Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Instrument Biography: The Lyre

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The lyre was ubiquitous from ancient times until the Middle Ages. It was present in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, endured in Asia, prospered in Africa, and wandered all over Europe and Great Britain. Even so, it has been nearly completely absent from musical experience for the last 600 years. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Without it, the harp, zither, lute, guitar, violin, vielle, and countless other instruments would never have been invented.

Back in ancient Egypt, the instruments in an “orchestra” (this term meant something different back then) were very quiet, like the lyre, harp, and flute. Middle Eastern groups of musicians came to resemble noisier Asian orchestras around 3000 BCE with the influx of newly conquered peoples and their instruments. By 1700-1500-BCE, this change affected the social standing of musicians—where once music had been a hobby for the elite, under the New Empire, music became the purview of professionals, often of ill repute. Upper-class conservatives preserved the old music in temples and schools, leaving noisier music to the general population—just like today!

The instruments adopted or developed by Egyptians during this period of transition were lyres (during the Hellenistic period), kitharas (a posh version of the lyre), lutes, harps, flutes, reed instruments (similar to oboes and clarinets), castanets, cymbals, bells, drums, and rattles. There are examples of failed attempts to make trumpets from this time as well.

It’s probable that the development of all these other instruments began because even the largest lyre couldn’t play more than two octaves. In fact, most could only play one octave or less because they had only three, five, or six strings. It’s also probable that this had long been an acceptable range because singers would have been all male, rendering a broader range unnecessary. (Because women often sing in both head and chest voice, even an untrained woman usually has nearly double the range of most men. It’s not a judgement fellahs, it’s the great estrogen/testosterone divide.)

Some musicologists think of the lyre as part of the zither family (which also includes lutes, guitars, kantele, and psalteries). Other musicologists insist that they’re not in the same family because zithers (and lutes, guitars, kanteles, and psalteries) have strings that cross the soundboard for their entire length or nearly the entire length, whereas a lyre’s strings cover the soundboard for half or less of their length.

The poetic recitations of the ancient Greeks were accompanied by lyres. Apparently, the Greek god Apollo played one, and for a while, the instrument became a cult favorite in ancient Greece during the rise of his cult. An account by Homer credits the invention of the lyre to the Greek god Hermes, but a Thracian account claims that they had used the lyre long before the Greeks.

In truth, this ancient stringed instrument was, with the kithara, the most important stringed instrument of both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, not to mention Asia, Africa, an d Egypt. Although its popularity waned a bit by the Middle Ages, its association with King David brought a small resurgence in popularity in Europe, and a lyre often appeared in illustrations of musicians and angels from the late 7th century onward.

The Judeo-Christian Bible mentions the lyre in 42 places. The Septuagent translates the word for lyre 20 times as kithara (in Psalms, Job, and Isaiah), 17 times as kinnyra (in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles), and several other times in Greek forms. The Vulgate translates 37 of the 42 times as cithara, once as cithara pro octava, in two places as psalterium, once as organum, and twice as lyra. The Aquila, Symmachos, and Theodotion (versions of the Bible) use either kithara or psalterion.

“Lyric music” originally meant “music sung to the lyre.” Betcha didn’t know that!

Oh, and just so we’re all playing in the same band, the difference between a harp and a lyre is that the lyre has a soundboard with two arms sticking out of it, roughly parallel like a U-shape, and with a crossbar connecting the two arms. The strings of a lyre run from the soundboard to the crossbar, parallel to the arms and across the face of the soundboard. The harp is a triangle and the strings are perpendicular to the soundboard, sticking out of it rather than running across it.

Lyre History

There isn’t much evidence of lyres in Mesopotamia before the Greeks came, but if flourished after that. Curt Sachs, one of the world’s greatest musicologists, said that there is no evidence of lyres anywhere until about the 15th century BCE, about 1200 or 1300 years after harps appeared. However, archaeological evidence disputes this. For instance, 20th century archaeologists exploring royal tombs at Ur, a Sumerian city on the Euphrates, found several lyres and harps, as well as paintings of them being played, from around 2500 BCE.

From the times of the pharaohs, around 1900 BCE, there are lyres in paintings (frescos), as played by Semitic or possibly Hebrew nomads, who came to ask for royal permission to settle in Egypt. A painting from c1650 BCE of the Hyksos depicts a Bedouin coming to visit the governor while playing a lyre of the same type as was brought to Mesopotamia by Semitic people.

During Akhenaton’s time (the 1330s BCE), Syrian girls played lyres with fingers or a plectrum according to tomb paintings. And, from about 1200 BCE, there’s a piece of ivory carved with a Canaanite king surrounded by luxury and lions (!) with a musician playing a lyre for his entertainment.

In the time of Ramses III (around the 1160s BCE) at Thebes, the usually 7-stringed lyre took a new form as the two gracefully curved arms were made in different lengths so that the crossbar was not quite parallel to the top of the soundbox. The arms had carved animal heads at their ends.

A vase from Megiddo depicts a lyre from around 1025 BCE, thought to be in the style that King David would have played. It was either brought to Egypt by the Israelites or the Canaanites and was discovered by the Hebrews in their new homeland. There are surviving instruments from the end of the first millennium BCE in the Cairo Museum and one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

In Greece, a form of lyre was called a phorminx and like other lyres, was chiefly used as an accompanying instrument. Learning to play the lyre was considered a core element of education in Athens. Both men and women played the lyre, and it was used to accompany dancing, singing,, and recitation of epic poetry, such as Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” The lyre was also used in ceremonies such as weddings and sometimes they used it just for fun.

The Greek form of lyre called the kithara would have been played by a professional who performed at public ceremonies. A lyre, on the other hand, would have been played by amateurs—free-born men who didn’t earn their livings by playing and performing.

The Egyptians adopted Asian instruments during the Hellenistic period (between 323 BCE and the first century CE), including lutes, kitharas, lyres, flutes, clarinet-types, and oboe-types, castanets, cymbals, bells, drums, and rattles, including sistrums. On the Isle of Skye in Scotland, a lyre from 300 BCE has been found.

In India, there were paintings made of dancing girls playing lyres (and harps and drums), until, in the 1st century CE in the Indo-Scythic courts, images of men appeared with lutes, lyres, and double oboes. The lyres and oboes disappeared fairly fast, as the Greek influence on Indian music was minimal.

Clement of Alexandria (c150-c200 CE) approved of the lyre and the kithara because they had been played by King David, but in general disapproved of instruments in Christian music. He feared that the pagan influence was too strong in those other instruments. He also admonished his fellow Christians to avoid the chromatic and theatrical melodies of the heathens (meaning the Greeks), and advised them to return to the spiritual songs , the traditional psalm singing of David. He cites one example in an ancient Greek drinking song:

Among the Ancient Greeks, in their banquets over brimming cups, a song was called skolion, after the manner of the Hebrew psalms, all together raising the paean with the voice, and sometimes taking turns in the song while they drank to everyone’s health, while those that were more musical than the rest sang to the lyre.

But the Christians weren’t alone in looking at music as worship. A passage in the Talmud encourages people to sing in celebration:

The song of thanksgiving was sung to the accompaniment of lutes, lyres, and cymbals at every corner and upon every great stone in Jerusalem.

Diodorus Siculus, in the 1st century BCE, used a lyre-like instrument to accompany Celtic songs. The Celtic version had an arched yoke to which the strings were attached rather than to a crossbar. The Celtic name was the crot or the cruit, which later evolved into the crwth in Welsh and the crowd in English. Crwths have six strings, four of which run across the fingerboard; the other two act as drones.

It seems that the Celtic north developed lyres independent of the Greek and Roman lyres. They were found in drawings from the 8th century CE, and looked surprisingly like Sumerian instruments. They were used by Anglo-Saxon minstrels and their continental contemporaries. Similar instruments were found all over the Europe.

In the 11th century CE, inventors combined the yoke of the lyre with the neck of fingerboard instruments, eventually evolving it into the stringed instrument we know today as the guitar.

The lyre-player’s function was to perform a free and florid version of the same melody that was sung—not harmony or accompaniment but heterophony, which anticipated ornamental variation but didn’t provide counterpoint. There was a lot going on in the early Middle Ages regarding music innovation. In particular, harmonies, rhythms, and chords resulted as part of the development of music notation. (For more on this, see The History of Music Notation.) By the late Middle Ages, the lyre had become less popular than other plucked or bowed instruments, because they had greater flexibility in tone, tuning, and playing multiple notes simultaneously. For instance. the fiedel or vielle, with its fingerboard and bow, appeared around then. Its descendents, like the gamba and the violin, are still popular. (There will be a blog on this someday.)

People still play lyres in North-Eastern Africa, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find them anywhere else.

Lyre Structure

The lyre has a soundbox, two arms, a crossbar that connects the two arms, and gut strings that are attached at the base of the soundbox, cross the length of the soundbox, and stretch across an open space to be attached at the crossbar. There is a second bar, parallel to the crossbar, that functions like a bridge o raise the strings above the surface of the soundbox. The strings stretch from the bridge to the crossbar, and are held there by strips of fatty ox hide. Twisting the fatty hide changes the pitch by tightening or loosening the strings.

The soundbox is hollow, often made of wood or tortoiseshell, and the arms can be made from the same piece of wood as the soundbox, added pieces of wood, or occasionally horns, antlers, or branches. Sometimes these arms have carvings at their ends. The crossbar can be made of wood, branches, metal, wire, or antler and can be parallel to the top edge of the soundbox, at an angle, or curved away from the soundbox.

Most lyres are small, from half a foot wide and a foot-and-a-quarter long, to about four feet long and a foot wide. They were meant to be played while seated or standing, and occasionally from horseback. The lyre was held in the left hand, resting on the left hip, perpendicular to the body.

A lyre has from five to seven strings, although there are instruments with fewer and some with more. The strings are all of equal width and length and a change in pitch is the result of varying the tension of the strings. If they are too thick or too loosely strung, they sound feeble, if too thin or too tightly strung, they break. In comparison, the harp’s strings are of different lengths, and a harp has more notes to offer; that’s probably why the harp’s popularity has endured and the lyre’s hasn’t.

Like the harp, the string with the deepest note on the lyre is furthest from the player’s body. The lyre is played by placing the fingers of the left hand on certain strings to stop them from sounding, and strumming or plucking the strings with a plectrum held in the right hand.

Mycenaean (Greek) examples include two ivory lyres, with their crossbars pierced for 8 strings. These pieces further the general belief that Greece got lyres from Egyptians and Phoenicians. Earlier forms, from the 8th century BCE, were small, with round bases and four strings. Slightly later, around the end of the 8th century, there’s a Hittite relief that shows a six-stringed lyre. By the end of the 7th century BCE, there are images  of 7-stringed instruments, played with a plectrum.

In ancient Greece, the tuning would have been E G A B D (five strings—or pentatonic tuning—in intervals of a third, three seconds and another third). I didn’t find any details on other tunings.

Tuning pegs developed in the early middle ages, but interest in the lyre was already fading, so this development didn’t catch on.

A tether (leather or cloth) attaches the bottom of the lyre to the left wrist, helping to balance the lyre on the left hip when the player stands. The wrist strap sometimes extends to be more of a sling, with decorative tassels and other ornaments.

Specific fingers on the left hand are used to pluck or damp specific strings. The right hand wields the plectrum, which looks like a small spoon and dangles from the instrument by a small cord in some instances. The right hand was used to pluck and strum the instrument with the plectrum and with bare fingertips.

The plectrum is made of animal horn. Playing close to the bridge (on the soundbox) produces a bright, loud sound, with harmonics and sympathetic strings sounding as a result of the strings vibrating. The plectrum is used for introductory passages—it produces too loud a sound to accompany the voice—and the strings are plucked with bare fingers during speaking or singing.

The lyre doubles the voice part or plays it at the octave rather than providing harmonies or accompaniment.

The lyra, which was a variation of the lyre, was a lyre-shaped instrument made of a tortoise shell with a tympanum (the top surface) of ox hide. A yoke was attached to the shell to form the arms; the older ones were made of antelope horns and later, they were made from curved pieces of wood. There were seven gut strings (or fewer) and, like the lyre, it was played with bare fingers or a plectrum. The difference is that the bare left hand plucked the melody and the right hand, with a plectrum fastened to it by a thong, swept across all of the strings rhythmically during the breaks between sung choruses.

Some musicologists assert that the lyra was brought by the Hellenes when they migrated into Greece from the north of the Balkan peninsular and Hungary. Similar instruments were played by Egyptians, Jews, Hittites, Elamites, and Assyrians, so Greece was sort of forced to join in the fun.

From the Sennacherib period (705-681 BCE) in Assyria, there are pictures of lyres with straight but unequal arms and others with gracefully curved arms, like the barbiton.

The barbiton is a lyre with long arms that angle slightly outward until they curve suddenly, at the very top, back toward one another. The arms are connected by a short crossbar. The barbiton has a very small soundbox and is played with the fingers of the left hand and a plectrum held in the right hand, just like the rest.

The kithara is a large lyre, used in processions and sacred ceremonies as well as in the Greek theater, and was always played with the musician standing. Kithara players who sang as they played were called kitharodes.

A Sumerian instrument from Ur, called a bull lyre, had religious significance. It looks kind of like a model of a ship, with a figurehead on the bow end that’s carved to look like a bull, and the horns of the bull forming the arms of the lyre, smoothly carved into cylinders and at a slight outward angle. The strings radiated from a single point in the center of the soundbox and attached to a smooth cylindrical crossbar. The number of strings would have varied, and they were knotted around sticks that that could be turned to change the tension/tuning at the crossbar. Replicas of this instrument are very pretty.

The early Medieval lyre in Europe was smallish and was made entirely from a single piece of wood. It had six or seven strings running from pegs on the crossbar and attached to a tailpiece on the soundboard. If you do a search for the Sutton Hoo lyre, this is the type that you’ll see.

Although eschewed by Archilochus (c680-645 BCE), the lyre was the preferred accompaniment of Sappho (c620-c570 BCE) and Alcaeus (c620-the 6th century BCE). Nothing remains of the melodies; only the lyrics remain.

Philo of Alexandria (c20 BCE-50 CE), who was an early Jewish philosopher, saw the seven strings of the lyre as representing the seven planets.

The Name

This instrument has had many names:

  • Arabian peninsula: tanbūra
  • Bangladesh: ektara
  • Egypt: kissar, tanbūra, simsimiyya, k-nn-r
  • English: rote
  • Old English: crowd
  • Old Irish: cruit or crot
  • Estonia: talharpa
  • Ethiopia: begena, dita, krar
  • Finland: jouhikko
  • German: cythara teutonica
  • Greece: barbiton, kithara, lyra, phorminx, kinnyra
  • India: ektara
  • Iraq: sammu, tanbūra, zami, zinar
  • Israel: kinnor
  • Kenya: kibugander, litungu, nyatiti, obokano
  • Nepal: sarangi
  • Norway: giga
  • Pakistan: barbat, ektara, tanbūra
  • Persian: kunnar
  • Scottish: gue
  • Semitic: kenanawr around 1200 BCE
  • Siberia: nares-jux
  • Sudan: kissar, tanbūra
  • Syrian: kenara
  • Tanzania: litungu
  • Uganda: endongo, ntongoli
  • Welsh: crwth
  • Yemen: tanbūra, simsimiyya

In the third chapter of the Book of Daniel of the Judeo-Christian Bible, King James translators named the instrument the quyteros, which translates to a kithara or lyre. The Book of Daniel was written in the 2nd century BCE.

Homer (who lived sometime between the 9th and the 12th century BCE) called a four- or six-stringed lyre the phorminx. That’s what Apollo is playing at the end of the First Book of the “Iliad.” When Odysseus and his companions visit Achilles in his tent, they find him singing and accompanying himself on a phorminx that has a silver crossbar. Phemius in the First Book of the “Odyssey” and blind Demodocus in the Eighth Book sing as they accompany themselves on the phorminx.

Both the Syrian kenara and the Arabic-Persian kunar are thought by some experts to be the root etymology of the term kinnor, but other experts disagree and say that the origin is unclear. The Phoenicians played a kinnor too, and it’s possible that they got the name from the Greeks, who had a kinnyra, from which the word kinnyrai (to lament) was derived. As an unusual linguistic peculiarity, kinnor has two plural forms, one masculine—kinnorim—and one feminine—kinnorot. It’s unexplainable, and not found in the names of any other instruments.

Famous Composers

Because music notation was just taking off when interest in the lyre was waning, there isn’t much evidence of compositions specifically for the lyre. I found only two citations.

  • A Syrian fellow called Bardesanes (154-233 CE) and his son Harmonios composed a complete gnostic psalter of 150 psalms to be sung to the lyre (ad lyra cantum), in the “Jewish” fashion.
  • Italian Baroque composer Jacopo Peri (1561-1633 CE) wrote the lyre into accompaniments where two choirs were doubled—the first was doubled by lyre, harp, large lute, and “sotto Basso di Viola” and the second choir was doubled by lyre, harp, chitarrone, and “Basso di Viola.”

Famous Players

I found only one famous lyre player, besides the one’s in Homer’s works: Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who regarded the lyre as therapeutic.

Oh, and while I have your attention, when I was reading all this varied material, I came across this caution for musicians in general:

“Whoever drinks (especially wine) to the accompaniment of four musical instruments brings five punishments to the world. Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, that tarry late into the night, ‘til wine inflame them! And the harp, and the lute, the tabaret and the pipe, and wine, are in their feasts, but they regard not the work of the Lord.” From the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sotah, folio 48a, lines 43-44.


  • “Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1949.
  • “Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.
  • “Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1940.
  • “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
  • “A History of Western Music,” J. Peter Berkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
  • “A Dictionary of Early Music,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
  • “Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.
  • “The Music of the Jews in the Diaspora,” by Alfred Sendrey. Thomas Yoselof, New York, 1970.
  • “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1971.
  • “Music in Ancient Greece and Rome,” by John G. Landers. Routledge, London, 1999.
  • “Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.
  • “Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture; Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer,” by Bruce W. Holsinger. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001.

2 Responses

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  1. When do we hear about the Didgeridoo???

    April 24, 2013 at 11:27 am

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