The Arts of Harping are the 12 areas of special interest in Irish harping which are distinct aspects of Irish harping repertoire.   Students with the Harbison Harp College will make a special study of two of the Arts for each of their Levels 5 – 7, and finaly, at Level 8, they create their own programme from all the Arts for their Graduation Performance.

The 12 Arts of Harping are:

  1. Story Music (Goltraí, Geantraí, Suantrai - Improvisation for the accompaniment of poetry and storytelling)
  2. Historical (or Classic Irish) Repertoire (16th - 18th Centuries) including Carolan
  3. Lamentations and Slow Airs
  4. The Romantic & Folk Repertoire (19th and 20th Centuries)
  5. New Irish Repertoire (fully arranged (formal) harp compositions, 20th and 21st Centuries)
  6. Dance Music
  7. Song and Harp Accompaniment
  8. Sacred & Ceremonial
  9. Health and Welfare (Improvisation to affect body rhythm and function - Palliative harp)
  10. Composition
  11. Arrangement
  12. Accompaniment


The Arts of Harping and examinations specifications are as follows:

1    Goltraí, Geantraí, Suantraí : The art of improvisation for the accompaniment of poetry and storytelling

This art pays homage to the ‘mood’ music of the highly prized ancient harpers improvisations to story-telling and poetry.  It is the Art of improvising and consciously manipulating mood and music in its energy, melody, rhythm and harmony.  Improvisations will evoke the moods of the story and follow in its development providing a subtle back-drop which, if it is ever intrusive, has overstepped its remit.  The Irish idiom is expected to prevail (i.e. consideration of modality, arrangement style, melodic ornmantation and variation etc).  With the Harbison Harp College, this specialization involves 3 aspects:

  • Aspect 1:  Story music
    To create (compose and arrange) an appropriate ‘sound track’ to the telling of an historic Irish Fairy Tale  such as
    The Children of Lir
    The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Chulainge)
    Oisín in Tír na nÓg
    Finn Mac Cool and the Fianna
    This is free-style, but must evoke the emotions behind the story, following its action and being subtle and non intrusive like a film music score.  The students will arrange the telling of the story to be recorded and they will use this to create their works which would be played live (to the recorded story) or recited by a reciter at the exam and in Irish or English.  Examination requirement 12 – 15 mins duration
  • Aspect 2:  Prepared Shorts
    The candidate will present a list of at least 4 contrasting short passages of prose or poetry from which the examiner will choose one or two items to be performed. Examination requirement: 4 - 7 mins duration
  • Aspect 3:  Unprepared Improv
    On their choice of two short texts of about 3 minutes duration, the student will improvise freely to the recitation (in Irish or English).  

2        Historical (or Classic Irish) Style & Repertoire (17th and 18th Centuries)

This Art embraces the music of the harper’s ‘Hybrid Phase’ – which marries the highly conventionalized old Irish style of playing patronized by the old Gaelic chieftainry and Anglo-Norman lords – with the new fashionable European (predominantly Italian) music that was so popular in Dublin in the early 1700s.  A number of prominent Italian masters actually lived and worked in Dublin – such as Geminiani, Corelli, Gabrieli and Vivaldi – and the city was a vibrant European arts centre.  The patrons were the new mostly English landed gentry now settled in Ireland after the wars of the 1700s and subsequent colonization. The harpers were now much reduced in status to wandering minstrels – but many found they could make a decent living from performing and composing new pieces titled with the patron’s name – guaranteeing their welcome and immortalizing the patron with a good tune.

Many of these travelling harpers were also required to teach the gentry and their children to play – and for a time, there were harps owned by many of the ‘big houses’ and harp music rang out across the country with hundreds of harpers finding audiences for their music.  However, the fashion was relatively short-lived as the gentry looked again to Europe for new instruments and fashions, and by the end of the 18th century, the piano had usurped the harp in the hearts of the gentry and great houses of Ireland.  

Students of the Harbison Harp College, as well as having a thorough knowledge of the known sources, would be expected to become familiar with the variations of published tunes and be able to listen to and discuss them critically.  Harpers will also explore the Italian art music of the period and be able to discern the influences of style, structure and form imitated by the Irish harpers. The social history behind the patron tunes should also be known.

Exam candidates will present a repertoire of about 16 pieces; at least one quarter of these should be arranged by the candidate themselves. The candidate will choose to perform 4 of the pieces and the examiner will choose a further 2or more from their repertoire list.

3        Lamentations and Slow Airs

The Lamentation and Slow Airs repertoire is very distinctive in that it is more Gaelic or Sean nósach (Ir. old style) with profuse melodic ornamentation and variation and a minimal strident base playing mostly drones.  This is the most profound and emotive aspect of Irish music – which doesn’t actually originate from the harp repertoire.  It is the music of the ‘aisling’ or visionary poems - mostly allegorical and plaintive telling the story of old Ireland - often personifying Ireland as a distressed woman e.g. Mo Roisin Dubh (My Dark Rosaleen), Eibhlin Ni hUalachain.  

This specialism requires a good knowledge of the Lamentation and Slow Air repertoire as well as background knowledge to the lyrics and stories that created them.  Also the music should be interpreted according to the song texts...  

Exam candidates are required to present a repertoire list of 10 lamentations and / or  slow airs, at least 2 of which  are arranged by the candidate themselves.  The Candidate will choose to perform 4 of the pieces from their list and the examiner will choose a further 2 or more to be performed.

4        Romantic & Folk Repertoire (19th and 20th Centuries)

This is the Entertainer’s favourite specialism and involves music from Thomas Moore’s melodies through to the music of Percy French and all that is considered Irish ‘folk’ music.  The focus is on purely instrumental arrangements of the music that should be full of the character of the original songs.  

Exam candidates are expected to present a repertoire of at least 10 tunes, all of which to be knowledgably introduced by the candidate.

5    ‘New Irish’ Repertoire (1960s to present)

This category caters to the repertoire of formal music composed by harpers in modern times – whether acquired within the oral or written traditions.  The expectation is that they are ‘fixed compositions’ formally constructed and available to the candidate in CD, sheet music or manuscript format – or directly learned by Rote from the composer or another player.  If the piece was learned by oral transmission and is not ‘published’ – the composer must give their blessing for its performance.  If the music is published, the candidate must bring their own original editions or CD to the examination.    

Exam candidates will present a programme of 30 - 40 minutes duration - the candidate choosing up to 16 minutes of the programme and the examiner the remainder.   

6     Dance Music

Traditional Irish dance music comprises the greater part of today’s ‘traditional music’ repertoire and exam candidates will prepare 10 sets of tunes: comprising at least
    2 sets of reels,
    2 sets of jigs,
    2 sets of hornpipes and
    1 set dance (which counts as one ‘set’ in the programme).  

All tunes should be ornamented and tastefully arranged and each ‘set’ should have 2 – 3 tunes each depending on the number of parts or a single tune if there are more than 4 parts in it.  The remainder of the programme should comprise a range of dance rhythms and the names of all tunes must be known.  At least 2 of the sets should be arranged by the candidate themselves.

7        Song and Harp Accompaniment

This specialism is that of the singer who accompanies themselves with the harp.  This was a very popular aspect of the tradition throughout the 19th and 20th centuries which has waned in popularity today.  Nevertheless, the student has a myriad of choice not only of song (English or Irish), but also of style and for the exam, the candidate should present a repertoire of at least 30 minutes duration - at least 8 minutes of which is arranged by the candidate themselves.

8        Sacred and Ceremonial

This specialism is addressed to players in the spiritual and church based ceremonies such as mass, marriage and memorial services.

Exam candidates will present a programme of 10 items including:
1    At least 2 ‘old church’ hymns
2    At least 2 ‘folk’ or ‘new’ hymns
3    At least 2 Christmas carols
4    A meditation (min. 3 minutes) and
5    A solemn march

9        Improvisation for Health and Welfare

The effects of music on mood is well attested with much academic publication on the subject in recent years.  This specialism requires a knowledge of how energy in music can affect a listener.  Understanding how rhythm, melody and harmony impacts on all the body rhythms (pulse, respiration, digestion, brain function, hormonal and limbic systems), offers harpers the opportunity to positively assist their listeners to find comfort or stimulus depending on their needs.

Exam candidates will present a programme of 30 minutes duration including:
1    A 10 minute pentatonic improvisation to effect comfort and sleep
2    A 10 minute improvisation to stimulate a person with dementia (a religious theme is acceptable)

10     Composition

Students of the Harbison Harp College are encouraged to ‘be original’ and this specialism offers the opportunity to perform their own work(s) of up to 20 minutes duration.  At least 5 minutes of the candidate’s repertoire should be fully scored.

11     Arrangement

For the Art of Arrangement, the student will be expected to demonstrate their arranging ability with a broad programme of content and style including 10 pieces in the following rhythms:
1    A  reel
2    A jig
3    A hornpipe
4    An air
5    A slow air
6    A march

Each arrangement should show a good sense of harmony, rhythm and sensitivity to the music, its period and style.  Although this specialism is primarily focused on the ‘Left Hand’ arrangement, the tune will be expected to be properly interpreted with some ornamentation and variation.

12     Accompaniment

The study of accompaniment is at once the easiest and most challenging of the Arts of Harping.  Through the Harbison Harp College accompaniment training with ‘Chordscapes’, all the basics are covered, but this specialism seeks to hone the accompaniment skill to complementing all tunes with expertise and sensitivity.  

The exam candidate will present:  
1    10 prepared accompaniments to a recorded solo performance on any other instrument to include
1    A  set of reels
2    A set of jigs
3    A set of hornpipes
4    An air or slow air
5    A march
2    Extempore accompaniment to a core session tune (from ‘Harbison’s 100’)
The examiner will perform (or play a recording) of tunes to be accompanied by the candidate
3    Extempore accompaniments to well-known folk airs
The examiner will perform (or play a recording) of tunes to be accompanied by the candidate