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Instrument Biography: The Portative Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles from the main article on pipe organs, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The portative organ, also called the portativ or portatif, from the Latin portare (“to carry”), is a small pipe organ that consists of a single rank of flue pipes, sometimes arranged in two rows. It’s played while strapped to the player at a right angle, like a peanut vendor’s wares. The performer manipulates the bellows with one hand and the keys with the other. The portative has no reservoir to retain a supply of wind and only produces sound when the bellows are operated.

Although it took 1600 years, the portative organ went from being the only instrument sanctioned by religious, educational, musical, and engineering organizations, to relative ignominy. It was commonly used in secular music from the 12th through the 16th centuries, and it was used as an educational tool in church and monastic settings for that same period. Even so, by the end of its popularity, this attractive little instrument had been relegated to a conversation starter in private homes.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes and they probably knew a lot of chant. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century seems to be monophonic (melody only) dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of scores and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player. That’s where the two-line piano-style score comes from.

The invention of the organ dates from the 3rd century BCE but it wasn’t until a millennium had passed that the instrument featured prominently in musical life. During that time, portative organs were commonly depicted in the iconography, even though they weren’t front and center like harps or psalteries. By the 15th century, organs had became quite popular and larger organs were placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and with the bellows operated by a second person. These larger portable instruments were called positive organs (there’s a separate post about them).

Portative Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. It was probably a domestic instrument as well. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum.

The hydraulis enjoyed popularity during the Roman Empire; Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) proclaimed himself to be an aficionado of organ music and notorious Roman emperor Nero (37-68 CE) was known to play one. But the instrument’s popularity waned, and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

In 187, a Roman specimen was excavated at Pompeii that is about 14.5 inches by 9.5 inches and contains nine pipes, of which the largest is only 10 inches long. Six of the pipes have oblong holes near the top, similar to those made in the gamba pipes of modern organs, making them sound reedy, like the Chinese cheng, which is  a reed organ (a blog post on reed organs is in the works).

In the 1st century, the ptera and the pteron were ancient Roman organs similar in appearance to the portative organ. In the 2nd century, the Magrepha was a Hebrew organ with 10 pipes that was played by a keyboard. In the 3rd century, the hydraulis was played in southern Europe, Byzantium, and the Middle East. This organ wasn’t the same hydraulis of history, though, because that didn’t really survive until the first century CE.

In the late 8th century, a notable Arab singer called ‘Ulaiya al-Mausilki played an “urgan rumi” which was a Byzantine or Roman portative.

In the 10th century, two portable pneumatic (portative) organs were used in the Hippodrome, one accompanying each of the two choirs. The organs for the Emperor’s choirs were covered with gold, and those of the Green and Blue choirs were covered with silver. There was a kind of circus, with chariot races, games, and fights. There were laudes (praise poems) for Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Trajan that were shouted by the senators and accompanied by portative organs.

These early organs weren’t particularly nice, musically. The pipes were hard to tune, there wasn’t a proper keyboard, and the player pulled and pushed the sliders one at a time to achieve a note. A melody could be played only very slowly with one hand, and more than two notes at a time was impossibly complex.

Monastic churches throughout Europe had these early organs by 1100, and by 1300, they were common in cathedrals as well. In the 12th century, the organ was getting larger and less portable, and substantial improvements were made. Proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them.

The first record of portative organs in England is from the 12th century, but they were all over Europe by the 13th century, and soon became one of the most important instruments in both chamber and orchestral settings. The portative became the instrument of secular music, and the positive (a portable but full-sized organ) became the instrument of the church; the organ soon established itself as the sound of Christian worship. By the end of the Middle Ages, the organ was inextricably established in the church.

Toward the middle of the 13th century, miniatures of illuminated manuscripts depict portatives with balanced-action keyboards. Such instruments were used extensively during the 14th and 15th centuries as part of an interest reviving all things classical and Roman.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 notes of the octave are already required—remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this).

Once they developed a keyboard, portatives were lithe and easy to play, and they produced a clear, mellow tone, somewhat like a flute. They were technologically interesting, and along with their sweet sound and portability, they became popular during the Renaissance when mechanical instruments and inventions were all the rage. (See Instrument Biography: The Hurdy-Gurdy for more on this rage.)

The portative was pretty much gone from the music scene by 1500. Before it went, though, it developed a chromatic keyboard with two ranks of keys. It was too small and too quiet to contribute to popular music—polyphony was all the rage by then—because it had to be played with one hand.

The portative was even less appreciated during the Classical period than the Baroque; by then, it was regarded as too rigid and lifeless. In fact, both portative and positive organs gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the Great Church organ remained in general use.

Portative Organ Structure

The syrinx was a piped instrument that was part of the hydraulis, where levels of water determined the note played. The concept of the pipe, sounded by air, and maintained at a fairly stable pressure by the weight of the water, could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device (a plug on the end of a lever) rather than by finger holes.

The first invention to improve the action of the stops was a series of slides that were pulled out and pushed back in. The next improvement was to make it easier to move the slides by pressing on keys that returned to their original stopping positions by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s (c10-70 CE) “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary Vitruvius (c80 BCE- after 15 CE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The portative’s construction was fairly simple. The pipes were arranged on a small rectangular wind chest and supplied with wind by one or two bellows placed at the back, in front, or at the right side of the instrument. The row of pipes is supported by posts at either end and a supportive crossbar. The simplest style of keyboard consists of one slider for each pipe. When the slider is pushed in, the corresponding pipe sounds. The slider is restored to its normal position by a spring. Some instruments use the reverse action, with keys featuring knobs or handles that are pulled out to sound the pipe.

The portative is smaller than the also-portable positive, which has more ranks of pipes than the portative and a larger keyboard. The portative should not be confused with the regal, which is also a small organ, but the regal contains short-length reed pipes instead of flue pipes (there’s a blog in the works on regals and reed pipes).

Since the Orgelbewegung revival movement in the early 20th century, small organs that can be played with both hands and have a bass register have come to be called portatives, especially when their pipe arrangement or general layout resembles that of the actual portative.

The earliest image of keys is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks each of 18 pipes. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, rather than reeds (reeds vibrate in the breeze to sound, rather than whistling through a hollow tube). The player used both hands to play the keyboard. He might have used his left hand for changing the drone note. This might have been the sound that made Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE and 65 CE) refer to consonance (two notes sounding simultaneously and making a pleasant sound). Don’t get confused, though. Polyphony and chords don’t come along for another thousand years (see Chords versus Polyphony for more on that).

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus (208-235 CE) in 228. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, of which, three ranks are stopped, one is open, and there are 13 sliders with keys. Each rank of pipes provides different harmonics, and the largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

Unlike the powerful portable but full-sized positive organ, the portative was intended to be played while moving. It has relatively few pipes, the largest of which could be used to provide a drone. A single person played it, working the bellows with his left hand and playing the keys with his right. The keys were often pushbuttons rather than the keys of a keyboard.

There was a tremendous variation in portative sizes. From six to 30 pipes, usually in two ranks, but occasionally in three or one. Keys might be button or lever keys (like modern instruments) or pull or push stops.

The greatest differences among the various sizes are in the range of notes. Half-steps (like where the black keys live on a modern piano) appear randomly and sometimes even whole steps are eliminated because they simply hadn’t identified the order of things (that wouldn’t happen until the early Middle Ages). Possibly, scales on a portative were customized to the performer. It’s also possible that the pipes were changed for specific performances (like tuning a harp without sharping levers).

The 15th century was the portative’s prime, when the instruments had drone pipes that were larger and separated from the rest of the pipes. For the first time, two rows of keys appeared, done to save space, as the chromatic scale was still not an option on this small instrument. By this point, it was mostly used for secular music and monastic scholarly exploits and training. In the 15th century, both portative and positive organs had only a few chromatic notes (B-flat, F-sharp, and C-sharp)—key signatures wouldn’t come into being until the next century and weren’t really standardized until the 17th century.

The portative organ has these some different parts from Great Church organs:

  • Wind-chest: Stores the reservoir of air. Air that’s pumped from a bellows passes through conduits into the wind-chest and from there into the soundboard.
  • Soundboard: A table that contains a number of grooves to hold each individual pipe.
  • Spring soundboards: A special valve that is fitted into the grooves to interrupt or admit wind into the pipes.
  • Slider soundboards: The grooves underlying all the pipes on the soundboard are specific to a particular note. The sliders working across the grooves are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off. The solid portions of the sliders close the pipes. When the register (tone quality of a group of pipes, like flute or gamba) is to be included, the slider is pulled out until the holes are situated under the feet of the pipes so that the wind can enter unimpeded when the associated key is depressed. Slider soundboards are less likely to break than the spring versions, and were universally adopted in the Baroque period.

For more on the structure of organs, see my Church Organ post.

By the Baroque period, portatives were used mostly in processions. They had several registers and were heavier and more elaborate than the portatives of the late Middle Ages. Those early instruments could be played by one person, but two were needed for this larger portative.

Portative Organ Name

The original name was the hydraulis, until the Romans took it over and changed it to a more Latin sounding name. By the Renaissance, Italian portatives were called the organetto (little organ).

The Magrepha was a Hebrew version with 10 pipes.

Portative Organ Composers

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) wrote the “Fauvel” motets (the story of a horse’s exploits), some of which were to be played on the organ.

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1535-1612) composed a “Magnificat” that probably used a portative organ, along with trombones, cornettos, and violins.

Francesco Landini (c1325-1397) was a blind master of many instruments, but he was especially known for his skill on the portative organ. He seems to have written no sacred music (that he took credit for, anyway), and was best known for his 140 ballate, 12 madrigals, one caccia, and one virelai. He was the central figure in Giovanni de Prato’s narrative poem “Paradiso degli Alberti” of 1425 that records scdenes and conversations in Florence from the year 1389.

Portative Organ Players

Francesco Landini (c1325-1397). I covered him in the composers section.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was with the English forces occupying France. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at court until his retirement in 1453. His involvement with English musicians definitely affected the French music that he wrote.

Dolly Collins (1933-1995), who accompanied her sister Shirley Collins (1935-  ) on albums of traditional English folk songs.

Hana Blochova (dates unknown) is a Russian-speaking woman with images on YouTube. She’d chatted for more than four minutes wafting a psaltery around but not playing it, so I didn’t wade through the whole 35 minute recording to see if she played the portative. You let me know if she does, won’t you?


“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.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.


Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The organ is an instrument of one or more rows (called ranks) of multiple pipes, organized by the quality of sounds they produce (called divisions), each played with its own keyboard. The keyboards are called manuals when played with the hands and pedals when played with the feet. Organs can be played by a single player with both hands and both feet, or by two or more players.

Pipe organs use wind moving through pipes to produce sounds. The wind is moved by bellows, water, steam, or electricity. Most organs have pipes of some sort although some reed organs don’t. After some introductory remarks, this blog addresses the large church organs that add fabulousness to any ordinary cathedral.

There are many varieties of organs. The one you think of right away is probably at or near the top of this list. But organ development has been hot and heavy for two full millenniums, so be prepared to learn about some new types. These are some of the larger categories:

  • Church organs are the largest and grandest organs with as many as four or five manual keyboards and a pedal keyboard. Pipes can fill a whole cathedral wall and the individual pipes can be from a few inches high to many feet high. Pipes are made from reeds, wood, metal, precious metal, and semi-precious stone.
  • Positive organs are small organs, meant to be portable. The pipes are contained in a box the size of a large trunk, and they have only one or two manuals. Positives are usually in two pieces (the pipes and the keyboard) to facilitate being moved.
  • Portative organs are not only portable, it’s possible to play one while walking. About the size of a peanut vendor’s box, they hang from one shoulder. The player pumps the bellows with one hand and plays a single keyboard with the other.
  • Regal organs are portable in much the same way that positive organs are—they can be pushed around, and they had a limited number of keyboards and pipes. In the 16th century, the resonance pipes were removed and the regal became a beating-reed organ, which is the ancestor of the harmonium and other squeezeboxes. The regal’s sound was characterized as “snarling” and loud.
  • A chamber organ is small, often with only one manual, and sometimes without separate pipes for the pedals. These are for small rooms, and are confined to chamber organ repertoire, as they’re too quiet for larger halls. Music from before Beethoven could be played on a chamber organ, just as it might have been on a piano or harpsichord, and it’s occasionally considered preferable to a harpsichord for continuo playing because it can sustain tones. (The harpsichord is a plucked instrument, so the decay of sound begins immediately.)
  • Reed organs are also called harmoniums. They’re quite small and are a relative of the accordion in that the box containing the keyboard also contains the bellows. Concertinas, shruti boxes and accordions are all reed organs. It’s also (vaguely) the ancestor of the harmonica, which sometimes gets called the mouth organ.
  • Theater organs are large and ornate, like church organs, but have a different variety of sounds, such as percussion and special effects, suitable for accompanying silent movies and ball games. They are smaller than church organs, but use higher wind pressures to provide the variety of tone and more volume with fewer pipes.
  • Electric organs have sound produced by electricity instead of a bellows and the sounds are digitally altered to produce the various divisions. Some have pipes and others simply produce the sound through speakers.
  • Mechanical organs include the barrel organ, water organ, and orchestrion (that’s a fancy term for a music box). These are controlled by mechanical means, such as pinned barrels or book music (like a player piano). Small barrel organs dispense with the organist altogether by being wound up like a toy, and bigger barrel organs are powered by a crank that’s turned by an organ grinder or by an electric motor. Barrel organs are mechanical organs made famous by organ grinders. There are also orchestra organs, fairground organs, band organs, Dutch street organs, and dance organs that use a piano roll player or other mechanical means instead of a keyboard to play a prepared song.
  • Steam organs, or calliopes, were invented in the 19th century. They have a loud and clean sound, and are usually used outdoors. Many were built on wheeled platforms, making them portable.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart probably meant the church organ when he called the organ the “king of instruments.”

The church organ is the grandest of the musical instruments in size and scope and has existed in its current form since the 14th century. Like the clock, it was considered one of the most complex manmade mechanical creations before the Industrial Revolution. Pipe organs range in size from a single short keyboard to huge instruments with over 10,000 pipes. A large modern organ usually has three or four manual keyboards with five octaves each (five octaves is 61 notes), and a 2.5 octave (32-note) pedal keyboard.

Really grand organs have pipes as large as 64’ (foot here means sonic foot, which is not exactly the same, but nearly, as an English foot). Church organs with pipes like that have an extremely diverse range of sounds. In fact, that’s the most distinctive feature of an organ; the range and quality of sounds goes from barely audible to hair-blown-back almost intolerably loud, from sounding like grass blowing in the breeze to a locomotive passing through your living room.

Because of the multiple keyboards, the organ has a polyphonic effect built right into it—all of the keyboards can be played at the same time as the others, if you can get your friends to join you on the bench. In addition, the sounds of each keyboard can be mixed and interspersed with the others, creating the effect of a whole orchestra from a single instrument.

Most organs in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and Asia can be found in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, with some in concert halls and private homes. The harmonium is a staple of Indian music, especially as part of the Hindu and Sikh celebrations. Muslims do not include music in their worship services.

Organs are also used for concerts and recitals. In the early 20th century, symphonic organs flourished in secular venues in the US and the UK, designed to replace symphony orchestras by playing transcriptions of orchestral pieces. Using organs in concert with symphonies fell out of favor in the 20th century as a reformation movement took hold (called the Orgelbewegung, and having a particular interest in historically accurate focus on performance) and builders began to look to historical models for inspiration rather than creating something new.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century seems to be monophonic dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of score and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player.

Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based. The panpipe is also an ancestor of the organ, as it toyed with various lengths of pipe and the effect of blowing air across or through them.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. It was probably a domestic instrument as well. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum.

The hydraulis’ popularity waned and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, three stopped ranks, one open rank, and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

In the 7th century in the Christian world, Pope Vitalian is credited with introducing the much-evolved bellows organ to the Catholic church service. It served as support for singers, both as a foundation by playing lower notes than could be sung and to offer timbre options in the higher registers. It’s ideally suited to accompany singing, whether by a congregation, a choir, cantor, or other soloists. Many church services still include organ accompaniment as well as a solo repertoire, often as a prelude at the beginning of the service and a postlude at the conclusion.

By the 8th century, the organ was no longer associated with gladiators and combat and had assumed a prominent place in the liturgy of the Catholic church. It soon also became a secular and recital instrument. In that same century in the Middle East, a notable singer called ‘Ulaiya al-Mausilki played an “urgan rumi” which was a Byzantine or Roman version of the organ.

The organ was introduced to France through Constantinople in the latter half of the 8th century and the simultaneous sound of different notes on the organ by two players might have inspired imitation with the beginning of sung polyphony, organum (chant with a second voice—see? It might have gotten its name from the organ!), and conductus (which didn’t really pop up until the 12th century, but is two or three voices, usually in the form of chant, and used to musically conduct the holy books from the back of the church to the front during Mass). Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England and can be seen in museums there.

The decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reigns of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries.

In the 9th century, an automatic flute player, which was possibly hydro-powered, was a mechanical organ made by the Banu Musa brothers, Islamic scholars in Baghdad who wrote a book called “The Book of Ingenious Devices” that reported on automatic and mechanical devices of the time. Look these guys up—they’re the stuff fiction is made of! One was a highwayman and the other was an astrophysicist (or the 9th-century version of such a thing).

By then, the organ started taking the form that you might recognize today, Instead of complicated water and air pumps, the new instrument used a bellows that could be worked by hands or feet. By the end of the 9th century, Franconian organ building was so highly esteemed that Pope John VIII summoned a master from there to come and build an organ for him in Rome.

The largest instrument of the Middle Ages of any kind was an organ built in the 10th century—in 980 CE, an instrument was installed at Winchester Cathedral in England that possessed 400 pipes, 26 bellows, and two manuals, each furnished with 20 sliders (stops). A single one of those sliders could cause 10 pipes to sound simultaneously.

In the 12th century, substantial design improvements were made. Even monastic churches had early organs by 1100 and by 1300, they were common in cathedrals as well. Proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them, like a carillon’s keys.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 keys of the octave are already required (remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this). There are questions about whether the accidentals (sharps and flats that are not part of the key signature) are written in by the original documenter or by a later hand.

The organ of the church of Notre Dame de Valiere, in Sion Switzerland had 4’ pipes in the 14th century, and lower pipes had been added since it was originally built. There were three high ranks, their metal cast in sand, dating from around 1390. It was probably used to play the Faenza Codex in the 15th century. By then, larger organs were commonly placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and with the bellows operated by a second person (positive organs).

Until around 1400, the organ had a single keyboard with a range of one to three octaves, the keys were large and cumbersome or consisted of sliders that moved in and out, and there were no stops to allow the variety of color and tone that we’re used to today. The sound was a fixed, and fairly loud mixture of several ranks of pipes. Pedals and a second manual (on the positive) were added in Germany and the Netherlands in the late Middle Ages, the second manual having its own pipe-work located behind the player (which is why it’s called Rūckpositive in German).

National preferences for organ building emerged during the Renaissance. German innovations included additional manuals and interesting new tone colors. Italian and English organs remained simpler, often with a single manual and a basic chorus of stops with only one or two individually distinctive colors. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) wrote the richest source of knowledge about organs as part of Syntagma Musicum.

Praetorius gave specifications for an organ in “Syntagma Musicum” in 1618, some of which were built in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance movement. There’s one at Harvard University and another at the Westminster Choir School in Princeton New Jersey.

Protestant German countries used the organ as accompaniment to choral singing and paid particular attention to the softer registers by using flue pipes. Roman Catholic countries used the organ as more of a solo instrument and favored the sharper reed registers.

Around this same time (the early 16th century), the number of pipes within a register also increased, increasing the range of the keyboards. As early as 1519, Anthony Doddington wrote of an English organ with a range of four octaves, and in 1523, Pietro Aron wrote about a Venetian organ that also had a four-octave range. Germany didn’t expand the range of their organs until the close of the 16th century.

Great pains were taken in Italy to develop the manuals, but the pedals lagged behind. Vincenzo Galilei (c1520-1591) speaks of the pedals disapprovingly, and his is the only Italian mention of pedals. But in Germany, where polyphony was king, the pedals were an essential part.

The organ was particularly well-suited to polyphonic music by the 17th century. By then, it had clearly distinguishable registers that didn’t merge into one another, although dynamic contrasts were still limited and could be achieved only within very restricted limits—neither thunder nor whispers. Crescendos and decrescendos were impossible. The tone was clear and unromantic, as the taste of the late Renaissance for unemotional and classic art demanded.

During the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th, the organ was modified to produce more expression, and to have a more flexible and variable tone. Things like tremolo, string registers, Vox Humana, couplers and transmissions, swell, and equal temperament were invented. (See the structure section for more on these topics.)

During the Baroque period (1600-1750), the organ became increasingly important as vocal accompaniment and as a participant in orchestral music. During this era, organs were used to provide continuo (where the bass line or chords were left to the creative powers of the player but the other lines were written out. Other continuo instruments were harpsichord, lute, theorbo and chitaronne).

Organ music enjoyed a golden age in the Lutheran areas of Germany between 1650 and 1750. It was greatly aided by famous (and reportedly astonishing) organists such as Dieterich Buxtehude (c1637-1707), several members of the Bach family, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), and a tradition that had been established earlier by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654).

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on the musical styles of Italy, France, and northern lands. The best known builders were Arp Schnitger (1648-1718) and Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). They adopted the Dutch practice of dividing the pipes into a main group and subsidiary groups, each with its own keyboard and the pipes having a particular character and function.

The main group, the Hauptwerk, sits high above the player. Other groups include the Rūckpositive that was mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, the Brustwerk that was directly above the music rack in front of the player, and the Oberwerk that was high above the Hauptwerk. The pedal organ had pipes that were arranged symmetrically on the sides of the Hauptwerk. Only the largest German organs had all of these components. Even a modest two-manual instrument could create a great variety of sounds combining variously voiced principal, flute, and reed pipes as well as mixtures, in which pipes sounding upper harmonics add brilliance to the fundamental tone.

The early 18th century was musically focused on dynamic range, and even the somewhat unsuited organ was affected. The organ had grown less appreciated during the Classical period (1730-1820) because it was regarded as too rigid and lifeless, so a contrivance was made to vary the volume. Both portative and positive organ styles gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the great church organ remained in general use.

Abt Vogler (1749-1814), a German organist of some renown, replaced the large and expensive pipes of the church organ with smaller ones, which produced the deepest low note by sounding only part of the harmonics of the note (the octave and the twelfth). He got rid of any registers that he didn’t think were essential and enclosed the rest in a chamber that could be closed with the Venetian Swell that had been invented by Burkat Shudi in 1769. Vogler also rearranged the pipes and introduced “free” reeds, borrowed from the Chinese mouth-organ (that also later became part of the harmonium). Vogler’s efforts made the organ less expensive and easier to manufacture, repair, and maintain, and in addition, made the tones clearer, which suited the tastes of the Classical period. But they also made the instrument sound thin and ordinary. The early Romantic period opposed his reforms and they soon disappeared.

The 18th century in the New World meant an effort to adhere to Old World sentiment and aesthetics. Anglican churches in large cities presented music that differed little from their English cousins. French Canadian and Spanish colonies emulated the Catholic music of France and Spain. They used organs and choirs of men and boys, just as they had in the Old World. Two groups were especially notable regarding these efforts: the Puritans of New England and the Moravians of Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The Puritans were Calvinists and their music centered on metrical psalm singing—congregations were taught to read music, not to depend on rote learning like in the Catholic tradition. The Moravians embellished their church services with concerted arias and motets using organs, strings, and other instruments.

The Reform movement in Judaism during the early 19th century brought many Protestant-style practices into the synagogue, one of which included singing congregational hymns (often borrowing melodies from Lutheran hymns) and introducing organs and choirs. The first influential composer of the movement was Solomon Salzer (1804-1890), who was a Reform cantor at a synagogue in Vienna. He updated traditional chants and wrote service music in modern styles for soloists and for the choir. He also commissioned music from other composers, including Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) choral setting of Psalm 92 (written in 1828) that used the Hebrew text.

Soap operas popularized organ music when they were created for the radio in the 1930s and later for television in the 1970s. They played in the background to enhance the mood and performed the theme songs before and after the show. In the early 1970s, the organ was phased out in favor of full-blown orchestral music, which, more recently, have been replaced with pop-style compositions.

Sporting events, particularly in the US and Canada, often have organs punctuating occurrences during the games, especially baseball and ice hockey. The Chicago Cubs were the first to use an organ before, during, and after games at Wrigley Field in 1941. Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hired the first full-time organist (Gladys Gooding) in 1942. The trend caught on. In the 1990s, several teams replaced their organist with recorded music and sound effects, but many fans appreciate the presence of a live organist, considering it traditional. In an ultra-modern move, the organist for the Atlanta Braves uses his Twitter account to take requests from fans during games at Turner Field.

Pipe organs continue to be common in church services and electronic organs are available for those with a lower budget. And as the repertoire developed for the pipe organ and affected its development, church and concert organs became increasingly similar.

But pipe organs are not limited to classical or traditional uses. Rock music has been known to employ church organs and occasionally synthesizers that sound like pipe organs. The artists record in cathedrals, and enjoy the lovely slow decay (like a long echo) that is to be found in such huge buildings.

Organ Structure

Predecessors to the organ include panpipes, pan flutes, syrinx (the reeds out of which panpipes are made), and the ney (an end-blown flute, like a recorder). The aulos, an ancient double reed instrument with two pipes is where we get the the word hydra-aulis (water aerophone).

The hydraulis was a piped instrument, where levels of water determined the note played. The concept of the pipe, sounded by air maintained at a fairly stable pressure by weight of water, could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes. It was played with a series of sliders that were pulled out and pushed in to affect the water levels (and therefore the amount of air movement).

Next, they made it easier to move the slides by creating keys that could be pressed and returned to the original stopping position by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary, Vitruvius (c80-c15 BCE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The earliest image of a keyboard is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks of 18 pipes each. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, and the balance are reeds. The player would have used both hands, his left hand for changing the drone note, and his right for playing the melody. This idea of playing against a drone wasn’t new; Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE-65 CE) makes reference to consonance on stringed instruments in the 1st century CE. (This is an indication of simultaneous differing sounds rather than any kind of polyphony.)

Older organs had two to four manuals, but modern instruments might have five or six, depending on what the instrument was used for.

  • The Great organ used in cathedrals operates the greatest number of registers and the largest stops.
  • The pipes of the keyboard on the Choir organ was usually situated behind the player.
  • The Solo organ has stops specifically designed for playing solos.
  • The Echo organ has soft-toned stops that are at some distance from the majority of the other pipes.
  • The pipes of the Swell organ are enclosed in a wooden box that can be opened and shut by means of a “Venetian swell,” producing a crescendo (getting gradually louder) and decrescendo (getting gradually quieter).

The solo, echo and choir organs are often fitted into swell boxes with shutters. Some instruments also have a tuba organ with stops that are played by unusually high wind pressure.

Toward the middle of the 19th century, the double-touch keyboard was invented in England. These are especially sensitive keys that produce the normal amount of sound when barely touched and get super loud with a firmer pressure.

Older organs sometimes had two levels of pedals, but this was thought to be both uncomfortable and unnecessary. Combination pistons make a single tier sufficient, and the player can prepare combinations of registers in advance so they’re all activated with a single touch. In the 19th century, J.F. Schultz made the pedals slightly concave on the organ in St. Peter’s church in Harrogate (England), making it easier to reach the highest and lowest notes.

A crescendo pedal was added in the 19th century. This is a pedal that, when depressed, sets a cylinder spinning that activates additional stops and makes the sound louder.

Since the 16th century, pipe organs have used various materials for the pipes, each with a different timbre and volume. Pipes are distributed into ranks (rows) and controlled by the use of hand stops or combination pistons on the console (near the keyboard).

A clever invention is called “unification,” where an extension is added to a pipe. Instead of one pipe per key for each pitch, the higher octaves (and some lower octaves) are achieved by adding 12 pipes (one octave) to the top or bottom of a specific rank. In a church organ, for every 61 keys on a single keyboard, there are 183 pipes (three times 61). In a theater organ, there might be only 85 pipes (61 plus two octaves of 12 each). Unification gives the smaller instrument the capability of a much larger sound that is thicker and more homogenous than a classically designed organ. They often rely on something called tremulant, which varies the air pressure passing through the pipe, lending a wavering to the sound much like human breath does in singing or playing a wind instrument. It provides a complexity of sound greater than that usually found on a classical organ. Unification also allows pipe ranks to be played from more than one keyboard (rather than one key per pipe).

Organs of the middle ages required a lot of wind. As late as the 14th century, there could be as many as 24 bellows, operated in pairs by the feet of the bellows workers, with one player to each pair of bellows. The enormous organ at Winchester Cathedral (England) was one of these.

In Germany in 1667, Christian Förner (1609-1678) invented the wind gauge, which is a manometer-like device, making it possible to measure the pressure of the air inside the bellows.

In older organs, there were many folds of leather in the bellows, but in the middle of the 16th century, a new kind of bellows was introduced that was made of wood with only a single fold. This simple and stronger construction made a more regular supply of wind possible and a more equal tone. The wind still reached the interior of the organ in puffs, which was remedied by drawing the air into a reservoir (like a bagpipe’s) before it was conveyed to the pipes.

This reservoir of air was called a wind chest. Air pumped from bellows passed through conduits into the wind-chest and from there into the soundboard. The soundboard contained a number of grooves for each individual pipe that affected volume. Spring soundboards had a special valve fitted into the grooves to interrupt or admit wind. But this was complicated and expensive.

The tremolo  device was invented around 1600. It operated in the wind-channel, giving the notes a tremulous, plaintive tone.

Around the end of the 17th century, they invented a slider soundboard, which was more efficient than the spring soundboards. Slider soundboards had grooves underlying all the pipes that were specific to a particular key on the keyboard. The sliders working across the grooves are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off, depending on its position. The solid portions of the sliders closed the pipes. When the register was to be included, the slider was pulled out until the holes were situated at the bottom of the pipes so that the wind could enter unimpeded when the key was depressed. The slider was less likely to break than the spring version, and was universally adopted during the Baroque period.

At the beginning of the 19th century, bellows were still operated by manpower. As the century unfolded, steam, hydraulic power, gas, and electricity were used to provide the necessary wind. To even out the wind, the single feeder (as the outer part of the bellows is called) was replaced by several smaller feeders that work alternately. There are even special devices to put a feeder out of action as soon as the necessary pressure is reached in the reservoirs.

Wind pressure makes it hard to connect a single key with several pipes. To depress several of the valves (or pallets) that allow the wind to enter the pipes, considerable effort was required, so much so that organists of the 19th century used to strip to their skivvies in preparation for hard physical labor before concerts. English inventor Joseph Booth (d.1797) had invented puff valves, or little bellows, to improve this situation and they were improved further by the pneumatic lever that was invented in 1832 by Charles Spackman Barker (1804-1879) and used for the first time in 1841 by the famous French organ maker Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899) for the organ of St. Denis, in Paris France.

With the pneumatic lever, the depression of a key opened the valve of a small auxiliary bellows, which opened the valve on the pipe. In 1867, Henry Willis (1821-1901) constructed tubular pneumatic keyboard action in which the wind activating the tiny auxiliary bellows was led through tubes of sometimes considerable length. The tubular pneumatic action was used successfully in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England in 1874.

Almost simultaneously with this device, the electro-pneumatic action was invented in 1868 by Charles Spackman Barker (1804-1879), which was an attempt to operate the pneumatic lever using electricity instead of air. This system was improved by Schmöle & Mols of Philadelphia, USA, a system that was put into the organ at Paris’ famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1890. Even more recently, all-electric organ actions have been built.

Stops were invented around 1500. These are sliding pulls that alter the length or width of the associated pipe or its flue and affected the quality of the sound, making it louder or softer. They could also make the pipes sound like various instruments, such as flutes, strings, bassoons, and so on. As far back as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), little bells were affixed to the organ along with other things that imitated percussion instruments, like the triangle, xylophone, timpani, and drums—even cuckoo birds!

Organs of the 19th and 20th centuries have devices for controlling the wind pressure. Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899), the same man who used the pneumatic levers at St. Denis in Paris) introduced over-blowing flue pipes, such as the Flute-Harmonique, which sounds a harmonic instead of a fundamental note. (Notes are actually an accumulation of sounds. The note you intend to play is called the fundamental, and the higher—and lower—sounds that make it up are called overtones and harmonics. The other sounds that comprise a note are the ones that sound prettiest when you play them too, as it happens.)

The church organ had a huge number of registers—scales—from enormous 32’ pipes to tiny 1’ pipes. Each register was named for how long the pipes were, and the longer pipes produced lower notes. The most important register of the organ is called the Open Diapason (“diapason” means full and rich sound from the full range of the instrument) which were powerful mid-range flue-pipes, usually in 8’.

In an effort to create new registers, the pipes changed shape. One way to save both space and materials was closing the 8’ and 16’ stopped registers at the top and using only half the length of open pipes to achieve the same pitch. Even though they weren’t quite as bright in tone color as the open pipes, they have been quite popular. There are also half-stopped pipes with a narrow tube inserted at the top for the wind to exit through. And there were pipes with an inverted conical bore that tapered toward the top. Reed pipes include powerful 16’ trombones that are operated by the pedals, 8’ trumpets with inverted conical tops, 4’ shawms and a nasal sounding fagotte (the Baroque name for bassoon). There are also ways to get harmonics to sound—these are only a few of the dozens of registers that had been invented by the end of the 16th century.

String registers came about because of the increased interest in stringed instruments in the 17th century. The narrow flue pipes had colorful names like viola da gamba or violin.

Couplers that connected individual keyboards and their pipes became more common in the Baroque period. Using something called a transmission, one keyboard could connect with another so that multiple registers were accessed through a single keyboard. The combination of stops meant new tonal values that were similar in quality.

In the 17th century, a series of reed pipes was invented to make a register called Vox Humana, which sounded somewhat like a human voice. The Italians invented it, along with other registers that went well with one another. The rest of Europe followed suit, especially in the Baroque era. Because of all the new registers, the rigid tone of the organ that was standard at the beginning of the 17th century was nearly completely gone by the end of the century.

The keyboard of an organ wasn’t expressive like a piano’s. Although some of the special registers with free reed pipes were expressive, most registers weren’t, and every note sounded at the same volume. Specials devices, called swell registers, were added at the end of the 17th century to allow crescendo (getting louder) and decrescendo (getting softer),  through the use of shutters. In 1712, London organ builder Abraham Jordan (c1666-1715/16) created  a pedal attachment that opened and closed the front wall of the echo chamber to create the effect. They even damped tones to produce echo effects.

Tuning and range became an issue. The Baroque taste for extreme contrasts meant that they extended the range of the organ (and the harpsichord) downward, adding low notes until they almost exceed the ability of humans to hear them. Andreas Werckmeister (1645-1706) declared that the introduction of equal temperament (a particular kind of tuning) was urgently needed, and began modifying individual notes on the “well-tempered” organs of the day.

The organ continued to undergo extensive changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. It now has more volume all by itself than an entire orchestra.


Because the organ has both manual and pedal keyboards, organ music is notated on three staves. The music on the manuals is laid out like music for other keyboard instruments on two connected staves, and the pedals are notated on the lowest staff, or sometimes, to save space, added to the bottom of the second staff. The latter was  how it was done in the early days.

Because music racks are often built quite low to preserve sightlines over the console, organ music is usually published in oblong or landscape format.

The Name

The name “organ” comes from the Greek organon, meaning instrument or tool.

The name Regal comes from “regulare,” because it was meant to regulate the singing in churches.

In Germany, the Rūckpositive is the name for the positive, because the pipes are behind the player.

The portative is called the organetto in Italy.

Organ Builders

You can’t really talk about organs without talking about the builders, who are a special hybrid of obsessed engineers and extreme musicians.

Organ Composers

There are so many composers, it’s impossible to list them all. I have dispensed with my usual courtesy of supplying dates and some sort of comment, but I have instead provided links to articles about these fine folks.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Samuel Barber
John Blow
Georg Böhm
Johannes Brahms
Nicolaus Bruhns
Dieterich Buxtehude
William Byrd
John Cage
Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet   Charpentier
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault
François Couperin
Louis Couperin
Hugo Distler
Maurice Duruflé
Edward Elgar
Johann Caspar Ferdinand   Fischer
César Franck (born in Belgium)
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Johann Jakob Froberger
Andrea Gabrieli
Giovanni Gabrieli
Orlando Gibbons
Philip Glass
George Frideric Handel
Hans Leo Hassler
Jakob Hassler
Paul Hindemith
Johann Kaspar Kerll
Johann Ludwig Krebs
Johann Tobias Krebs
Johann Krieger
Johann Kuhnau
Franz Liszt
Vincent Lubeck
Johann Mattheson
Felix Mendelssohn
Olivier Messiaen
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Georg Muffat
Gottlieb Muffat
Johann Pachelbel
Vincent Persichetti
Daniel Pinkham
Alessandro Poglietti
Jacob Praetorius
Michael Praetorius
Henry Purcell
Steve Reich
Johann Adam Reincken
Josef Rheinberger
Ned Rorem
Camille Saint-Saëns
Alessandro Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti
Heinrich Scheidemann
Samuel Scheidt
Heinrich Schütz
Dmitri Shostakovich
Johann Speth
Charles Villiers Stanford
Jan Pieterszoon SweelinckThomas Tallis
Franz Tunder
Johann Gottfried Walther
Matthias Weckmann
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow

Organ Players

Again, there are too many to name, so I’ll tell the stories of just a handful.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) might be the most famous composer of all time. But what you might not realize is that he was also a seriously fierce organist. He was so obsessed with learning all he could that, at age 20, without the permission of his employer, he walked 250 miles to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play in Lūbeck. He stayed there for several months, absorbing what he could from the great master, before returning to fulfill his duties. If he hadn’t been so talented and working for a pittance, he would surely have been fired. Bach would go on to write 225 cantatas, 225 works for other keyboards, 225 organ works, 150 canons and fugues, 100 choral works, 40 pieces for chamber groups, 30 pieces for full orchestra, and five lute pieces. Bach was married twice and had seven children with his first wife and 13 with his second wife, only nine of whom survived into adulthood and outlived him. Five were significant musicians themselves.

Dieterich Buxtehude (c1637-1707) was a German-Danish composer and organist whose works compose the core of the organ repertoire. Sadly, much of his music is lost or was poorly documented, but he wrote over 112 cantatas, about 100 organ
works,  100 choral works, 50 chorale preludes, 50 works for harpsichord, 40 chorale settings, 25 chamber music pieces, 19 preludes, 14 trio sonatas,  a dozen wedding, liturgical, and canon works, a handful of miscellaneous pieces, and another two dozen pieces that may have been falsely attributed to him.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was in France with the English occupying forces. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at court until his retirement in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian who came to study at the Paris Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. His improvisatory style expanded on the repertoire of Bach and the French Baroque, and in the end, the design of the organ adapted to accommodate it as well. This style included lyrical themes, contrapuntal development, and orchestral color. He reportedly had huge hands  that could easily span 12 white notes on the keyboard (most people can reach eight), which may have affected his style.  He only wrote 12 pieces for the organ (he was into improvisation), but was considered the best organ composer after Bach.

Abt Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) was a German who wandered all over Germany and England, and whose fame spread far beyond those boundaries. He opened three music schools and saw a lot of excellent musicians become professionals. He also did some work on changing the design of the organ. The super famous English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.


“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.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

Instrument Biography: The Shawm

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You might not have heard of this infamous Renaissance instrument, but the shawm is a relative to the oboe, the bassoon, and, in that it was an instrument meant for the great outdoors, to the bagpipe. It’s a member of the woodwind family and it looks like a recorder with an oboe reed.

The shawm was popular in Europe from the 12th century until the 17th century. It’s essentially a primitive oboe, with a conically bored wooden body, a double reed, and finger holes. Some have belled bottoms, some are curved. All are very loud.

The instrument and its music were considered symbolic of the pastoral mood for quite a while. In 1388, King John of Saragossa, when writing to his brother Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, said that he was fond of the shawm, along with the cornamusse, bombarde, harp, and portative organ. So there’s evidence of it being played in royal circles, not only out in the fields.

Shawms came to the rest of Europe through Italy, and the oldest known mention is from 12th century Saracen Sicily. The reed was nearly completely inside the player’s mouth (like the Egyptian aulos), which made it impossible to control the tone or color with the lips. There was no personal expression in the playing because of this limitation, and the instrument sounded with all the power and astringent vigor of the age. The shawm’s loud and clear tones made it suitable for playing with trumpets and percussion in consorts. In other words, it was loud, nasal, and not meant to be in the background.

Shawm History

The shawm is probably descended from the Asian zuma, and from similar instruments brought to Europe from the Near East during the time of the Crusades. It’s possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya, a traditional oboe from Egypt.

The shawm is represented in Norman drawings from about the 12th century. In England, it was used in connection with the night watches established by Henry III, and was called the waygte, or wayte pipe. Images of shawms from the 14th century look physically the same as the surviving instruments from the 16th and 17th century, so it’s not likely to have changed much for its whole period of popularity.

The shawm can still be heard in many countries, usually played by street musicians or military bands (and historically informed groups playing early music on period instruments). In the 12th century, the Crusaders would have found the military bands familiar, because they often faced huge bands of Saracen shawms and nakers (like a small kettle drum), used, like the bagpipe, as a psychological weapon.

The instrument was quickly adopted by Europeans for both dancing and military purposes. The standard outdoor dance band in the 15th century consisted of a slide trumpet playing popular melodies while two shawms improvised countermelodies over it.

By the 16th century, the shawm had evolved only slightly. The harsh tonality of the medieval shawm had modulated somewhat because of narrowing the bore and reducing the size of the finger holes. This extended the range, enabling a performer to play a second octave. Larger sizes were built, down to great bass, two octaves below the soprano. The larger sizes were unwieldy and impractical, making them rare. The great bass, in particular, could only be played with a performer standing on a small platform.

Smaller shawms, chiefly the soprano, alto, and sometimes the tenor, were often coupled with the Renaissance trombone or sackbut (biography to come), and the majestic sound of this ensemble was much in demand. The shawm became standard equipment in town bands, called a wait (or waygte or wayte), who heralded the beginning of municipal functions and signaled the time of day. Shawms became so closely associated with the town waits, (the Stadpfeifer in German, and piffari in Italian) that it was also known as the wait pipe.

The shawm was too loud for indoor use, and crumhorn and sordun were preferred in those roles for indoor bands. Those instruments were also double reeds, but they were fitted with a capsule that completely enclosed the reed, quieting the sound but continuing to limit the dynamic range.

The 16th century interest in building instruments led to a full-range of sizes, but the shawm consort proved to be a short-lived experiment. The extreme length of the pipe on the bass instruments meant that few were built and few played. Inventers found a way to bend the bore back upon itself, creating a more manageable instrument. The new instrument was often referred to as the dulcian, and was called a curtal in England, fagot or fagotto in Germany and Italy, the bajon in Spain. The dulcian became very popular as a general-purpose bass instrument where shawms were considered inappropriate (such as anyplace indoors). This attractively bent up instrument is the ancestor of the modern bassoon.

The charumera or charumeru is a double-reeded instrument in traditional Japanese music, thought to descend either from shawms brought there by Portuguese Christian missionaries, or by Iberian traders in the 16th century. They could also have come from a Chinese instrument, although that too, is thought to have come from Portuguese missionaries or traders. The shawm is sometimes used in kabuki theater performances.

Known by the Spanish as the chirimia, the shawm remains an important instrument among Mayan people in Highland Guatemala. Accompanied by a drum, the chirimia is used in processions and certain ritual dances, such as Baile de la Conquista (Dance of the Conquest) that is still played today.

The shawm inspired the 17th century hautbois, an invention of French musician Jacque-Martin Hotteterre (1674-1763). (There’s more about this fine fellow in my blog about the flute.) He is thought to have invented a new instrument that borrowed several features from the shawm, like its double reed and conical bore, but was otherwise unique. Around 1760, the hautbois began replacing the shawm in military bands, concert music, and opera. By 1800, the shawm was gone from concert life, although in 1830, shawms could still be heard in German town bands at municipal functions. The Germans and the Dutch continued to manufacture an ornate version, called the Deutsche Schalmey, long after the introduction of the hautbois.

A specimen of shawm was made by Johann Christoph Denner (1655-1707) of Nurenberg, who later invented the clarinet. His version didn’t catch on.

The shawm was the leading double-reed instrument until the 18th century when the Baroque taste for more expressive playing made it somewhat obsolete, as it offered no dynamics. And so it was that the powerful little shawm evolved into the more refined and delicate oboe (biography to come).

Shawm Structure

The original shawm was a double-reeded instrument (which means that two flat reeds are bound together like a tight duck’s bill) with seven finger holes, no keys, and a long, flared bell. Modern instruments have a conical bore. The body of the shawm is turned from a single piece of wood and ends in a flared bell.

Compared to the oboe, the shawm has a wide bore, which makes its tone loud and shrill. It has a cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument itself. Originally, shawms were keyless and the reed was set on a metal disk.

One curious feature is that the lowest finger hole is doubled, appearing both on the right and left side of the instrument, as some performers played with the right hand above the left and others with the left above the right (like the cornetto). The unused hole was stopped with wax. The bombard (the bass version) also has this feature, but its lowest hole, because of the difficulty reaching it with a finger, is occasionally covered by a key that is protected by a little perforated barrel called the fontanelle. The key was outfitted with a double touch piece, one for the right hand, and one for the left. Later shawms, except the smallest, had at least one key, allowing a larger range.

The double reed is made from the same cane, Arundo donar, used for modern oboes and bassoons. It was inserted directly into a socket at the top of the instrument, or in the larger types, at the end of a metal tube called the bocal. A small cylindrical piece of wood with a hole in the middle, called the pirouette, was placed over the reed and acted as support for the lips and embouchure. Only a portion of the reed protruded past the pirouette, allowing limited contact with the reed itself. The shawm had acquired a funnel-shaped pirouette mouthpiece by the 14th century, used mostly for military, ceremonial, and dance music.

The reed vibrates freely, completely inside the player’s mouth, unlike an oboe reed, which is held firmly between the lips. Because the reed is loose within the cavity of the mouth, there’s no way to play louder or softer, or offer much in the way of artistic expression.

The reed’s hidden nature, combined with the conical bore and flared bell, give the instrument a piercing sound, like the progeny of a trumpet and a goose. It’s ill-suited to indoor playing because it was very loud, and in a consort, is definitely outside-in-the-yard material.

There were only two sizes of shawm by the end of the Middle Ages, but by the beginning of the 17th century, there were seven sizes. The largest ones were so long that fingers couldn’t reach the lower finger holes and as many as five long-levered keys were added. Their mechanisms were protected by a perforated wooden barrel (the fontanelle). The keys had two wings, so the player could access them with either hand.

The alto shawm was tuned to F, with a range of nine notes. It was called the basselt nicolo. This instrument was described by Michael Praetorius as having one key, but was depicted by him as a four-keyed instrument. That was a reed-cap shawm, related to the hautbois de Poitou and the Rauschpfeife.

The bombarde, the bass instrument from the time of Konrad of Megenberg (1309-1374), is pitched a fifth lower than a shawm and has that special key for the pinky finger hidden under a wooden barrel. This instrument was also described by Michael Praetorius.

The shawm, unlike many other Medieval instruments that are otherwise lost to us, has continued to evolve. Where once it was a clumsy and heavy instrument, now it’s made in two sizes: a small, slender soprano instrument with a belled end and seven finger-holes; and an alto instrument (the pommer or bombard) pitched a fifth lower.

In Asian countries, shawm technique includes circular breathing, allowing continuous playing without pausing for air. You can find this technique among didgeridoo players, oboists, and occasionally clarinets, too.

The Name

In Latin, the name is calamus, meaning “reed” or “stalk.” It’s possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya, a traditional oboe from Egypt. The Romance languages all have similar names for the shawm. In Italian, it’s the ciaramella, in Old French it’s chalemie, in Spanish, it’s the chirimia. The French went on to make a hautbois , and the Italians made a piffari. Shalmei is essentially the same as the Old French name, chalemie, and both are thought to have come from the Hirtenschalmei, or shepherd’s shawm in German.

The larger members of the family were the bombard, and in English in the 14th century, which was later corrupted to Bombhardt and finally in the 17th century to Pommer in German.

In German, it’s called the Schalmer or Schalmei, and the Stadpfeifer. The Germans and the Dutch continued to manufacture an ornate version, called Deutsche Schalmey.

The name shawm appears in English in the 14th century. There were three original forms: shallemele (or shamulle or shamble), schalmys (or shalemeyes or chalemyes, which are plural forms), and schalmuse (or schalmesse), all from the Old French chalemei, chalemie, and chalemeaux (plural for chaleme). Another instrument, called the chalumeau shares this same etymology

Many folk shawms have  different names, like the Castilian, Aragonese, and Leonese dulzaina (or chirimia), and Catalan xirimia, docaina, or gralla, and the Navareese gaita in Spain. In Portugal, there’s a charamela, and in Italian, there’s a ciaramella (or cialamello or cennamella).

The taepyeongso is a Korean version and the gyaling is a Tibetan  version.

More modern instruments are often referred to as the dulcian, which was called a curtal in England, fagot or fagotto in Germany and Italy, and bajon in Spain. It became very popular as a general-purpose bass instrument where shawms were considered inappropriate (like in church). The dulcian is the ancestor of the modern bassoon.

Early plural forms were made from singular in most languages. The later reduction in the 15th and 16th centuries to a single syllable in forms such as shalme, shaume, shawme, and finally, in the 16th century, shawm, were probably due to the confusion about plurals.

Shawm Composers

Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) wrote “Hoquetus David,” which had two upper parts that would have been played by shawm and schalmuse, and the trumpet would have been played for the third and lowest part.

Other composers include Englishmen Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), William Byrd (c1540-1623) and English composer born in Italy Augustin Bassano (fl. c 1603).

Shawm Players

I didn’t find any historical references for people who played the shawm, but there are plenty of good recordings available today. These feature creative folks like David Munrow and The Early Music Consort of London, Piffaro, a renaissance band, and my local favorites, The Whole Noyse.


“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.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

Instrument Biography: The Cornetto

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The cornetto is a wooden wind instrument widely used throughout Europe from the 15th through the 17th centuries. It’s also called the cornett, which is not to be confused with the trumpet-like instrument called the cornet. A hybrid between a woodwind (like the recorder) and a brass instrument (like the trumpet), it was a long and slender tube, curved to one side, and had open finger holes. Sound was produced by blowing into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like that of the trumpet.

The combination of the mouthpiece and finger holes results in difficulties of intonation (pitch) and embouchure (mouth positions). Once mastered, it’s extremely agile and has a range of dynamics and expressions that span between brassy trumpet sounds to incredibly sweet flute-like tones.

After 1500, there are records of cornetti (that’s the plural of cornetto) and trombones performing together with human voices at secular feasts, in the theater, and during Mass. Just a few decades earlier, loud and soft instruments would never have been combined. (See Instrument Biography: The Harp for more about this concept.) Wind bands weren’t excluded from the Catholic church until after 1500. They were welcomed back by the Lutherans, but that’s another story for another day.

Cornetto History

In Medieval times, the cornetto was not part of social life the way the harp and lute were. Its use was limited to shepherds calling flocks and the tower watchman announcing the arrival of strangers. Larger horns were used to signal foot soldiers in war. But then it got fancier.

Its popularity increased during the Middle Ages. By then, trumpeters had formed a highly privileged guild that only reluctantly played with other instruments. The various sizes of trumpets and trombones made a pretty sound, but because the treble trombone (yup, treble) had a tiny voice, trumpet and trombone choirs let cornetti play with them.

The Church of St. Mark in Venice was the center of musical culture for most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, starting in the 11th century. Innovations abounded there, and it’s probably due to the gathering of great minds there that much of the music from those times is preserved.

The cornetto is mentioned in “Aucassin et Nicolette,” which was an anonymous 12th or 13th century musical play from France. In England, the cornetto was one of the principal types of wind instrument in the 13th century, along with recorder, shawms, double whistle-flutes, tabor-pipe, the horn, bugle, trumpet, organ, and bagpipe.

Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) mentions the grant cornet d’Allemaigne (the grand cornetto of the Germans, also known as the Zink) in several of his poems, most notably his “Prise d’Alexandrie” and “Remede de Fortune.” (I think it was a recording of “Remede de Fortune” that got me hooked on Machaut in the first place.)

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1555-1612) published a collection of motets, Mass movements, and madrigals as “Concerti” (a very early use of the term). He wanted them performed by voices, two organs, cornetti, and trombones, plus one or two violins.

It’s not known from what date the cornetto began to provide support for choral music, but this became its main function by the end of the Renaissance, notably in the Venetian polychoral music of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli in the 16th century.

Two cornetti were frequently used in consorts with three sackbuts (a form of trombone), and often doubled a church choir’s voices. By 1568, a first-rate permanent ensemble of instrumentalists was assembled at the Church of St. Mark in Venice, centering on cornetti and sackbuts and also including violin (which was a new instrument) and bassoon. Additional players were hired on major feast days, when as many as two dozen instrumentalists performed, alone or together with the choir of twenty to thirty voices.

Michael Praetorius didn’t care for the sound of the cornetto, describing it as “most unlovely and bullocky.” He knew lots of stuff about music, but I have to disagree with him about the sound.

The cornetto remained physically unaltered between the 17th century and the first half of the 18th, and it was a favorite in the Baroque period. The squiggly version called the serpent was particularly popular in France, providing the contrabass in wind ensembles. At the end of the 18th century, the serpent played an increasingly larger part in military bands.

Many examples of this instrument are in the Brussels Conservatory museum, mostly from late 16th century Venice, where Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo Galilei’s father) said that the best cornettos of his day were made.

The invention of the trumpet during the Classical period (1730-1820) provided the fanfare for the end of the cornetto’s popularity. The cornetto was harder to play than the trumpet because of its small mouthpiece, it was quieter and less limber, and composers simply stopped composing for it.

Cornetto Structure

Records of early cornettos say that they were made of natural horn, which is where we get the term “horn” for later brass instruments with a similar mouthpiece. Later cornetti were made of wood. The instrument is a hybrid between a woodwind and a brass instruments in that the shape, fingering, and material was like that of a woodwind, but the mouthpiece was like that of a brass instrument.

When the large German herhorn was pierced with finger holes in the 10th or 11th century, it became known as a cornetto or Zink. Cornetti were either straight and turned from a single piece of fruit wood, or curved. Curved cornetti were made of two hollowed pieces of wood glued together, and then a leather or parchment sheath was drawn over it to make it air-tight.

Straight cornetti that end in a carved dog’s or wolf’s head appear in some 11th-13th century paintings There are some surviving examples like this in Italy. Other iconography from other countries in the Middle Ages shows both straight and curved instruments being used.

Folk cornetti are still used in Baltic countries and parts of Russia. They are bound in birch bark, have four or more finger holes, and are variants on the Swedish cow horn.

Unlike other types of horns, the cornetto has finger holes bored into the length of the tube, like a flute. (Other horns have valves or slides.) The number of holes varied, but six was most common. With over-blowing, harmonics allowed a full octave or more in range, even with only six holes.

Typically there were six finger holes and a thumbhole, gathered comfortably at the end nearest to the mouthpiece. The instrument often curved to the right, with the player’s right hand placed lowermost, although many specimens are left-handed, curving the opposite way and with the hands reversed. The majority of finger holes are on the top side, with a thumb hole on the bottom nearest to the mouthpiece. When there were six holes, it was well suited for playing melodies.

Fingering is similar to other woodwinds of the period, although it is different in the upper octave. Only a few fingering charts survive.

There were a variety of sizes and shapes, especially during the Renaissance, when families of instruments were popular.

  • Cornettino: The highest pitched and smallest in size, was a fourth or fifth higher than the treble cornetto.
  • Cornetto: The soprano voice. It was about 24 inches long and was also called the treble cornetto.
  • Cornetto muto: Both straight and rounded forms had a built-in mouthpiece, a wider throat, and narrower bore than the traditional cornetto but also played the treble part. It was a quiet instrument, suitable for consort playing but not outdoor work.
  • Cornetto torto: A curved, octagonal instrument. It was often tuned to F, a fifth lower than the treble cornetto.
  • Tenor cornetto (the lizard): A double-curved instrument, tuned a fifth lower than the soprano. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) disliked its sounds and mentioned it specifically. Its wide bore makes it similar to a serpent, and therefore better for blending with voices or in a consort (a group of like instruments in various voice ranges. This list of cornetti, if there were at least one from each—or most—type of cornetto, could form a consort, for instance) rather than on its own. I don’t know why It’s also called the lizard, other than that it’s smaller than a serpent but looked similar.
  • Bass cornetto: A larger-cornetto, pitched a fourth or fifth below the tenor. The bass cornetto was popular in France but was also played in Germany at the end of the 16th century.
  • Serpent: In Italy and France, the serpent was the great contrabass cornetto, shaped like a double-S in order to bring the finger holes within the player’s reach. The serpent supplanted the bass cornetto in the 17th century.

There are three basic shapes: curved, straight, and double curved (S-shaped).

The simple curved shape was most common and was used for the cornettino, the cornetto, the cornetto torto, and the bass cornetto. The soprano (or treble) instrument was about 24 inches long and made of a single block of wood, usually plum, pear, or maple. The block of wood was cut into a curved shape and then split lengthwise. A conical bore was carved out of each half and the pieces were glued back together. The exterior was planed to an octagonal profile and the longitudinal joins secured by a series of bindings and a covering of black leather or parchment. Most virtuosos played the curved treble version, and in their hands, it competed with the violin or the voice in complexity.

The straight treble cornetto is made of wood, usually yellow boxwood, with a conical bore, like the curved cornetto, but turned on the outside to a circular shape, usually without ornamentation. The finger holes and mouthpiece are just like the curved version. This was likely to be the least common type, although it was widely used before 1550, especially in Germany.

The cornetto muto is made like the straight cornetto, but its mouthpiece was not detachable. The mouthpiece was turned out of the same wood as the body at the top end of the instrument. The conical cup of the mouthpiece merges into the bore, usually without a sharp break between the two sections, causing a softening and veiling of the tone quality.

The tenor cornetto was pitched a fifth lower than the treble and had an extra finger hole that was covered by a key, which was used by the little finger of the lower hand. The tenor was 30-50 inches long, generally made with a double curve (an S-shape) with the finger holes on the inside facet of the lower bend. The bell pointed downward and to the front, not outward and to the side, like the treble. It was mainly used from 1550 to 1650, although it was popular in England only after the beginning of the 17th century.

The bass instrument, called the serpent, had a range that could be extended by over-blowing, of about two and a half octaves. French philosopher and theologian Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) estimated that a single serpent could equal 20 of the loudest singers but could also be played with the quietest chamber music. To overcome unreliable pitch and poor tone quality, each instrument only played in one key (specific sharps and flats), so to make it useful in consorts with more flexible instruments, the player had to have several versions. The serpent militaire and the serpent Fovielle were used in military music until they were displaced by the ophiclieide (like an elongated keyed bugle). The serpent disappeared from general use by the middle of the 19th century.

Parts written in alto and tenor clefs are only playable by the serpent. There are straight versions of this deep bass cornetto, but they’re rare.

The player blew into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, similar to that of a trumpet or a trombone. The mouthpiece is usually horn or ivory, regardless of the material for the rest of the instrument. The cup was placed against the corner of the mouth, with the central position only occasionally employed. The pitch can be affected by softening the lips against the mouthpiece. This special embouchure is tiring to play for any length of time, so cornetto parts are often substituted by violins.

A late 16th-century surviving instrument’s mouthpiece is horn and is half an inch wide. It’s similar to a small trumpet mouthpiece in the deep curvature of the cup, but the rim is very sharp. It resembles an acorn cup. Many paintings show this sort of cupped mouthpiece.

The socket for the mouthpiece, which is slightly tapered, was sometimes strengthened by an external brass ferule, and both the upper and lower ends of the instrument were occasionally adorned with silver mounts.

Mouthpieces were made of ebony, ivory, or horn, but it’s hard to know which are original because many of the surviving examples are replacements.

Tonguing reached a high degree of complexity with this instrument. There were instructions from Italians Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego (published in 1536) and Bartolomeo Bismantova (published in 1677) that discussed force and speed of tonguing, in an Italian school of articulation.

Unlike other instruments where it wasn’t necessary to articulate each note by tonguing (like the bagpipe), the cornetto required every note to be tongued, except for trills and some cadential ornaments (wiggly bits that mark the end of a phrase). Other wind instruments with a reed or a pipe embouchure have tonguing sounds that include te, ke and pe, but the cornetto uses le, re, and de, with te and re for faster passages. The transverse flute’s te-ke “double-tonguing” technique for fast passages was considered crude on the cornetto.

The tone quality is considered close to the human voice, especially the boy soprano, although I think modern reproductions sound more like a quiet trumpet crossed with a recorder. They could be played loudly or softly in every key—most other instruments of the period were not so versatile.

The kind of sound produced makes it hard to classify the instrument as a woodwind or a brass instrument. It’s hard to play because of the combination of woodwind shape and limited fingering with the brass instrument’s mouthpiece, which is probably why it lost popularity, as more agile instruments were invented. Modern brass instruments are longer than the cornetto and allow the use of harmonics, with slides or valves to control the pitch.

Cornettos were suitable for indoors and outdoors music, both sacred and secular, and could easily be substituted for the violin and vice versa. It was treated as a true virtuoso instrument, like for Monteverdi’s “Vespers.”

The Name

The name means “little horn” in Italian, suggesting an animal-horn ancestry for the instrument. There are cow-horned shaped instruments in Medieval pictures that might be cornetti. Some resemble horns that are still used by Scandinavian herdsmen. In Sweden., these instruments go back to the 10th century. In England, images of these horn instruments go back to the 11th century. The octagonal carved wooden form appears in the later 13th century.

Cornetto is the diminutive of the Italian “corno,” which is one of the smaller animal horns.

Germany, it was called the Zink, a Zinke being the smallest branch of a stag’s antlers. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink or gerade Zink. The cornetto torto was the krummer Zink.

The curved instrument was called the krummer Zink or the schwarzer Zink in German, and cornetto curvo, cornetto alto, or cornetto nero in Italian. The straight instrument was the gerade Zink in German and cornetto dritto in Italian. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink in German and cornetto muto in Italian.

The tenor was the taille des cornets in French, the grosser Zink in German, and the corno torto or cornone in Italian. The bass cornetto is the basse des cornets in French and Basszink in German.

In England, it was called the cornett (with no O on the end). It was also called the cornet, but that’s an entirely different instrument in modern terms, made entirely of brass.

The rozhok (little horn) of the Vladimir and Tever districts in Russia are straight cornetti, with separate mouthpieces occasionally played off to the side, and come in two or more sizes. There may only be two centuries of the cornetto tradition in Russia.

Cornetto Composers

From the 16th century:

  • Andrea Gabrieli (c1515-1586)
  • Giovanni Gabrieli (c1535-1612), who was Andrea’s nephew. I mentioned him in my piece on Thomas Tallis.
  • Claudio Monteverdi (c1567-1643) wrote an amazing “Vespers” that features cornetti.

From the 17th century:

  • Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
  • Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)
  • Heinrich Schūtz (1586-1672)
  • John Adson (c1587-1640) in “Courtly Masquing Ayres” in 1621
  • Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
  • Antonio Bertali (c1605-1669)
  • Heinrich Schmeizer (c1620-1680)
  • Matthew Lock (c1621-1677) in “Music for His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts” in 1661
  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (c1644-1704)
  • George Muffat (1653-1704)
  • Johann Andreas Pachelbel (c1653-1706), although most famous for his “Canon in D,” he wrote loads of other things.
  • Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

From the 18th century:

  • Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) used a pair of muto cornets in a requiem.
  • Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” BMV 118, starring cornetti, but there are lots more pieces, too.
  • Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used a serpent in his “Water Music” of 1717 and “Firework Music” of 1749. He also wrote “Tamerlano” to include cornetti in 1724.
  • Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714- 1787) used the cornetto in “Orfeo et Euridice.”

From the 19th century

  • Giocchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) used a serpent in “The Siege of Corinth.”
  • Felix Mendelsohn (1809-1847) used a serpent in both “Meerestille” and “St. Paul.”
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) used a serpent in “Rienzi.”

Cornetto Players

Augustin Schubinger of the court of Emperor Maximilian was a member of the famous Augsberg family of wind players in the 15th and early 16th century.

Girolamo Dalla Casa (d. 1601) was an Italian composer and member of the Venetian School at St. Mark’s in Venice.

Giovanni Bassano (c1558-1617) was virtuoso who played for Giovanni Gabrieli.

You can find recordings by living musicians Bruce Dickey, Doron Sherwin, Michael Colliver, Alan Dean, and more.


“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.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.


Instrument Biography: The Vielle

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If you’ve ever melted to the tones of a violin, tapped your feet to a fiddle, or floated happily away to the sound of a viola da gamba or cello, you have the vielle to thank. The history you’re about to read makes a musical link between the ancient world and the modern one. And although no one composes for the instrument anymore, the vielle was so popular during its heyday that there’s no shortage of performance opportunities in today’s early music communities.

The original vielle probably evolved from the lyre. The lyre soundbox was stretched and thinned, the open space became a neck with a fingerboard, and a bow was employed to sound the strings (although it could also be plucked). It probably came to Europe through the Balkan Peninsula and first appeared in Europe in the 9th century. Its appearance crowded the more traditional lyre out of the public eye.

The spade-shaped vielle of the 9th century became ellipse-shaped (like two cones attached at their wide ends) in the 10th, and pear-shaped by the 11th. The strings were no longer crudely tacked into the bottom, but now crossed a special piece of wood that would later evolve (in the 16th century) into the tailpiece of the violin. There was a circular soundhole divided by a bar, that would later lead to shapes like the violin’s f-holes.

This 11th century instrument is still found in the Near East and on the Balkan Peninsula in folk music. It’s sometimes called the lyra (a commonly applied name to many instruments, including the lyre, harp, and lute). Since the Middle Ages, the vielle has undergone massive transformations to define the difference between the neck and the body and to narrow the soundholes to C-shapes.

During the 12th century, the older style was played on the knee rather than on the shoulder. It developed a narrower waist, making it easier to move the bow freely and play each individual string, rather than all of them at once. This development led the way to the violin in northern Italy in the 16th century. But I digress.

The vielle was well-known and popular in both knee-held and shoulder-held forms by the middle of the 13th century and was documented by Jerome of Moravia (died after 1271). Jerome wrote about the five-stringed vielle that was most popular at the time, and explained about tuning in fifths or fourths, which later became the only way to tune stringed instruments.

Another version of a plucked vielle is called a citole, and appeared around the 9th century, flourishing in the 13th through 15th centuries. It had an egg-shaped body with the strings traversing the length, off the end of the soundbox table, and over a bridge. Strings were arranged in a pairs (called courses) like the lute, and tuned in unison or octaves, which helped make the instrument louder. It was played with bare fingers for more control rather than using a quill or plectrum.

During the Middle Ages, the bagpipe and the recorder were associated with lechery, and the vielle and rebec were associated with worldly significance. I don’t know what to do with that bit of information, but it goes along with these next two thoughts that don’t fit into a nice organizational plan: The later waisted vielle is the ancestor of the guitar and the violin.

When rendered by artists, they’re shown accompanying solo and social dancing, played for banquets and processions, and they’re often shown in consorts with lutes and psalteries, portative organ (biography coming soon), harp, and transverse flute. Other images show vielle players as angels, mythical and allegorical characters, noble amateurs, minstrels, and the occasional saint.

Vielle History

It’s thought that bowing a stringed instrument originated in Central Asia, spread through the Arab countries and then on to Byzantium. We don’t really know what the original instrument looked like because painters and sculptors may have made artistic alterations, and probably didn’t know the instrument well enough to depict it accurately.

For instance, a Psalter (a collection of psalms from the Bible) from the court of Charlemagne in the 9th century (at the University Library at Utrecht) shows a blind musician with a harp on his shoulder and  a spade-shaped instrument with a ridiculously huge bow (if it’s to scale, it would be about 10 feet long). This image is thought to be the oldest illustration containing a bowed instrument. There’s no way to know if this was a widely known instrument or a local phenomenon, but it’s definitely a vielle. This vielle is of the type still used in Turkestan today for folk music.

Soon, the spade-shaped body of the vielle was replaced by an ellipsis with a sharply defined neck. A peg-box, parallel to and on the same plane as the fingerboard, had its pegs at a right angle to the soundbox table. Both this instrument and the spade-shaped one were held in front of the player’s body, upright on a thigh or knee.

A 9th century Psalter from Lothar, Germany shows an image of a plucked vielles that could be played with the fingertips or with a plectrum. This instrument looked much the same as the knee-held vielle, and appears with and without a waist. The citole (also called the sister or cister) evolved from this instrument, and could also be either plucked or bowed.

In the 10th century, another vielle appeared in Southern Italy. It was pear-shaped, carved from a single piece of wood, and played by holding it on the shoulder under the chin. The strings were fastened to a special piece of wood at the base of the instrument (that would later evolve into the tailpiece of the violin in the 16th century) and were stretched over a bridge. Tuning pegs were like those on the earlier vielle, with the box parallel to the soundbox and the pegs at a right angle to it. There was a circular soundhole in the middle of the soundbox’s table, bridged by a small bar that ran parallel to the strings so that two semi-circular soundholes formed. This instrument is still found in the Near East and the Balkan Peninsula, playing folk music. It’s sometimes called the lyra (a commonly applied name to many instruments, from the lyre to the harp to the lute).

By the middle of the 11th century, the vielle was all over Northern Europe. Because the terms vidula, fidula, and fydyl were used generically to describe any bowed instrument, it’s hard to know when exactly the medieval fiddle or vielle came into use. Sources show it in Southern Europe and Byzantium in the 11th century, for sure, and there are texts showing 12th century troubadours using them.

No instruments survive from the Middle Ages. The earliest is in the Corpus Domini monastery at Bologna, Italy, from the 15th century. Its body and neck are carved out of one piece of wood, part of the soundboard is supported by a bar, and it has no soundpost. All reconstructions are educated guesses.

In illustrations, the vielle often appears as an oval shape (as opposed to the pear-shape of a rebec or rubeba), sometimes with indented sides (a waist), and with a neck made from a separate piece of wood. It had four or five strings and is played on the shoulder or neck like a violin, or between or on the knees like a viol. In the knee position, it’s played with an underhand bow-grip. Some instruments could be played in either position—the size or shape didn’t determine whether it was played on the shoulder or the knee.

In the 12th century, slightly larger instruments played between the knees were preferred, and in the 13th century, smaller, shoulder-played instruments were more common. Some German manuscripts show the fiddle played across the chest, held by a strap. It’s possible that this was invented by a painter, though, and imitated by other painters, rather than that Germans really played this way.

Issues like the social and financial status of the player influenced the size, quality, shape, and technical possibilities of the instrument. Some are ornate, with painted sides and inlaid wood and jewels, or even woodcarvings. Noblemen—or women—would have had posh instruments, clerics and lowly jongleurs would have had the simplest.

Vernacular songs are likely to have been accompanied by a vielle during the early Middle Ages, when music was monody. They would have doubled the melody or provided a drone, or filled in a verse or chorus.

From the nature of music composed for the vielle, its apparent that during the Middle Ages, the motet was a strong influence, and it’s possible that a vielle was used to substitute for a singing voice. Some theorize that motets (which were all about the words, after all) were occasionally played by harps, vielles, and portative organs.

14th century theorist Johannes de Grocheio says that a good vielle player should play the introduction to all manner of music. He also thought a little vielle postlude should be played after antiphons (a type of song within the church service). And he associated the vielle with trouvère songs. Troubadours might have had a harp, fiddle/vielle, small lute, pipe or bagpipe to be played alone or as accompaniment to singing or reciting poetry.

Vielles would have been used in sacred music such as hymns, Mass movements (Kyrie, Sanctus, etc.), sequences, conducti, and possibly polyphony. Magister Lambertus (fl. 1270) complained of vielles creeping into church use. Anonymous IV (probably an English student working at Notre Dame in the 1270s and 1280s) mentions the vielle doubling singers during organum (plainchant with a second voice). They played during non-liturgical parts of the ceremony, including Kyries. One story tells of the Virgin Mary attaching a candle to the fiddler’s instrument because he played so beautifully before an altar but the chronology doesn’t work out too well there. Still, it’s a nice story.

English royal household records show the presence of vielle players at court from 1272-1423. Merlin the viellist was a minstrel of the queen in 1307 (Edward I’s second wife Margaret was from Francem, where the vielle was huge). Peter and Nicholas of Prague appeared at court in 1327, as does Hanekin (also called Henequen) . A fiddler with the fabulous name of Counce Snayth shows up in court around 1399, and stayed until 1423. For the most part, after that, fiddlers aren’t mentioned by name until Henry VIII (1491-1547), and by then, the instrument was a violin.

Johannes de Grocheio (c1255-c1320, a Parisian musical theorist) says that vielles played all secular forms of music, especially vocal music, and specifically lists chanson de geste, epic songs, trouvère, troubadour, and Minnesänger songs, Latin songs, and political and satirical conducti. This included lai (musical stories with formulaic melodies) and literary texts, rondeau, rodellus, and rotunda with returning refrains, including stantipes, estampie, or ductia. Of these secular forms, only estampie examples survive.

There are stories of 12 fiddlers being present when Edward I of England knighted his son in 1306 at the Feast of Swans. One of those fiddlers was called Tomasin and he was the prince’s personal fiddler.

Vielles were popular in France, especially around 1300. There, the vielle had long been associated with chanson de geste, and the ancient tradition persisted through the 14th century. In 1377, at Beauvais, chansons de geste were performed at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The presenters were expected to appear with a book of the text and a vielle.

German construction was considered to be the best quality and German players were the best by the end of the 1300s. German fiddlers were ubiquitous throughout the continent during the later Middle Ages.

In Flanders, like in Italy, there was a long-standing tradition of devotional minstrelry. Vielles performed at the Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges in 1391. In Bruges and Ghent, wealthy merchants and tradesmen formed confraternities that commissioned polyphony for religious festivals and made use of minstrels to play the vielle for ceremonial occasions. Italians working in Bruges took commissioned works of polyphony back to Italy with them, so the music and the instrument’s popularity spread.

Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent became centers for minstrel education in the 14th century, hosting schools that attracted students from all over Europe. During the Lenten season, minstrels converged from all over Europe and when they went home, they transmitted what they’d learned at such schools to the musicians who’d stayed at home.

In the 14th century, there were guilds of vielle supporters called confraternities, who amassed considerable wealth and became the patrons of religious art, drama, and music. Many paintings were commissioned by them, documenting the use of vielles, and adorning chapels and serving as objects of devotion. Singing laude was central to confraternity worship, processions, and religious dramas, starting around 1340 and the organs, lutes, harps, vielles, and rebecs that accompanied them appear most commonly in the archives. Instrumentalists were hired in pairs, frequently partners of long standing or family members.

Civic instrumental ensembles became popular during the second half of the 14th century, and by 1380, nearly every town in Southern Germany had its own small liveried wind band, usually consisting of two shawms and a slide trumpet (biographies coming soon). During the 14th century, string players also found employment in private courts. There seems to be a continuous string ensemble tradition in Europe—especially Germany—through the 15th century, and fiddles were as popular as any other instrument at this time, although the “vedel” as a solo instrument was gone by 1420 or so.

Ensemble groupings expanded from two to four parts, although the vielle wasn’t necessarily part of this expansion. Two, three, or four fiddles played together until about 1400; after that, a lute with a fiddle of two was more common.

Vielles excelled at the monophonic and polyphonic laude (non-liturgical devotional songs) of the 14th and 15th centuries as well as processional hymns and motets, the repertoire associated with confraternal use. (Confraternities were lay brotherhoods devoted to a religious or charitable service.) In fact, the vielle was played throughout the 15th century as an expression of lay piety. In 1487, Johannes Tinctoris declared that its sweet sounds inspired religious contemplation. Instrumentalists stop appearing in the Florentine archives around 1450. In Venice, they continued as part of confraternal rites throughout the 15th century.

In 1438, a Russian monk attending the Council of Florence described a solemn Mass that was attended by the Pope. Winds were played during the ceremony, and vielles and other instruments played as the pope ascended his throne. A Christmas Eve vespers service that’s documented by a poem in Simone Prudenzani’s sonnet Il Saporeto (Sonnet 28) also includes a description of vielles as part of the service.

Noble amateurs of both sexes played the vielle in consorts with other soft instruments, such as the lute or psaltery. Minstrels of all kinds would play them in processions, weddings and banquets, and at dances. Courtly musicians would play them in their master’s chambers to promote sleep and emotional or physical fitness.

Boccaccio tells the story of a vielle player in his “Decameron,” on the Tenth Day, in the Sixth Story. Simon Prudenzani talks about fiddling in Il Saporetto, Sonnet 35 in the 14th century.

The vielle’s popularity waned in the 15th century in courtly Italy and elsewhere in Europe, but it stayed the accompaniment instrument of choice for epic stories. In Italy, the chantari specialized in outdoor performances of the Arthurian legends during the 15th century, accompanied by the vielle. After 1430, though, it’s barely seen in pictures or mentioned anywhere. Books of Hours were the most likely places to find pictures, and even then, they were only moderately popular.

But the vielle paved the way for the violin and the viola da gamba (biography to come), and its marvelous sound is preserved by musicians who make music from these periods even today.

Vielle Structure

The top of the soundbox may originally have been flat. A 12th century relief in the Walraff-Richartz Museum in Köln Germany shows an instrument that has a bent or rounded top, but that might have been artistic license. Instruments with a flat top tend to cave in after a while, because of the pressure of the strings, even the relatively low pressure of gut strings, unless the top has heavy cross bracing or a soundpost. (Balkan stringed instruments often have a bridge with an elongated foot that reaches through the soundhole to the back of the instrument, and acts like a soundpost, for instance.) The 16th century lira da bracchio, probably a direct descendant of the vielle, has a soundpost, which helps to hold up the argument for its strengthening qualities.

In about 1300, the smaller, shoulder-held version got a trimmer soundbox with a flat or slightly curved back, straight sides (called ribs), and a flat or nearly flat table on the soundbox. The soundholes were replaced by a single, slender C shape, or by two Cs, one superimposed on the other. This instrument was much lighter and considerably more resonant than the older style. Most vielles then and now have C or half-moon shaped soundholes, although F-like holes are also seen, as well as clusters of small holes arranged in patterns.

Close cultural ties existed between France and England throughout the 14th century despite the Hundred Years War. In both places, vielle bodies were carved from a single piece of wood. By the beginning of the next century, there were overlapping edges—a much more modern construction method.

After 1300, there were a variety of shapes and sizes, from a waistless oval to a curvaceous guitar shape. Oval instruments have long tailpieces, sometimes with bridges. Those with separate bridges have from three to five strings, and the fifth string is usually a bourden string (the drone), off the side of the fingerboard. Oval instruments tend to be large, although string lengths can vary, depending on bridge placement. Most vielles are elongated ovals, with a slight waist, and rarely have fretted necks.

Waisted vielles have an  even greater variety of string and bridge arrangements, from a curved bridge and tailpiece, to a flat and fixed bridge. The bowed guitar-style can have as many as six strings on the fingerboard.

The smaller, shoulder-held instrument developed a waist around 1300, like those the larger styles already had, making it possible to reach all of the strings individually with the bow, including the continually sounding lowest string (the drone). By the 15th century, the waist and droning low notes were a fixture.

Square, boxy shapes were more common than ovals during the Middle Ages, and the reverse is true now.

In about the 12th century, the difference between the neck and body became more clearly defined. Frets didn’t appear until after 1300.

There is a theory that frets were rare, but also that their presence is evidence of shifting hand positions. Some vielle necks are quite long, and the presence of frets down their length argue in favor of shifting. Frets establish a fixed intonation, something more crucial to ensemble rather than solo playing, and they limit the player to one tuning system (or mode) at a time. Frets also facilitate chord playing.

Not all instruments have a fingerboard, but again, this could be inaccuracy on the part of the artists. It’s possible to play fiddles without fingerboards if one or two strings are for melodies and the others are used for drones (like a mountain dulcimer).

On some instruments, the strings are stopped by pushing the fingernails against them from the side rather than pressing them down. It’s a technique that works on fingerboardless instruments.

Most vielles have a bridge of some sort. The bridge lifts the strings up off of the table surface of the soundbox, making it possible for the strings to vibrate freely. Bridges were sometimes quite tall, and not necessarily glued to the table. They made the strings more bowable. The instrument evolved to offer a rounded bridge and alternative tunings that made accessibility to individual strings easier and improved the vielle’s ability to play polyphony.

There are questions about whether, despite Guillaume Machaut’s reference to using them, the vielle might not have been used in performance of his famous “Remede de Fortune” because of the flat bridge that would have forced a drone to sound constantly.

A flat-bridged instrument allows all of the strings to be played at once, producing a four-or five-note chord, depending on the number of strings. The top or bottom string can be stopped and played separately, if the indentation on the sides of the instrument (the waist) or the height of the bridge allows it. The middle strings can’t be stopped without stopping other, outer strings, because finger pressure along the neck puts them below where the bow can reach. A slight curve to the bridge lets the player play strings separately or two or three at a time.

In the oldest instruments with a flat soundbox, it’s possible that the bridge was also flat, but the indentations in which the strings sat were at different depths. This would allow playing individual strings in the same way as an arched bridge.

In Flanders, Hans Memling (c1430-1494) painted vielles with crenellated bridges. These high and low spots allowed certain strings to be temporarily disengaged so the rest could be simultaneously stroked with the bow, and the lowered strings would be silent.

Vielles often have leaf-shaped pegboxes with tuning pegs protruding out of the front (perpendicular to the neck and soundbox table). The tuning pegs are inserted into holes in a pegdisc, either from above or below. The pegbox itself can be carved into a scroll or sickle-shape, especially if the pegs protrude from behind instead.

One innovation was to turn the tuning pegs sideways, so that they stuck out of the side of the pegboard, parallel to the soundbox (like a modern guitar). The pegbox itself was slightly curved. This arrangement increased the resistance to the pull of the strings, but it wasn’t until the 16th century and the rebec that the value of this arrangement was presented in its true glory.

The vielle adopted the head of the rebec in the late Middle Ages. In the 16th century, along with the development of the viola da gamba, the vielle now had three distinct parts—the upper, center, and lower portions. It also got the bent-back rebec peg box, crowned with a scroll and inherited the four strings of the rebec, tuned in fifths.

The number of strings varies from two to six, but a five-stringed vielle was considered best. It was tuned in intervals of fourths and fifths, and occasionally thirds. Sometimes strings were paired, like on a lute. Strings were usually of gut—mostly sheep gut—or silk.

Separate tailpieces and fingerboards are found on some instruments. Occasionally, the tailpiece has “feet,” which make it act as a combination of string-holder and a bridge. Sometimes the drone strings run alongside the instrument, over the bridge and right off the end of the fingerboard. This string could be played with a bow or it could plucked with the left hand’s thumb. The drone aspect of the vielle would have been quite useful in music before 1300 for solo playing as well as accompaniment.

The sound is a lot like a hurdy-gurdy—a continuous drone with one or two strings for melodies of fairly limited range. The pitch of the drone strings determines the mode the vielle is played in. A curved bridge means NOT limiting the mode because all the strings are accessible individually by the bow, and the neck was likely long enough to accommodate playing more than one or two notes on each string by pressing the string to the neck with a fingertip.

Jerome of Moravia wrote “Tractatus de Musica” in 1300 or so, to help his fellow monks learn to play the vielle and the rubeba. His book served as a guide for well-educated people interested in learning about the vielle, which was gaining popularity among clerics and students. He lists three tunings, all with one melody string and two sets of drones on five strings. Pitches weren’t specific, as in today’s instruments, but were relative (meaning that the interval was the same, even if the specified notes were varied). He makes reference to running scales on on Guido’s hand. He also mentions songs that don’t comply with the rules of the modes, and says they are for rustic players or laymen—probably meaning secular performances. One of his tunings would not have allowed a full modal scale to be played without shifting hand positions, something that wasn’t documented until the 16th century and so, presumably, didn’t happen much earlier. Other sources confirm Jerome’s tunings, although there are other ideas put forward by other experts of the time.

With a flat-bridged instrument, all the notes would have sounded at once, limiting repertoire, although the whole instrument could have been adjusted to play in a different mode, like a harp without tuning levers. It would also have been possible to adjust to the needs of a specific singer, as long as no fixed-tuning instruments, like winds or keyboards, were used.

The five-stringed knee-held instrument wasn’t equal to the music of the 14th and 15th centuries, and it needed a massive overhaul in order to compete with other bowed and stringed instruments. In about 1300, the smaller, shoulder-held version got a trimmer soundbox with a flat or slightly curved back, straight sides (called ribs), and a flat or nearly flat table on the soundbox. This instrument was much lighter and considerably more resonant than the older style.

Playing the vielle between the knees frees up the left hand from supporting the instrument, but forces the player into a chair. There are some paintings where the vielle seems to be hanging from a strap around the neck so that the player could be mobile. Playing with the instrument on the shoulder or chest (like Renaissance violins) allowed the player to stand and move around.

Most 1300 vielles are played on the shoulder, with the chin on the instrument, rather than down on the arm or strapped across the body in the German manner.

The bow (or fydylstyck) was originally just like a bow used to shoot an arrow; it was a stick with horsehair attached to it so tightly that the stick bent. The hair might have been attached by a knot and then poked through a hole in the stick. No frogs (a mechanical device for tightening the strings) were necessary to raise the hair from the bow itself because of the extreme curve of the stick. Pressure on the horsehair could be adjusted by holding the thumb on the hair, which was made easier by an underhand grip on the bow.

The medieval bow is held further from the frog than on a modern bow because of a difference in balance and weight. There aren’t rules, though, and each player can determine what works best for them.

The Name

The names fiedel, fidula, and lira probably came to Europe from the Balkan Peninsula. Fiedel, viella, vidula, viuola, fidula, and fedylle are all terms for a bowed stringed instrument in the Middle Ages. In Flemish, the word was vedeles.

In German, the word Geigen meant any bowed stringed instrument, including the rebec, for which there was no properly German name. A Grosse Geigen refers to a large, fretted, bowed instrument played vielle-style.

A citole, is a plucked vielle. It’s also called the sister or the cister.

By the middle of the 15th century, the word “vielle” tended to refer to a hurdy-gurdy, and the bowed instrument was called a fiddle.

Famous Vielle Composers

Guillaume Machaut was probably the most influential composer to come out of the medieval era. He lived from c1300-1377, which is pretty much the heyday of the vielle. He is nearly as famous for his epic poetry as he was for his musical compositions.

John Dowland (1563-1626) (biography to come) was certainly the most prolific of the British lutenists, and it’s his songs that you think of when you imagine yourself in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. In truth, it was more likely to have been Tallis or Byrd at court, because Dowland’s bid for court lutenist was unsuccessful until James I’s reign. Dowland’s music was—and still is—very accessible to non-stuffy music lovers.

Famous Vielle Players

Tomasin was King Edward I’s son’s personal fiddler in the 13th and early 14th centuries.

Herman Hans di Henequin went to minstrel school in 1381 with famous musicologist Jacomi.

Merlin, who was the viellist for the English royal court in the 14th century with Counce Snayth.

Sir Henry Umpton (bass viol) lived from c1557-1596, and was an Elizabethan English diplomat.

Solomon Rossi (c1570-c1630) was said to have been a virtuoso on the viol/vielle.

Pavlo Beznosiuk is an Irish/Ukrainian violinist who dabbles with early instruments. His recordings get a lot of five-star ratings.

Mary Springfels is co-founder of the Newberry Consort, one of America’s best Renaissance musical groups, and has recorded with some of the biggest names in the early-music industry. Her main expertise is on the viola da gamba, but as they’re related, she does a pretty good job of playing the vielle (and writing about it) too.

Margreit Tindemans is a Seattle-based study in fabulousness. In addition to rock-star status on the vielle and viola da gamba, she leads a Hildegard group, teaches all over the world, and is a totally awe-inspiring yet down-to-earth person.

Shira Kammen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based super-goddess. When she plays the vielle (or the harp, rebec, violin, or viola) you find yourself simultaneously transfixed and transported. She’s got a gazillion recordings out there, and you need to have them all. Immediately.

Michelle Levy studied classical viola and banjo and then honed her vielle perfection with Shira Kammen and with some other very important names in the early music industry. She’s often found at English country dance and contra dance events, and you’ll find your toes tapping if she’s got a vielle in her hands.


“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.

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hoppin. W.W. Norton && Company, New York, 1978.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton && Company, New York, 1940.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay,. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1965.

“The Music of The Jews in the Diaspora (Up to 1800)” by Alfred Sendrey. Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1970.

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.

Instrument Biography: The Hurdy-Gurdy

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Here’s the story of the niftiest instrument that you think you’ve never heard play. But you have! It’s a beautiful-looking instrument with a strong drone component, the fabulous-looking back of a lute, and the facility of a small keyboard instrument.

The hurdy-gurdy seems to have appeared in the Middle Ages and it all but disappeared after them. This is the tale of a well-traveled but somewhat obscure instrument.

The hurdy-gurdy is a medieval stringed instrument in which the encased strings (both melody and drone strings) are bowed mechanically by a resin-coated wooden wheel, which is turned by a handle. The melodies are played on a simple keyboard mechanism that bends the melody strings as the wheel passes past them, making them sound.

In the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy was used for teaching purposes and for accompanying songs. It has always been popular among minstrels, and remains in use (in certain areas) as a street or folk instrument until today. For a couple of hundred years, it was popular and played by kings. And then it quietly slipped out of the public eye.

You have to remember that the monophonic music of the time was mostly a capella, with the occasional accompaniment by a harp, fiddle, or hurdy-gurdy. Usually, the singer played the instrument to match the melody line, so it wasn’t a matter of accompaniment in the modern sense (no harmony, no second musician or instrument).

The hurdy-gurdy seems to have been well-respected. In the Portico della Gloria of St. Jago di Compostella, a painting with one of the richest representations of 12th century musical instruments, the hurdy-gurdy is given the highest place at the center. It’s probable that, because most paintings that feature the hurdy-gurdy place the instrument in the middle, the leader of the group played it.

But by the end of the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy was in decline both in popularity and in size. It had become small enough to be played by a single person when once it required two. It trickled out of popularity with the aristocrats and became the standard instrument of peddlers and blind beggars.

Michael Praetorius damned it in the late 16th century as an instrument fit only for peasants, and denies it a proper place among instruments in general. In the mid-16th century, the painter Pieter Brueghel painted a picture of a group of blind beggars who stumble into a river, one of whom carries a hurdy-gurdy, which was considered to be the badge of forlornness.

A Little Hurdy-Gurdy History

It was once supposed that the hurdy-gurdy originated in Arab lands and was brought to Europe through Spain, but surprisingly little evidence of the instrument in the Middle East appears. So now it’s thought to have been invented in Northern Europe, possibly Germany, around 1100 and spread to other countries around 1200. The organistrum, which is a simpler instrument, maybe slightly older, was used to help monastics learn chant by providing a drone against which the melodies could be sung or played.

The first mention of an organistrum in Europe was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911). Another mention is in an Arabic musical compendium written by Al Zirikli in the 10th century.

By the 13th century, the simpler form of the instrument, with a single player, underwent some development. The keys that had required a second person to play them were reduced in both number and size until they could be played by one person, whose left hand tickled the keys while the right hand turned the crank. The wide variety of shapes for these keys tells us that attempts were made to improve the acoustic abilities of the instrument.

Later versions of hurdy-gurdies had keys that were depressed from beneath rather than from above like an organ’s keys. Because these upward-pressed keys used gravity to release them, they were faster and easier to handle than those that needed to be pulled or mechanically pushed back up.

Although the organistrum was described in 10th century by Odo of Cluny, there are no images until the 12th century. It’s funny, though, that there are so many images of hurdy-gurdies after that, because its popularity seems to have gone from nothing to high and back to absent again very quickly.

There are many depictions of hurdy-gurdies carved on buildings and painted into pictures and illustrated manuscripts. (Most of the carved-stone representations seem to be in France and Spain.) There are lots of descriptions in literature and much discussion of tuning, almost all in German-speaking countries. In many of the paintings, the hurdy-gurdy is always at the center, which implies that its player was the leader of the group of musicians. A miniature from a 13th century French Bible shows four musicians playing at a feast, including a vielle (biography to come), a three-stringed hurdy-gurdy, a harp, and a psaltery.

The hurdy-gurdy is the earliest mechanized stringed instrument to which the keyboard principle was applied. The bow of other stringed instruments was replaced by a hand-cranked wheel, which produces a continuous sound from all the strings. The fingering is also mechanized, each string being stopped at different points to create different notes by means of the keyboard.

This instrument was used like other stringed and bowed instruments to accompany monophonic music. It was used to play interludes between verses or to accompany a singer in unison, perhaps playing the melody more ornamentally and fancier than the voice.

The hurdy-gurdy was pushed out of the church by the portative organ toward the middle of the 13th century. In secular music, hurdy-gurdies were still used to play dance music, and in aristocratic circles, they would have accompanied monophonic songs (all melody, no harmonies).

After 1300, the hurdy-gurdy, by then called the symphonia, was in every part of society. It took on symbolic meaning and appeared in paintings with supernatural and religious subjects. “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450-1516) has a detailed image of one.

Like the bagpipe, the hurdy-gurdy was popular in the Renaissance, changing its shape to have a shorter neck, a boxier body, and a curved end. And it could be played by one person. At this time, an asymmetrical buzzing bridge appeared that rests under the drone string on the soundboard. When the wheel is cranked faster, one edge of the bridge lifts from lying flat against the soundboard and vibrates against the strings. The buzzing bridge is thought to have been borrowed from—or made in imitation of—the tromba marina, or monochord, which was a bowed stringed instrument.

By the end of the 17th century, people wanted polyphonic capabilities from all of their instruments, and the hurdy-gurdy was relegated to the lower classes.

During the 18th century, the hurdy-gurdy enjoyed a brief resurgence of interest as the rococo tastes of Europe idealized all things pastoral, along with the bagpipe. It was thought that the bass drone, the very thing that made Renaissance people discard them, made these instruments seem more woodsy.

During the 18th century, the hurdy-gurdy was outfitted with sympathetic strings that moved as a result of the movement of neighboring strings (the effect that is so pleasing in the harp and the psaltery). The addition of a little bellows-like attachment to the wheel admitted a constant stream of air to tiny pipes like an organ.

More common, though, was a hurdy-gurdy with three to six strings, of which at least two act as drones. This was a pet instrument of the aristocracy, who had a somewhat leisurely idea of pastoral life, all draping gracefully on a blanket and eating from a basket and none of the work.

The most common 18th century style of hurdy-gurdy was the six-string vielle a roué, with two melody strings and four drones, tuned in such a way that by turning the drones on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys.

It’s also during the 18th century when Slavic countries and German-speaking areas of Hungary picked up the hurdy-gurdy.

In the 20th century, hurdy-gurdies have mostly disappeared. In the Ukraine, blind hurdy-gurdy-playing buskers were purged by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. One was played in the film “Captains Courageous (1937), by Spencer Tracy’s character.

In our times, revivals have begun in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Hurdy-Gurdy Structure

The organistrum, symphonium, and hurdy-gurdy have a wooden wheel in the interior, turned by a crank, which presses on the strings from below and sets them all vibrating simultaneously. The strings are shortened with wooden pegs, called tangents, that operate by a system of keys with the player’s free hand (the other turns the crank) and changes the note played by some of the strings.

Before the 13th century, this instrument required two players—one turning the handle, and the other operating an unwieldy keyboard. It was called an organistrum and had a shape with a waist, like a modern guitar. Later versions were more compact, requiring only one player and capable of faster music. They were lute-backed or occasionally rectangular and boxy. These later versions had a single melody string and several fixed-pitch drone strings.

By the 16th century, the instrument had more strings and a chromatic keyboard, and was called a symphonium. Sadly, by this time, it was largely relegated to beggars and wandering minstrels and had been given up by trained musicians and musically inclined aristocracy.

The rosin-coated wheel acts like a bow on the strings as it turns. Single notes sound much like a violin. The wheel is made of wood, and is kept sticky with rosin, like a violin’s bow. This is the most precarious aspect of the instrument and is the hardest part to keep properly shaped because it tends to warp in warm or wet weather. Players can turn the wheel, called the coup, faster or slower for musical effect. It doesn’t change the pitch, but provides a rhythmic thrumming.

Small wheeled instruments (with wheels about 5.5 inches in diameter) are from central and eastern Europe. These have a broad key box with the drone strings running through it. These usually have only three strings: one melody, one tenor drone, and one bass drone.

Large wheeled hurdy-gurdies (with wheels of 6.6 inches in diameter) are from western Europe. These usually have a narrow key box with drone strings outside it. They can have doubling or tripling of strings (where the notes are the same). Some have as many as 15 strings, although the usual number is six.

The strings are historically made of gut, which is still preferred today. Metal strings have become common in the 20th century, especially for the heavier drone strings or for lower melody strings if octave tuning is used. Nylon is sometimes used.

The strings are wrapped in raw cotton. The cotton used on melody strings is quite light and is heavier on the drone strings. Improper cottoning results in a raspy tone, especially at higher pitches. The height of the melody strings is adjusted to be above the wheel’s surface by shimming small pieces of paper between the strings and the bridge. Shimming and cottoning can both affect the pitch of the instrument’s strings.

Melody strings can play an octave, with both a B-sharp and a B-flat, nine notes in all. Drone strings are tuned to the octave and a fifth, although there’s no specific identification of this in the literature.

The tangents (components of the keyboard) are wooden pegs that change the notes by shortening all three melody strings simultaneously, providing the typical medieval sound of the octave, fourth and fifth all changing notes at the same time and playing in parallel. The lowest string is left free so that it sounds without being touched by the tangents and provides the drone.

Tangents can be adjusted to tune individual notes, so any temperament is possible. Most contemporary hurdy-gurdies have 24 keys that cover a range of two chromatic octaves. Notes are played by dividing the string lengths by depression of the tangents against the string, called Pythagorean tuning. (A string divided exactly in half will play a fifth interval on one half and a fourth on the other, and additional divisions make additional notes. It’s how pianos and all stringed instruments function.)

Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses the tangents against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. The soundboard underneath the strings makes the vibrations of the strings audible.

Tuning is usually Pythagorean (where the intervals are not equal, in order to get perfect fifths), but later tunings offer equal temperament (where every note is an equal distance from the next, making it hard to tune octaves) for ease of playing with other instruments.

Most have several drone strings, which give a constant pitch, like a bagpipe’s drone, and provide accompaniment to the melody. Because of this similarity, the hurdy-gurdy is often asked to play bagpipe tunes, particularly in older French and contemporary Hungarian and Galican folk music.

Some hurdy-gurdies have a vibrating bridge that creates a buzzing noise. On the Hungarian instrument called the tekero, some control is achieved by using a wedge that pushes the drone string downward. The player uses his or her wrist to control the buzz.

To make the bridge buzz, the tail of the bridge is stuck into a vertical slot or held by a peg. The free end of the bridge, called the hammer, rests on the soundboard of the hurdy-gurdy and vibrates freely. When the wheel turns, the pressure on the string holds the bridge in place, sounding the drone. When the wheel is turned faster, the hammer lifts up and vibrates against the soundboard, creating a rhythmic buzz used to make a percussive effect.

On French-style instruments, the buzzing bridge can be altered with a peg, called a tyrant, in the tailpiece of the instrument that is connected by wire or thread to the trompette, which is the highest-pitched drone string. The tyrant adjusts the pressure on the trompette based on the speed of the turning wheel.

These are the parts of a hurdy-gurdy:

  • Trompette: the highest pitched drone sting that features the buzzing bridge, if any
  • Mouche: the drone sting pitched a fourth of fifth below the trompette
  • Petit bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the trompette
  • Gros bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the mouche
  • Chanterelle(s): melody string(s), also called chanters or chanter strings in English
  • Chien: (literally the “dog”) the buzzing bridge
  • Tyrant: a small peg set in the instrument’s tailpiece that controls the buzzing bridge.
  • Coup: The wheel

It’s a mechanically complicated instrument for a medieval innovation and must be constructed with great precision. In addition, the player has to keep adjusting things to control the balance between the drones and the melody.

There are relatively few makers today. It’s not too hard to find the box-like versions, but the really best lute-backed ones come from France. There are some kits here: Music Maker Kits if you want to try building one yourself.

There are folk music festivals in Europe that feature music groups with hurdy-gurdy players, with the most famous faire held in central France on Bastille Day.

The Name

In English, it’s a hurdy-gurdy, but it’s also called the organistrum or symphonia. “Hurdy-gurdy” is thought to be from the Scottish term for uproar and disorder; “hirdy-girdy” and “hurly-burly” are old English terms for noise or commotion. It’s sometimes called a wheel fiddle in English, but not by people who play it. (I suppose it’s the same as no San Franciscan ever calling the town “Frisco.”)

Musicologist Robert Green says that the term organistrum is reserved for the three-stringed instrument played by two people in aristocratic and church settings, and symphonia is the smaller instrument played by one person in secular circumstances.

There was a misnomer in the 18th century, calling a barrel organ a hurdy-gurdy. The barrel organ is a cranked box with organ pipes, a bellows, and a barrel with pins that rotated and played the tunes. It functioned like a player piano. This was a common choice for street musicians because all that need be done was to turn the crank. There the similarity ends.

But I digress. In German, the instrument is called Baernleier (peasant’s lyre) and Bettlerleier (beggar’s lyre). The Dutch call it a draailier, much like the German name drehleier. In French, it’s a vielle a roué or simply vielle (although there’s another instrument with the same name).

In Hungarian, it’s a tekerlant and forgolant, both of which mean “turning lute.” It can also be called a nyenyere, which is thought to onomatopoeic with the sound of the wobbling wheel.

In Italian, it’s a ghironda or lira tedesca. In Spain, it’s called a zanfona, except in Catalan, where it’s known as a viola de Roda. In Basque, it’s called a brenka.

In the Ukraine, it’s a lira or relia, which means “wheel lyre.” There, they are still played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their music sounds Baroque and vaguely religious.

Famous Composers

Nicolas Chedeville (1705-1782) wrote “Il pastor Fido” for the hurdy-gurdy, which was wrongly attributed to Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote “Lira organizzata” not for the simple hurdy-gurdy with strings, but for the more complex instrument with the organ attachment (mentioned in the history section in the 18th century above). Haydn composed numerous nocturns and concertos for the instrument that pleased the King of Naples so much that he tried to convince Haydn to move to Naples. Haydn almost did, but at the last minute, he accepted an invitation to go to London.

Other composers for the hurdy-gurdy include Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

The pop star Donovan wrote a 1968 rock song, called “Hurdy-Gurdy Man.” No actual hurdy-gurdy was played during it, but it sparked a new interest in the instrument, particularly in the Olympic Peninsula area of Washington.

Another modern hurdy-gurdyist is Giles Chabenat, who’s still playing, mostly in England.

Famous Players

  • Faustin Santalices, currently playing in Spain
  • Ethan James was a talented musician who hung out in San Francisco in the 1960s and became a recording artist in Los Angeles. He died in 2003.
  • Patrick Bouffard is still performing in France.
  • Giles Chabenat is still playing, mostly in England.
  • Jean-Francois Dutertre is a French singer/songwriter.
  • Regine Chassagne in Quebec performs with the band Arcadie Fire.
  • David Miles plays with Metallica.
  • Garmarna and Hedringarna are Swedish groups that
    specialize in the hurdy-gurdy.
  • Nigel Eaton is the English son of hurdy-gurdy maker Christopher Eaton and has made his own name as a player.
  • Jimmy Page played with Led Zeppelin.
  • Brendan O’Brien played the hurdy-gurdy on a Bruce Springsteen album.
  • Anna Murphy plays with folk metal band Eluveitie’.
  • Sting plays the hurdy-gurdy.
  • A hobo on top of the train plays a hurdy-gurdy in the movie “Polar Express”

Players of this instrument are called hurdy-gurdyists or hurdy-gurdy players, except in France, where they’re called viellists.


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“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1940.

“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010.

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