This little essay was submitted to Autoharp Notes, the membership magazine of the UK Autoharps club. It appeared, slightly revised by the editor, in Vol. 4, issue3.


But why play autoharp?
Letting music in and out

Siegfried Knöpfler, October 2004

1        The event

On the evening of 5 June 2004 we did it again, cf.

Again, John Dallas and I played our autoharps between sections of the usual gig that "interFolk", John's Irish band[1], has played for quite a few years at the annual "Wine, Asparagus and Music" fest at Huster's Winery in Ingelheim on the Rhine. Last year, however, was the first time an autoharp (in fact, two, John's and mine) appeared there. (Whereas the band, with a PA, accompanied the drinking and eating by the audience in the courtyard, autoharp was played without amplification to guests in the wine-tasting room.) Actually, you might have learned about that sensation since John reported it last year to the Cyberpluckers[2]. (He obviously didn't find the time to do so this year.)

2        The ominous question

On this occasion, naturally, I was asked once more how come that I play an instrument unknown to at least 99.99 percent of the population? Well, this time my answer was better prepared than ever, after having considered (and taken issue with) some of Cathy Britell's[3] encouraging admonitions (on the Cyberpluckers) and having exchanged my concerns and reservations regarding Cathy's – not really uncommon! – attitude with Karen Daniels, this year's autoharp tutor at Sore Fingers[4] (a splendid one, by the way!). So my answer followed the reasoning I'm going to outline now:

3        Why does one start?

Recently, such a question actually came up on the Cyberpluckers. The vast majority of those posting a reply had once had a physical encounter with an autoharp, which sooner or later led to the desire to play one themselves; the circumstances of the encounter usually included Mum, Grandpa or an artiste on a stage or in the street, or somebody else like a school teacher, playing the instrument.

My case, however, is different, rather unorthodox. I heard autoharp music on the radio, liked the sound, researched about the instrument, was informed that it's "easy to learn", and concluded that this would be my first instrument to seriously learn to play.

The autoharp is in fact an easy instrument on which to become an advanced beginner rather quickly. However, as most of you know, it is not at all easy to move on to advanced intermediate, let alone really advanced player, a goal I'm still far away from, after all these years.

So the next question arises: Why carry on?

4        Why take up autoharp SERIOUSLY and why keep on?

People may have widely differing answers to this question. A rather trivial one would point out the "economical" aspect: having invested in learning the basics, one may as well continue, hoping for eventual "return on investment" with the autoharp, instead of putting another initial investment into another instrument.[5]

Cathy's, and probably John's, and most likely every full-blooded musician's, answer will be:

4.1       To let the music out!

For me, this sounds like there's an osmotic overpressure within people waiting urgently to be drained and relieved; it means, in less metaphorical words, that you've grown up in a strongly musical environment and soaked up all the songs, the rhythms, the harmonies ... and now you're feeling the need to express yourself with singing and, particularly, playing an instrument, letting out all the music that's "bottled up" within you.

However, for me, this is an unsatisfactory answer for at least two reasons: Firstly, if it applies at all to the autoharp, it would apply to (nearly) any other instrument as well.

Secondly and moreover, in my childhood, the musical environment was rather deprived, there was definitely no harmony singing in the kitchen, singing was mainly a teacher-controlled part of school drill. From such beginnings, definitely more than an autoharp is needed to become a musician. While it is known that really talented people have been able to rise from even the most detrimental backgrounds, it is also a matter of fact that this talent is rather rare.

Not being bred in the right "culture medium",  in the music-soaked nutrient solution, and lacking the real talent, there's not much to let out. But what about the other direction?

4.2       To let the music in?

Strange as this might sound to a native, dyed-in-the-wool musician, for me it is the reason which mainly kept me going on with autoharp practice for more than 15 years in "autoharp isolation", i.e. before meeting the Cyberpluckers and learning that there actually exist autoharpers besides me (and the handful of recording artists known to me then).

With "letting music in" I do certainly not mean what Cathy[6] earlier this year was advising the Cyberpluckers to do for letting music in: to get out to listen to musicians (and if there happen to be no concerts at all, fetch a famous performer and organise one yourself). This is a good advice, no doubt, but it would only serve to catch up on or continue the "soaking" process I was talking about above: to let music in by the ears.

No, with "letting music in" I mean a different thing, two things actually: One is to learn songs (and instrumental pieces) in a way more precise and complete than my not so good ear allows. The other channel, other than the ear, is of course the eye. For me, a mathematician, trained in formalisms, musical notation is not a real problem. However, the autoharp is actually a mixed blessing for letting in (that this, learning) instances of music. If you've got it right you can play not only the melody but an accompaniment as well. That's the good side of the coin. The bad side is that the melody cannot be learned alone; learning a song always means learning the melody and the chords at the same time.

A traditionally brought up autoharper might wonder what at all I'm talking about here. As I indeed know now, the "normal" way to learn autoharp is to begin with strumming chords and only later add melody playing. But my isolated, solipsistic way began with learning to play melody notes on the autoharp, chord buttons being needed at first only for "filtering" the strings.  (Probably as a result of this approach (or actually a reason for it?), for me, melody has always come first, i.e. rendering the true melody has for me higher priority than having an easy or especially "interesting" chord progression. Today I begin, only very reluctantly, to accept the idea of "bending" a tune in order to save a chord structure.)

Besides learning instances of music, ”letting music in” also means learning music itself, gaining insight into essence and structure of occidental music as shaped in the past three centuries, with its scales, modes, keys, harmonies, metrics – briefly: learning how music works. And for such an endeavour, there seems to be no other instrument better fitted than the chromatic autoharp. Right from the start, and especially if you try to play melody, the autoharp demands a basic musical knowledge of the player. And when you are progressing, the autoharp aides you in acquiring deeper and broader understanding of music. And if a player’s research interests go beyond well tempered tuning (also known as equal temperament), the diatonic autoharp is the ideal medium for exploring sweet and perfect harmonies. (My own research agenda has not yet really reached this stage.)

Now that I have identified the inherent true reason for learning to play, of all instruments, the autoharp, is there an additional reason? In fact, there is:

4.3       To socialise with other autoharpers

It’s a surprising phenomenon, and I could only speculate about its connection to the autoharp, but it is an easily observable matter of fact that autoharpers all over the world are the most friendly people.

To have a good reason for meeting the autoharp people over and over again is a really effective motivation for improving your playing (or at least, for keeping on trying to). Besides enjoying the warm friendliness of this community and being part of it, there are two other important points: What drew me to the autoharp in the first place, the instrument's special sound, still fascinates me, and therefore I really like to listen to others playing. For someone like me, relying more on the eye than on the ear, actually (and closely) watching the player adds an additional level of insight.

The other point is the pleasure and, at the same time, challenge to play together. Playing together is a quite different realm with its very own rules contrasting with or supplementing those for playing solo. This is a realm which I discovered (and dared to enter) only after discovering the Cyberpluckers. It is certainly better to learn and practise these rules in the supportive environment of an autoharpers community before approaching other musicians and getting over their, at best, wait-and-see distance keeping.

To sum up, I think that the autoharp and the autoharp community constitute a mutually sustaining and fostering relationship, which in itself is a compelling reason for seriously and continuously concerning oneself with the autoharp.

4.4       And where's the FUN?

There are points where autoharpers disagree, e.g. the moot question of the relative merits of chromatic versus diatonic autoharps or the "best" chord-buttons layout. There’s one topic, however, they tend to generally agree upon, namely that autoharping is fun. This summer Cyperplucker Bruce Fornes uttered his conviction this way: "The reason so many of us play the autoharp is to have fun. We're not musical geniuses, nor have we had extensive (or any) training in music theory. We don't know a diatonic from a chromatic. The only thing we share is the beauty of playing songs we enjoy on an instrument it doesn't take a Mozart to play."

As I understand him, he refers essentially to the joy you experience when initially taking up the autoharp. When you progress in your playing, the fun comes, of course, from progress, i.e. from being able to play better and to play more.

But I like my fun to have something more, some ”nutritional value”, so to speak. Fortunately there is, because I derive a lot of fun from the fact that seriously dealing with the autoharp opens up new areas of understanding of and insight into music itself. Using words from my day job, I would say that entering and progressively (slow as that progress may be) understanding the "structural meta-level" of music, the logic and physics of music, is real fun for an analytical mind! And the autoharp is a wonderful door to this "meta-level" realm.

I experience this kind of fun very much when I’m about to learn a new tune from a sheet of music: The most exciting part is determining the chords for melody playing from a range of clues including the key, the mode, the note itself (of course!), the intervals between adjacent notes, the rhythmic structure of the tune etc. This task is analytical and creative at the same time, and most satisfying, of course, when the tune contains so-called "accidentals", notes outside the key's "own" scale: This is always a welcome test for my theory that most accidentals are due to intermediate, temporary modulation into a (more or less) ”neighbouring” key.[7]

5        Letting let-in music out

5.1       Research and repertoire

If the primary reason for my involvement with the autoharp is the pursuit of music research, then this must lead to consequences for my choice of repertoire. Above all, I try to learn a bit of everything, i.e. of everything I understand at least a little bit. (These days, most of my deficits in accessibility, I feel, are with the more complicated rhythmic structures.) In other words, my approach is not compatible with restriction to any special genre (like e.g. strictly diatonic old-time tunes).

My approach does not, however, prohibit my deciding from time to time to learn a tune just for its beauty or for its sentimental value, or simply because it is kind of a standard. Recently I became aware of a certain predicament: I realised that for every hour of learning a new tune, I ought to schedule at least two hours for playing my old repertoire in order not to lose it. Unfortunately, this requires a certain discipline, because learning a new tune is for me, at least initially, more fun than playing an old one (and getting aware of all the places where polishing is badly needed): Seeing a tune gradually gaining shape under your fingers is real fun, complementary to the fun I mentioned above of figuring out its chords.

My agenda of tunes to learn therefore contains (parts of) classical pieces and tunes in various modes, but also tunes connecting me with other autoharpers or other people. To quote Mary Umbarger, another Cyberplucker and renowned autoharper: So many tunes, so little time!

5.2       My way of performing: Presenting research results!

And here I come back to the initially mentioned event at Huster’s winery.

John and I were taking turns at our respective autoharps, John began with singing a very well received song which he accompanied on his ‘harp, the song being the most appropriate "Im tiefen Keller" (the English version is known as "In Cellar Cool"). After such a performance, I resorted to the emergency measure of explaining to the audience the difference between John and me: He, being a real artiste, a real musician, uses his autoharp as one of many ways to express himself musically, whereas I, so I revealed, use my instrument for researching music and see my contribution as presenting research results!

Although I actually told the truth, I got the feeling that a few in the audience thought I was joking. Anyway, my attitude served well to spare me a futile attempt to appear being an artiste just as John.

As the evening went on, I was actually able to score real points by playing German folk songs well known to the audience (and to me from my early school days) and allowing, even encouraging, the listeners to join in with singing. Now I’m not at all sure how this relates to my noble research interests ... J

[1] John (singing, playing tin whistle, concertina and nearly everything with strings) is the only Irishman in the band, the other members are Germans from different parts of the country.

[2] The Cyberpluckers is a list on the Internet where autoharpers of the whole world (but mainly North American) exchange ideas and information. It is a most useful institution. If you have not yet subscribed (it's free!), go to!

[3] Cathy Britell (a.k.a. Cybermama) is (a medical doctor and) a very accomplished musician and autoharp teacher and was instrumental in founding the Cyberpluckers (and she's a real nice person!).

[4] Every year around Easter,  classes on several Bluegrass and Old Time instruments are taught during Sore Fingers Week, taking place in Kingham Hill School, northwest of Oxford.

[5] If in a depressive mood you may express this thought with the famous words: [Why not] bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?

[6] I'm mentioning Cathy so often because she's so influential on my (and probably most other Cyberpluckers') autoharp attitude and repertoire. Even this little essay is incited by her: Daring to disagree with her in single points and being forced to clear my thoughts has led to writing this exposition. If you're not a Cyberplucker you may be interested to learn about her renowned autoharp teaching material: go to

[7] Cyberpluckers among the readers might remember my rather extensive Cyberplucker posting on the topic a few years ago, with subject "Chords & modulation", sent on 19 August 2001.