2022 19:38

I am surprized that you do not mention the “hammer on” – I use it frequently. Essentially it is a finger drag that only drags a couple of strings rather than what you call “all the extraneous strings”. One quickly follows the drag with a chord bar — so the effect is a grace note. There may be an extraneous string briefly but the ear resolves it into a smooth grace note.
What a fiddler calls “lift” is very important in Celtic music – the fiddler does it by briefly sliding fingers into position. One can approximate with “hammer on”.