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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.


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

“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.

“Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.

“Women Making Music; The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

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

Instrument Biography: The Bagpipe

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Some of you are going to get all squirmy because you think you don’t like the this instrument. But give this ancient instrument a chance—maybe you’ll change your mind.

The bagpipe is the universal folk instrument, appearing on nearly every continent. The bagpipe is an aerophone, which means that it’s a wind instrument. Unlike most aerophones, it’s fueled by air from a bag rather than directly by the player’s breath. The bag is filled by the player’s breath or by a bellows, and the melodies are played when the player squeezes the air out of the bag and through drone pipes and chanter (melody) pipes. The bagpipe, like the clarinet or the oboe, uses enclosed reeds that create a buzzing and cause the tube of the chanter to resonate when the air passes through it.

The most famous pipes are the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe and Irish Uilleann pipes, but bagpipes are nearly everywhere, from Northern Africa, to the Persian Gulf, throughout the Caucasus, and in most of Europe. Australia doesn’t seem to have invented this instrument on its own, and I attribute this to the dominance of another drone instrument, the didgeridoo.

In the story of instrumental descendants, if you think of the panpipes as the ancestor of the organ, you can also think of the panpipe as the ancestor of the bagpipe. It’s important to note that both the organ and the bagpipe came about as a result of mechanical improvements and that included adding some sort of chest or bellows to existing instruments. But where the organ has enjoyed a lush literature, the bagpipe has not. In part, this is because the organ became the instrument of churches and kings and the bagpipe stayed with its humble origins and remained a folk instrument, which means that much of the literature was never documented.

A History of Bagpipes

The bagpipe might have, like the lute, come to the Middle East and then on to Europe via the traveling song girls sent by the conquered rulers of India in about the 15th century BCE. It’s also possible that people in the Middle East invented it for themselves. Images of bagpipes have been identified on a Hittite slab at Eyuk dated to 1000 BCE.

Hellenistic writings left by Aristophanes in the 1st century BCE tell of an instrument whose squeezed bladders provided a reservoir of breath with a controlled exit through a pipe. In Rome, Latin writers also described the bagpipe in the 1st century.

In Roman times, the bagpipe’s place was in the tavern, not the palace, although there are stories from Suetonius (c69-c122 CE) that Nero fancied himself to be an utricularius player (bagpiper). Despite Nero’s preference, the bagpipe never became accepted into sophisticated musical circles. There is an obvious connection between the development of the bagpipe and the development of the pipe organ well into the 2nd century (referred to by Julius Pollux), and when I write about pipe organs, I’ll cover that.

The bagpipe was widely used at all social levels during the Middle Ages across Europe, although it had mostly rustic associations. The church’s insistence on anonymity in the Middle Ages gave rise to the popularity of the bagpipe as far back as the 9th century because the very nature of the chanter prevented much in the way of articulation and accents, smoothing things out and eliminating the possibility of distinctive personal expression. Bagpipes were seen in England around 1100, but didn’t appear in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland until considerably later.

The instrument wasn’t fully developed in Europe until the 13th century. In the early Middle Ages, it was chiefly used by herdsmen, and because of that, was introduced into Christmas music. You see, as Christianity spread northward, the Catholic church integrated pagan and pastoral music and traditions into their own as in an effort to make Christianity appealing to older cultures. Christmas and Easter are particularly full of these older traditions. But I digress.

Jewish music used a bagpipe with one chanter and two drones in the 13th century. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, compiled in Castile in the 13th century, depicts several styles of bagpipes.

Bagpipes are mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century and around the same time in France, Guillaume Machaut mentions four types of bagpipes in his Prise d’Alexandrie and Reméde de Fortune.

Jewish scholar Abraham da Portaleone (c1540-1612) wrote a strange and inaccurate treatise on things biblical, called “Shilte ha-Gibbonrim” (“The Shields of the Mighty” in Hebrew), documenting history and archaeology, including musical instruments. It’s not a very scientific tome, and one of his many errors is to describe a nablon (the Greek form of the word nebel) as a combination of the harp and the bagpipe. In another spot, he compares the nebel with a lute, describing a fingerboard, a sounding box, the string arrangement, and otherwise describes something that is probably a chitarrone. He also describes a sumponyah (an instrument listed in the Bible) as a bagpipe, which it might have been. It also might have been a dulcimer.

By the 16th century, the bagpipe’s popularity had nearly completely waned among the aristocracy and at court, and it became the instrument of shepherds, soldiers, and dancing peasants rather than princes. Despite this, it underwent development into as many as five different sizes. Some styles had as many as three drones and sometimes two chanters. At the turn of the 17th century, the biggest change came with the Irish invention of the Uilleann pipes (elbow pipes) that are now called Union pipes. These used a bellows rather than a simple bladder, so the opening of the player’s elbow provided the source of wind (like an accordion) rather than a mouth pipe.

Interest in the oboe in France during the early 17th century, for some reason, led to interest in the bagpipe, and they invented a new type, called the musette, with a bellows like the Uilleann pipe. Its chanter was narrower than the oboe, but cylindrical, like the flute. They also invented a racket (a double-reeded instrument like the oboe), with a dozen or more bores. The racket was about 6.5 inches in height, and it provided a drone that had an alterable pitch. A flute maker called Hotteterre (see my blog on the history of the flute for a bit more about him) added a second small chanter for the highest notes, giving the instrument about two octaves. The racket also used the bellows method of sound production.

It was at this point that there was a new immigration of bagpipes from the east—a Slavonic instrument showed up in Germany with cylindrical drones and chanters and a single reed (like that of a clarinet).

In 17th century France, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and other composers who were fond of the pastoral tendencies of the instrument brought the bagpipe back to the attention of the aristocracy. Because they couldn’t bring obviously rustic things into the court, during this period, bagpipes were decorated with true rococo fabulousness.

The 18th century fostered a kind of faux pastoral movement, and both the hurdy-gurdy and the bagpipe had a resurgence in popularity. It was the bass drone that made the rococo composers deem these instruments appropriate, the opposite of what Renaissance musicians had felt.

Few bagpipes have survived from earlier than the 18th century, but there are loads of paintings, carvings, engravings, and manuscript illuminations. Folk bagpipes can be found in continental European paintings of Brueghel, Teniers, Jordaens, and Dūrer.

In the 1730s, William Dixon wrote music for the Border pipe, and for a nine-note bellows-blown bagpipe with a chanter similar to that of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Dixon’s music was mostly dance tunes, and some have been absorbed into a 19th century collection of songs for the smallpipes written (or perhaps collected) by John Peacock. In 1760, Joseph MacDonald made the first serious study of the Scottish Highland Pipes.

Large numbers of pipers were trained in the British Empire for service in WWI and WWII. In Canada and New Zealand, it’s still used in the military, especially for formal ceremonies. Other countries’ militaries have taken it on, including Uganda, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Oman. Police and fire services in Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong King, and the United States have also adopted the bagpipe into marching bands.

In recent years, bagpipes have participated in rock, heavy metal, jazz, hip-hop, punk, and classical music.

Bagpipe Structure

A bagpipe consists of an air supply (either a bellows or a person’s breath), a bag, a chanter, and at least one drone (a single note that is sustained during the melody—and beyond). Most have more than one drone, and some have more than one chanter. The pieces are held together by means of sockets that fasten the pipes and the chanter to the bag.

The usual method of air delivery is by blowing into a blowpipe to fill the bag. In some cases, the end of the blowpipe needs to be covered by the tip of the tongue during inhalation, but most have a valve that prevents air from escaping.

In the 16th or 17th century, a bellows was attached to supply air. Such pipes are occasionally called cauld wind pipes (cold wind pipes), as the air is not heated by the player’s breath, so they can use more delicate reeds. In Britain, the Uilleann pipe, Border pipes, and Northumbrian smallpipes are among this type, and in France, the musette de cour.

The bag that holds the air is airtight. The player keeps the bag inflated by blowing into the blowpipe or pumping air through the bellows. Materials for the bags can include animal skins (goats, dogs, sheep, and cows, most commonly), and recently, man-made materials are used, such as Gore-Tex.

Skin bags are saddle stitched with an extra strip folded over the seam and stitched down. In synthetic bags, glue is used to make the seal. Holes are cut to accommodate the sockets into which the pipes and chanter fit. In bags that are cut from larger skins, the sockets are tied into the points where the animal’s limbs and the head joined the torso.

The chanter is the pipe on which the melody is played. Some bagpipes have more than one chanter, particularly those in North Africa, Southeastern Europe, and Southwest Asia. The inside bore of the chanter can be either parallel or conical (like the head of a flute).

The chanter is usually open-ended, making it hard for the player to stop the chanter from sounding as long as there is air flowing from the bag. This affects the music in that there are no “rests” or silences as part of the music. Because of this, grace notes (squiggly squirmy notes that drop down or spring up to the intended note) are used to break up long notes and to create a sense of articulation or accent. These embellishments are highly prescribed and are specific to each type of bagpipe. They are difficult to play and take many years to conquer.

Closed-ended chanters, or those that close the end on the player’s leg, include the Uilleann pipes, the Northumbrian smallpipe, and the left chanter of the surdulina, a type of Calabrian zampogna. This closed end, when all the finger holes of the chanter are also covered, causes the pipe to be silent. (The drone continues. Only the chanter is silenced this way.)

The chanter has a reed, either single (like a clarinet) or double (like an oboe). Double reeds are most common, and are in both parallel and conically bored chanters. Single reeds are found only in parallel bores. Double reeds are found in western Europe and single reeds are nearly everywhere else.

In bladder pipes, the chanter and the blow pipe always lie in a straight line and might even be rigidly connected inside the bladder. The chanter is sometimes straight and sometimes bent.

The drone is a pipe that isn’t fingered but produces a constant sound against which the melody is played in a kind of harmony. The drone pipe is usually cylindrically bored with a single reed, and the ability to have their pitch slightly adjusted (tuning, not note changing) by sliding its two parts snugly together or slightly apart along a sliding joint.

In most pipes, a single drone is pitched two octaves below the lowest note of the chanter. Additional drones might be an octave below that or matching the fifth (the fifth note up from the lowest—it’s a musical interval of key significance in many forms of music) of the chanter.

Drone pipes might lie on the player’s shoulder, across the arm opposite the bag, or dangle parallel to the chanter. Some drones have a tuning screw, which alters the length of the pipe by opening or closing a hole. Such a screw allows the player to choose one of two pitches (open and half-open) or turn the drone entirely off.

Bagpipes vary enormously in size an appearance, but all have:

  • A bag or reservoir for air
  • A mouthpipe used to fill the bag. Some have a one-directional valve to keep the air in
  • A chanter or melody-pipe with a double or single reed and usually eight finger holes (which gives it a nine-note range)
  • At least one fixed-pitch drone pipe

The notes are obtained by fingering a chanter that has an unbroken stream of air passing through it, caused by squeezing the full bag of air between the player’s torso and elbow. This same air also passes through one or more drone pipes that are sounded by reeds.

Origins of the Name

The Greek word askaulos means bag-piper, but doesn’t appear in a Greek context until after the classical period.

French has the word muse or cornamuse, although there’s another instrument, a relative of the crumhorn, by the same name. (The crumhorn is a reed-capped instrument with a beautiful bent-tube and a cylindrical bore that makes a buzzing nasal sound. There’s a biography to come on this one). The chanter of the cornamuse was called the chalumeau, and had eight or nine holes.

Also from France, through the French court at Naples, the troubadours working with Adam de la Halle (c1230-c1288)—biography to come—used a form of bagpipe called a chevrette.

In the British Isles, other names were the chorus or choron. The smallest bagpipe was called a forel.

In Latin, the name is Tibia utricularis.

In German, there are Sacphife, Dudelsack, Platerspiel and Bläterspiel. (I like Dudelsack best, don’t you?)

In English, with its specific rules about making things plural, both bagpipe or bagpipes is correct for a single instrument, and pipers speak of “the pipes” or a “set of pipes.”

Famous Bagpipe Composers

Jean-Baptist Lully (1632-1687) used the musette in his operatic orchestras. In Germany, the instrument was popular with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and Franz Schubert (1897-1828)

In the British Isles, Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935) wrote the “Pibroch Suite” to include bagpipes, and Granville Bantock (1868-1946) wrote his “Hebridean Symphony.” Erik Chisholm (1904-1965) used the pipes and Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) featured them in “Brigadoon” in 1947.

People are still writing for bagpipes, including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-   ) in his “Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise,” Shaun Davey (1948-  ) has written “Relief of Derry Symphony,” “The Pilgrim,” and the “Special Olympics Suite,” and Lindsay Davidson (1973-  ) has written the “Tulsa Opera” and others.

Oh, you haven’t heard of any of these? How about Paddy Maloney (1938-   ) writing for The Chieftans, Paul McCartney in his “Mull of Kintyre,” AC/DC in “It’s a long way to the Top,” Korn in their “Shoots and Ladders” and John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice.”

Famous Bagpipe Players

Relatively few people make their names as soloists on the bagpipe, so the following is a list of groups of pipers or groups that include pipes among other instruments.

  • The Tannahill Weavers,
  • Rare Air
  • Wolfstone
  • Jerry O’Sullivan
  • Scottish National Pipe and Drum Corps and Military Band
  • Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
  • Ian McGregor and Scottish Pipe Band
  • The Highland Bagpipes
  • Bagpipe Hero
  • Massea Scottish Bands

There. See? There’s nothing at all dry or dull about the history of the bagpipe. I, for one, can’t wait until the Bay Area’s annual Highland Games each year to get my fill.


“Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture,” by Bruce W. Holsinger. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001.

“The Music of the Jews in the Diaspora,” by Alfred Sendrey. A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc, New York, 1970.

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

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

“Music in Ancient Greece and Rome,” by John G. Landels. Routledege, London, 1999.

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

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

“Musical Instruments, Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen &Unwind, Ltd., London, 1949.

“Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.

Instrument Biography: The Flute

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I’d already been playing the flute for quite a while when I first heard a recording for three, four, and five flutes, starring Jean-Pierre Rampal, his father Joseph Rampal, Maxence Larrieu, Alain Marion, and Marius Beuf, and featuring pieces by Friedrich Kuhlau, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, and Anton Reicha. I was probably 12 or 13, listening to my father’s growing collection of Musical Heritage Society’s Baroque masterpieces. In that recording, I heard the sound of water babbling, of cities busily whizzing around me, of space and its impenetrable depths, and of human genius.

I already knew that I loved the flute, but I didn’t know why. And then I heard it at its finest and I was hooked for life. The flute, it turns out, is a very ancient instrument. It’s in every culture and has been around since before mankind kept track of itself. Settle in and prepare for a long and winding story, the story of the flute.

Many instruments are considered flutes, but I will only be talking here about the ones that are edge-blown, not those with a fipple (a mechanical way of controlling the flow of air) like a recorder or a whistle. The flute is a member of the woodwind family, but it’s an aerophone, meaning it’s made of reeds or something similar. It can be traverse (held horizontally, parallel to the ground and perpendicular to the player’s body) or vertical (held perpendicular to the ground and parallel to the player’s body, like a panpipe). And also to make the story shorter, I’m also sticking to European-style flutes. This piece was HUGE before I made that change. (I’ll post on non-European flutes shortly.)

It’s probably the earliest known musical instrument, if you don’t count drums and the voice. Flutes from 43,000 years ago have been discovered in Germany’s Swabian Alp region and the earliest seem to be made from bird-wing and bear bones. Later flutes were made from mammoth tusks, between 30,000 and 37,000 years ago.

The earliest written reference to a flute is from a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dated around 2600 or 2700 BCE. They’re also mentioned in the epic story of Gilgamesh, which developed between 2100 and 600 BCE. The Old Testament talks about Jubal as the “father of all those who play the ugab and the kinnor” (the flute and the harp, loosely translating).

In Europe, the traverse flute replaced the panpipes in the Middle Ages and was especially popular with the Minnesingers (in Germany between the 12th and 14th centuries). During the Renaissance, the name “flute” applied to both flutes and recorders, and composers treated the two instruments as interchangeable.

Physical changes to the flute help to mark musical development from the Baroque period to the Classical. For Bach and Handel, “flute” still meant “recorder,” but after the middle of the 18th century (by the time of Mozart and Haydn),“flute” meant “traverse flute.” The clearer, more powerful tones of the traverse flute were needed for symphonic music.

Michael Praetorius (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) ) describes alto, tenor, and bass flutes. He said that the tenor, with over two octaves, was the most versatile. Those instruments still exist, but are seldom used.

A Brief History of the Flute

In the Stone Age (from 3.4 million years ago until about 10,200 BCE), people bored holes in stones and animal bones to make whistles and flutes. The Magdalenian cave paintings  of Montesquieu-Avantes, in the Ariege province of southwestern France, show a bow-shaped instrument that is thought to be a flute, dating from 13,000 BCE. There have been several flute-like specimens dug up at this site since 1925.

There’s a bone flute dated from somewhere between 7000-2500 BCE that was found in Switzerland, with three finger holes, although there’s no evidence that tells us whether this was locally built or imported from the more technologically and musically advanced Far East.

By Neolithic times (from around 10,200 BCE until somewhere between 4000 and 2000 BCE), people made flutes out of pottery. In Turkey, wall paintings from around 6000 BCE show musical instruments, including flutes, being used to drive game out of hiding for hunters.

In 1937, an archeological dig in Tepe Gawra in Northern Iraq uncovered 6000-year old bone flutes.

In the Bronze Age (around 4000 BCE), people began to use metal for all kinds of things, including making flutes. Beginning in around 3000 BCE, Mesopotamia was largely controlled by Sumerians, with their imposing array of instruments, including a vertical flute. The area was controlled by Babylonians and Assyrians between about 2000 BCE and 538 BCE, when the king of Persia, Cyrus II, allowed the return of the Jews to Israel. This meant that the instruments of the Jews (and those they’d picked up on their travels) came to Israel too.

In Egypt, tombs containing chests decorated with the eye of Horus and full of instruments from 2000 BCE included several types of flutes, including very long ones, often without finger holes, that had to be held diagonally across the body, and shorter double pipes bound together, which have been erroneously dubbed double clarinets. There were also fork-shaped clappers and frame drums to accompany them. Images of groups of musicians usually include at least one harp (see Instrument Biography: The Harp ) and one long finger hole-less flute (probably a drone), and several singers. In the 1st century BCE, the Romans conquering the Etruscans found traverse flutes.

From 230 CE to the present day, Indonesian gamelan bands included a vertical flute called the soeling. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, soelings were heard by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and their works were influenced by what they’d heard.

When the Islamic prophet Mohammed (570-672 CE) decreed that music was a forbidden pleasure, the flute was one of the instruments listed, along with the lute (see Instrument Biography: The Lute ) and the harp (see Instrument Biography: The Harp ).

The traverse flute wasn’t adopted in Europe until around the 12th century. It seems the Germans were the first to pick it up, and as it spread across Europe, it was called the German flute in England, flûte Allemande in France, and flauta alemana in Spain. It’s thought that the traverse flute reached Europe by way of Byzantium.

Illustrations from the Cantigas de Santa Maria (c1250-80) show traverse flutes. Flutes were classed with harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, and recorders as “bas” or “low” (in French), meaning that they are quiet, as opposed to “high” or “haut” instruments—meaning loud, like shawms, cornetts, and trumpets.

Most of the instruments popular in the Renaissance were already invented by the Middle Ages. It was common in the Renaissance to compose for a family of instruments (like violin, viola, and cello, and so on), and the actual instrumentation wasn’t specified by the composer. Like with singers, the instrumentalists played the part that was appropriate for their instruments. A flute piece might be played by a recorder, a traverse flute, a shawm, a cornett, or a trumpet. In England, these groups of unspecified instruments were called “consorts.”

Michael Praetorius included the traverse flute in his Theatrum instrumentorum, which was published in Wolfenbüttel in 1620. Jacque Hotteterre (c1645-1722) wrote the first tutorial specifically for the traverse flute in 1707, called Principes, and published in French. It was quite popular and was translated to English in 1729.

When the clarinet was invented around 1710, it joined other reed instruments and woodwinds, including oboes, bassoons, and flutes. All were usually made of wood and had one or more keys to aid in fingering and allow some new pitches. It’s important to remember that the clarinet is a sort of relative to the traverse flute, as you’ll learn when you meet Theobald Boehm a little later.

After 1775, about the time when the Classical style was reaching its peak, keys were added to allow greater variety in the keys signatures (different flavors of scales) in which a flute could play. A London instrument maker called Richard Potter increased the length of the instrument and gave it more low notes. This flute, with its additional six keys, was common around 1800. In the beginning of the 19th century, two more keys were added, increasing the range and facilitating fingering. The flute went from a many-holed, one-keyed instrument that was often out of tune in 1772, to a versatile and popular instrument with eight keys (in addition to finger holes) at the turn of the century.

There were several tunings, each with specific uses. The C flute was in general use, and a D-flat and E-flat flutes were common in military bands, as they were louder and shriller than the C flute. There was also a Flûte d’amour (Liebesflöte) that was tuned a minor third lower than the C flute (A), an alto flute in G, and a bass flute an octave lower than the C flute. The bass flute was—and still is—a nifty instrument with a 180-degree bend in the mouthpiece part of the tube.

The piccolo is an octave higher than the C flute and became popular around the end of the 18th century, pretty much paralleling the use of the larger C flute. It doesn’t have as many keys for lower notes, but the rest are arranged the same as a C flute. The Swiss military in the late middle ages preferred this little traverse flute so much that it became known as the Schweitzerpfeiff (Swiss pipe) and later as the fife. (Today, the piccolo is generally thought to have keys, like a flute, and the fife has open holes, like a recorder. Both are traverse.)

The alto flute is a fourth lower than a C flute (so it’s tuned to a G), and has a powerful, mellow, and expressive tone. Since Theobald Boehm’s improvements, its popularity has increased, but it’s still pretty rare outside of flute choirs.

The Italian Giorgi flute was made of ebonite, had no keys, and used a separate finger hole for each semitone of the octave. Because only ten fingers are available for the eleven holes of the instrument, the second joint of the left forefinger was used to cover the eleventh hole. It’s held vertically, like the oboe, with the embouchure in a separate bulbous piece. Because the difficult fingering allows only players with rather large hands to play the Giorgi flute, it was never widely adopted.

The bass flute (which should really be called a tenor flute) was invented in the 19th century and was pitched an octave below the C flute. Sadly, they are rarely used outside of flute orchestras. Abelardo Albisi created an Albisiphone bass in 1910, which has its metal tube doubled twice on itself near the embouchure and a body that points downward, like an oboe. Another bass flute was made by Rudall, Carte & Co. in London in 1932 and also had the bent tube treatment.

Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) established a flute factory in Munich in 1828. He experimented with mechanisms that could achieve uniform tones, superior volume, and better tuning control than other flutes. By 1848, he had created the modern Boehm System flute, made entirely of metal with large holes, closed not with the fingertips but with padded keys, linked to each other by a series of rods, levers, and clutches. (Louis-August Buffet, in Paris, applied some of Boehm’s ideas to improve the clarinet. Later, Adolphe Sax would use a similar system to invent the saxophone.)

The 19th century concert orchestra was smaller than today’s orchestras. Haydn’s had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, twelve to sixteen strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, bass viol) and a harpsichord, with occasional trumpet and timpani. Viennese orchestras were much the same, plus two clarinets.

Orchestras grew and grew until by the end of the 19th century, they had as many as 90 players. Because of Boehm’s innovations, the flute was easier to play quickly and in tune (and in most key signatures), and its range was extended by the invention of the piccolo. Because wind instruments could now be heard as clearly as the strings, they were often set to contrast with the others, further contributing to the clear emotional “instructions” that music followed post-Beethoven.

Structure of the Flute

Tuning is dependent on the location of finger holes. Most flutes, both ancient and modern, have equally spaced finger holes. The pitch of the scales were controlled by the sizes of the holes, so they might be equally distant from one another, but different sizes. Some of the earliest (dug up in Egypt from 2000 BCE) have two, three, and four holes.

Most traverse flutes are six-holed (or more), side-blown wind instruments with a cylindrical bore and a two-octave range. The player blows across the sharp edge of the mouth hole or embouchure that is pierced into the wall of the tube near the stopped end. This effect, of creating a sound by blowing a stream of air across a hole, is called creating a Bernoulli or a siphon. The Bernoullied air causes the cylindrical cavity of the flute to resonate.

Pitch is changed both by changing the length of the resonating cylinder as the fingering holes are closed and opened and by changing how the stream of air crosses the embouchure hole in the mouthpiece. The player can take advantage of this resonance by over-blowing and using the harmonics or overtones in addition to the fundamental frequencies of a more direct stream of air. (In a fippled instrument, like a recorder, the shape of the fipple limits the length of the resonator and such instruments can’t have as great a difference in volume or such large range of notes.)

The tone of the flute is variable, entirely affected by the skill of the player and the physical arrangement of the player’s mouth and lips. This change allows the playing of harmonics and overtones through over-blowing, and increases the range of the instrument, but it also makes it hard for a beginner to make a decent tone. Because the lips are not pressed against anything, tricks like circular breathing are quite difficult. (Circular breathing is when the player continues to blow air, using pressure from the lungs, while inhaling through the nose, allowing a constant sound. This is a common technique on didgeridoos, and less common but entirely possible on instruments such as oboes, saxophones, and trombones.)

The color of the sound can be affected by physically reshaping the inside of the column of the flute and also by the player’s reshaping their lips and tongue. The height of the lip plate (its distance from the tube of the head joint) is a critical element in making a decent sound, as is the interior shape of the head joint.

There are different schools of thought on the materials out of which a flute should be made. Jean-Pierre Rampal’s famous gold flute had a distinctive sound, but it’s hard to know how much of that was Jean-Pierre himself, and how much was the flute.

The player places about a quarter to half of their lower lip across the open hole (on both vertical and transverse flutes) and, by controlling the direction of the air with the upper lip, sends breath across the open hole. The amount of breath that goes down the tube of the flute is controlled mostly with the upper lip’s position.

Vertical flutes that are blown across the open end can have the other end closed, like a pan pipe, or open, like a recorder. There is more control over the quality of the sound and the harmonics with an open-ended flute.

Many cultures (most) provide air through the mouth, but there are some nose-blown flutes, and organ flutes are blown by bellows or fans.

Flutes are made of many materials, including glass, ivory, and wood, and in Israel, they were made from bulrush and other reed-like plants. In antiquity, flutes were made of reed or wood and were ornamented with metals, such silver or gold. Wooden flutes are thought to have greater beauty of tone, while metal flutes “speak” more easily (meaning that it’s easier to get a sound of them and easier to get a distinctive sound that can identify the player).

It was the later 17th century when the length of the flute was divided into three parts: the head joint with the embouchure, the body, and the foot or tail joint. The head joint was cylindrical in its bore, and the body and foot joints were conical, with the smallest diameter at the open end, a device which enhanced the beauty of overblown harmonics. This is also when they added the key for the little finger, adding a D-sharp.

Johann Quantz (1696-1773) documents flutes made from boxwood, ebony, kingwood, lignum sanctum, and granadilla—all woods available in Germany. Boxwood was the most common and durable material, but ebony produced the clearest and most beautiful tone. Crossing a wooden flute with brass, according to Quantz, made the flute sound shrill, rude, disagreeable, and otherwise unpleasant. Apparently, he was fond of adjectives.

During Quantz’s lifetime, the middle section of the flute was interchangeable, in order to accommodate the various tunings on harpsichords. Tuning keyboard instruments was not yet a refined art, and even the instruments in a single town might not all be tuned identically. At least that was Quantz’s complaint and his explanation for multiple middle sections.

The headpiece of the flute had a cork between the cap and the embouchure hole that could be adjusted to accommodate tuning. It also seemed to improve the sound of the flute. Modern flutes use a metal plug that’s adjusted by screwing the plug out and pushing it flush again, applying the same theory. The tuning of Quantz’s variable middle piece was affected by the adjustments to this plug because it changed the length of the tube.

Quantz documented three lesser-known kinds of flutes that existed to accommodate various tunings. These were called the low Quartflöten, which is a fourth lower than a regular traverse flute, flutes d’amour, which is a minor third lower, and the little Quartflöten, which is a fourth higher.

Quantz points out that moisture forming inside the instrument can be harmful to the wood and suggests both frequent cleaning and frequent oiling with the oil of almonds. In the first half of the 18th century, the main body of the flute was divided in two to correct defects in intonation. After 1720, the foot joint was also divided and two keys were added to extend the range. But the tiny mouth-hole still made it hard to play in tune.

One of Boehm’s major improvements was that he put rings of metal around the flute’s finger holes and then created a padded cap to cover the hole, sealing it tightly. The cap attaches to a rod and axle arrangement and closes another hole that can’t be reached by fingertips. This arrangement affects tuning, flexibility, and range. Sadly, this improvement initially met with violent opposition from flutists.

Boehm’s first model, in 1832, followed the traditional form, with a predominantly conical bore. But after consulting his friend, physicist K.F.E. Shaufhäutl, in 1846-47, he made a cylindrical bore, except for the head piece (that contains the embouchure) that is a parabola (partly a cone and partly parallel sides). The new flute was remarkable for its fuller and more robust sound than what the older flutes had produced.

There are still open-holed flutes played in orchestras. These use a ring instead of a padded cap, and the keys connected to the rings are manipulated in the identical way, through rods and levers. Western concert flutes have larger finger holes than their Baroque ancestors.

Concert flutes are tuned to the key of C, with three octaves, starting with “middle” C (it’s in the middle of a piano keyboard. I’ll have to look into why else it might be called that.) Special feet can be added that allow a low B. It’s one of the higher voices in an orchestra, roughly parallel to the violin, and not as high as a piccolo.

There are G and C- flutes, tuned a fourth and an octave below, that are used in special circumstances. It’s more common to compose for an alto, and there are super rare forms for the contrabass, the double contrabass, and hyperbass, pitched two, three, and four octaves below the concert flute. In addition to the piccolo, there’s also the treble flute, pitched at a G (a fifth above the concert flute), the D-flat piccolo, the soprano flute, F alto flute, and B-flat bass flute.

Origins of the Name(s)

The word “flute” comes to modern English from Middle English “floute,” “flowte,” and “flo(y)te. Old French used “flaute,” Old Provencal used “flaût,” and Old French used “fleüte,” “flaüte,” or “flahute,” that came through Middle High German “flote” or Danish “fluit.” The earliest known use of the word “flute” in English was in the 14th century, in Chaucer’s “The House of Fame,” around 1384.

In Acadian, the word is “embübum,” in Persian, it’s “nay.” In Arabic, the word is “qussaba.” In Babylonian, it was called the “shushan and the “miktam.” In Biblical Hebrew (Psalm 53), the word is “muhalat.” The word “halil,” which means “to pierce” or “hollow tube” in both Hebrew and Arabic and was what they called some flutes.

The word for flute in Greek is”plagiaulos.” It comes from the word “aulos,” which means traverse and isn’t a relative of the aulos, which is a double-reed, double-piped instrument, but rather, is a traverse, reed style flute. It was also occasionally called the “lotos,” for the lotus wood that Greek flutes were made of.

The flute was called the “obliqua tibia in Latin (Rome). They called it the tibia, for the shin-bones that they hollowed to make flutes. There, it was a strictly pastoral instrument and not documented well until the 3rd century BCE.

Famous Flute Composers

It wasn’t customary for people to take credit for writing music until nearly the Renaissance, but after that, the flute proved to be a popular instrument in both sacred and secular music.

Early church composers wrote mostly for voices alone. Organs were invented around the 8th century, but didn’t really become part of popular music because of their quiet sound until the invention of the pipe organ in the 14th century allowed more volume and expressiveness. The focus on vocal and organ music somewhat pre-empted flute music in the church, at least in Europe.

That left plenty of room for secular music to indulge in the liquescent sounds of the flute. Celtic music, in particular, is well suited to the lilting and somber abilities of the flute. But the flute, ancient as it was, permeated the world. Secular music didn’t get documented as well as church music until music notation was efficient enough to accommodate multiple simultaneous lines of music, around the 15th century or so. (See my blog on The History of Music Notation for more about this.) That’s when things really started taking off for the flute.

The following list of composers is hardly comprehensive, even though it’s long.

Neidhart von Reuental (c1190- after 1236) was one of the most active German Minnesingers, and more melodies survive from Reuental than from any other composer of the period.

Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406) was a French poet, who studied versification with Guillaume Machaut .  Deschamps wrote just shy of 2000 ballades and  mentions flutes in his “Deploration” on the death of Machaut. Geoffrey Chaucer and he were friends, and it’s likely that Chaucer borrowed some of Deschamps’ themes in his own work.

Tielman (or Tylman) Sustato (c1510- after 1570) was a Dutch music publisher—until Sustato, music publishing was done almost exclusively in Italy, France, and Germany. In addition to the polyphonic (vocal) Masses and motets that he wrote, he was a prolific composer of instrumental music.

Cristoforo Malvezzi (1547-1597) composed accompaniments for madrigals and cites the flauto traverso as one of the instruments to be used.

Cristofano Malvezzi (1547-1599) composed madrigals, ricercars, and two sacred works, and a handful of grand choral works. He cites the flauto traverso as one of the instruments. He was an Italian from Florence and was a contemporary of Michelangelo.

Dario Castello (c1590-c1658) was an Italian composer who probably played the cornetto or the bassoon. He might have died during the plague of 1630 because that’s the last time any of his compositions were published. Only 29 of his works survive, including two books of sonatas and a motet.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a Catholic priest with bright red hair. Surprised? His fame was widespread throughout Europe in his lifetime, especially as a composer for the violin, sacred choral works, and more than forty operas. Although his asthma would have prevented him from playing wind instruments, he clearly admired the flute and used it in numerous compositions. His composition “Il Pastor Fido,” containing flute sonatas, was later discovered to be by composer Nicolas Chédeville.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is probably the most famous of all composers. A German harpsichordist, organist, and composer, he wrote themes based on Frederick the Great’s composition that he heard at Potsdam in 1747, and later added a trio movement for flute, violin, and continuo. For chamber ensembles, Bach wrote six sonatas for flute and harpsichord and a partita for unaccompanied flute. It was unusual in his time to have an unaccompanied instrument like that. I will write a biography for this fellow soon.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755) was a French composer of instrumental music, cantatas, opera-ballets, and vocal music. He was one of the first musicians to make a living by publishing his compositions rather than having a patron. A prolific composer, he published more than 100 pieces between 1724 and 1747. One of these was a group of six concertos for five flutes, and it was one of these that moved me so much when I was a pre-teen. He also wrote an instruction method for the flute, which has been lost. In 1742, he published six sonatas for flute and harpsichord.

Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) earned most of his well-deserved fame for operas and choral pieces, but in his later life, turned his attention to instrumental works. He was fond of focusing on a particular instrument, and in addition to the flute, wrote works for the viola d’amore, the lute , trombones, clarinets, cornets, theorbo (see the Lute biography), French horn, bassoon, and the harp.

Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (c1690-1768) was a French flutist, one of the royal musicians at Dresden. He was one of Johann Joachim Quantz’s teachers, and also, the teacher of Johann Jacob Bach, Johann Sebastian’s elder brother. His “Sonata for Flute” is the only one that it’s known for sure that he wrote, but he also is thought to have written a concerto for five flutes in E minor for Quantz.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) also known as King Frederick II of Prussia, regularly performed flute sonatas and concertos in private concerts in his chambers, and composed flute concertos, arias, and other music. (His sister, Anna Amalia, princess of Prussia (1723-1787) played harpsichord and organ, composed vocal and instrumental music, and collected a huge library of music.)

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1787) was a self-taught musician who became a composer largely against his family’s wishes. Telemann famously turned down the positions of Thomaskantor in Leipzig that was filled by third-choice J.S. Bach (after Christoph Graupner). Telemann composed over 3000 pieces, with two concertos for flute. I played one of these as my senior solo with the orchestra in high school. Fond memories.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the fifth child of Johann Sebastian Bach, and only the second of his sons to survive. Like his famous dad, CPE was a prolific composer, straddling the sensibilities between the Baroque and the Classical and Romantic styles that were on the way. Although he was famous in his own lifetime as a clavier player, his compositions were admired by later composers, even by such as Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote over 600 pieces, including numerous quartets, solos, concertos, and sonatas for the flute.

Mauro Giuseppe Sergio Pantaleo Giuliani (1781-1829) was an Italian guitarist and composer who wrote a famous sonata for flute and guitar.

Friedrich Daniel Rudolf Kuhlau (1786-1832) was a German born Danish composer who wrote mostly for piano, and was instrumental in popularizing Beethoven’s music in Denmark. Despite a house fire that destroyed his previous compositions, he still managed to publish more than 200 works. He was nicknamed “the Beethoven of the flute” because of his numerous works for the instrument.

Anton Bernhard Fürstenau (1792-1852) was the most prominent of the 19th century Fürstenau family of flute players. He studied with his father Caspar (1772-1819) and was the father of Moritz (1824-1889), also a renowned flute player, and was principal flutist of the Dresden orchestra under the direction of Carl Maria von Weber in 1820. He was most famous for his Fantasia for Flute and Harp.

Saverio Mercadante (c1795-1870) was born in Naples and studied flute, violin, and composition at the conservatory there. Opera composer Giochino Rossini admired his work, including six flute concertos, around 1818. He mostly wrote operas, nearly entirely forgotten these days.

Claude-Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) was a French flutist, conductor, and instructor, and founder of the French Flute School that dominated flute composition for much of the 20th century. The son of a flutist, he spent his early life focusing on flute playing and performance, winning prizes and degrees. He called later music “twittering,” and when he was in charge, had students focus on the music of J.S. Bach and other composers of the 18th century. Some of his compositions for flute are still considered essential to the canon of flute repertoire. Gabriel Fauré dedicated his famous Fantasie to Taffanel.

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918), along with Maurice Ravel, was one of the most prominent—and dominating—composers of the French Impressionist movement. Starting his piano studies at age 7, his talents were immediately obvious, and he began his 11-year education at the Paris Conservatory at age 10. Later, he was criticized for “courting the unusual,” but he found a circle of friends and supporters that included Erik Satie and a number of famous or notorious women with whom he entertained a long and unseemly string of love affairs.

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1825-1924) was one of the most influential French composers of the 19th century. He studied under Camille Saint-Saëns, and his early commitment to earning a living as an organist and teacher kept him from focusing on composition until the summer months of holiday. By late middle age, he’d amassed enough of a reputation as a composer to be able to turn his attention to it full time. He wrote for many solo instruments, including the violin, piano, and organ, including his most famous work, the Requiem. In his later years, he was nearly deaf and found high notes painful and distorted out of tune; he was unable to hear his final composition, a string quartet.

Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade (1857-1944) was a precocious child, and performed some of her own piano compositions at age eight for Georges Bizet, who was impressed. Her flute concerto in D major is one of the few of her compositions that has remained popular beyond her own lifetime.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a French composer who wrote solo piano, chamber, choral, oratorio, opera, ballet, and orchestral music. He was taught to play the piano by his mother (who was an amateur) and most of his early compositions were for the piano. In his later years, he composed mostly for woodwinds, and at least one of them has become a standard for the flute repertoire.

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was a self-taught Japanese composer and writer on music theory and aesthetics. He composed several hundred works, wrote the soundtrack for more than 90 films, and published 20 books. He had an interest in the early development of electronic music (recorded sounds that contribute to an otherwise musical effort), and followed the works of Stravinsky and John Cage with eager interest. From the early 1960s, he focused on using traditional Japanese instruments (the shakuhachi, for instance) in his compositions.

Famous Flute Players

This list could be seriously long, so I’ll hold it to the big hitters.

Anthony of Domstätt or Dornstätt (no dates) was the head flutist for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian (1459-1519) and was considered the first military flutist.

Jacques Martin Hotteterre “Le Romain” (1674-1763) was a Paris-born son of a wind instrument maker. He played other woodwinds as well, and composed for and taught all of them. In 1719, he wrote the first user’s manual for the flute, and the modern era of flutes and flutists is thought to start with him.

Michel de la Barre (c1680-1745) was a Frenchman known for being the first to publish a solo piece written expressly for the flute. He performed for King Louis XIV and Louis XV of France and wrote dozens of pieces.

Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (1690-1768) was the principal flute player in Dresden, and was Johann Quantz’s teacher in his youth. He was also J.S. Bach’s elder brother’s teacher. It’s possible that Buffardin invented the movable plug that affected tuning in the head piece.

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) wrote the seminal book on both playing the flute and Baroque musicianship. He defied his father’s dying wish that he become a blacksmith and studied music and the flute all over Germany before becoming known as the finest flutist in Europe. He wrote about 300 flute concertos and another 200 flute sonatas.

Michael Blavet (1700-1768) was a self-taught French flutist who was considered a virtuoso on both the flute and the bassoon. Strangely, he held his flute to the left, rather than to the right, like other flutists. A composer and technician in his own right, he was also popular among the aristocrats and other musicians of his time.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) also known as King Frederick II of Prussia, regularly performed flute sonatas and concertos in private concerts in his chambers, and composed flute concertos, arias, and other music. (His sister, Anna Amalia, princess of Prussia (1723-1787) played harpsichord and organ, composed vocal and instrumental music, and collected a huge library of music.)

Philibert Rocheille (d. c1715) was the first Frenchman to distinguish himself on the flute. He was involved in a murder, imprisoned, and then pardoned. Despite that rather intriguing story, that’s all I could find out about him.

Anton Bernhard Fuerstenau (1792-1852) was the most famous German flutist of the Romantic period. Although his son studied with the innovator Theobald Boehm, Anton remained loyal to the nine-hole flute. He wrote 147 pieces for the flute, including duets, trios, a quartet, and pieces to be accompanied by piano.

Jean-Pierre Rampal (1922-2000) was a Frenchman whose personal flair and size made his facility on the flute seem like a paintbrush in the hand of a great master. His father was a renowned flutist and yet wanted Jean-Pierre to become a doctor. His partnership with pianist and harpsichordist Robert Veyron-Lacroix spread Jean-Pierre’s fame to North America and the Far East. Although his career was as a soloist, he remained a dedicated ensemble player, which is how he became so very instrumental in the renewed interest in Baroque music during the 20th century. He is among my personal heroes.

Sir James Gallway (1939-   ) is an Irish flutist who, like Jean-Pierre Rampal, managed to take his career international partially by including popular music—he worked with the Chieftans and Pink Floyd—in his repertoire. He is the first wind-instrument player to be knighted.

Emmanuel Pahud (1970-   ) came from a non-musical family. He was intrigued by the flute at an early age and studied with all kinds of famous teachers at all the best schools in Europe. He specializes in diversity, playing jazz, contemporary, classical, orchestral, and chamber music.

Some Final Words

It is now time to address the flutist versus flautist debate. The word flautist, despite its German sound, is actually an Italian word and came into common usage around the middle of the 19th century. It’s mostly used in Europe. The word flutist was coined in the 16th century, and is mostly used in the US and Canada. So it’s kind of like calling a lorry a truck or pronouncing to-may-to as to-mah-to—it’s a regional choice, and both words mean the same thing.


“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 Ancient Greece and Rome,” by John G. Landels. Routledge, London, 1999.

“Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.

“The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943.

“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, 1943.

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

“On Playing the Flute,” by Johann Joachim Quantz, translated by Edward R. Reilly. Schirmer Books, New York, 1753 and 1985.


Instrument Biography: The Lute

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The lute is the earliest form of long-necked, fretted, round bellied stringed instrument known to man. It’s a member of the chordophone family, along with lyres, harps, and zithers. Although this plucked string instrument with frets and gut strings, a round back, and a pear-shaped body is one of the most ancient instruments, it’s enjoying another resurgence in popularity. You’ll see what I mean by “another” in a minute.
The lute came to Europe from the Far East in the early Middle Ages. It had four or five strings and was used for solo lines in ensembles and was played with a plectrum. By the later 15th century, the lute had six doubled strings (called courses) and a distinctive way of playing with the fingers on the strings, by plucking instead of using a plectrum, had developed.

By the Renaissance, the plectrum had been completely given up and the lute was played only with the fingers, capable of great delicacy of expression, like a modern guitar. The lute was the most highly regarded of all the instruments. In 1487, music historian Tinctoris mentions earlier lutenists, such as Pietrobono.

Lutenists abounded in the 16th century, and the instrument developed a huge repertoire for solos, both designed for the lute and transcribed from vocal pieces.

A Little Lute History

The earliest evidence of lutes is in Mesopotamia, around 2000 BCE. The instrument had only two strings, but if you considered that music was monophonic (melody only, with no harmonies or accompaniment) against the occasional drone, nothing more was needed.

The lute first appeared in Egypt in the 15th century BCE, where it really came into its own. It’s thought to have come to Egypt through Asia. When the subjugated kings of southwestern Asia sent tributes to Egyptian rulers, they included singing and dancing girls and their accompanying instruments. Egypt’s music underwent a significant change and nearly all of their own ancient native instruments were discarded or adapted in favor of these new ones. The standing harp became larger and gained strings; shrill oboes replaced the softer flutes; and lyres gave way to lutes. Even the delicious drums that seem so indigenous to Egypt’s music came from Asia at around this time. Egypt’s music became noisier and more stimulating as a result.

There’s a mural from the 15th century BCE showing a lute with nine frets. The tomb of Tutankhamen (who ruled c1332-c1323 BCE) contains images of instruments, including the lute, being played by slave girls.

The lute soon began to appear all over. The Egyptians borrowed music and lute technology from Mesopotamia and Syria; the Jews borrowed from the Phoenicians; the Greeks from Crete, Asia Minor, and Phoenicia. The harp, lyre, double oboe, and the hand-beaten drum were all played in Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, along with the lute.

In India, a group of girls sent to entertain men in the 1st century CE would have been accompanied by harps and drums, as well as lutes, lyres, and double oboes. Lyres and oboes didn’t catch on, as their tuning would have been foreign (Greek modes never made it to India), but the lute was accepted. (You can read more about the Greek modes in my blog Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes.)

An Iranian Christian leader called Mani (c215-276 CE) demanded that his adherents make music as part of their worship. The teachings of Manichaeism are found in a collection of liturgical hymns, and for a long time, he was considered the inventor of the modern lute, meaning that after Mani, the number of strings and frets didn’t change (much).

Because music has no place in secular Islamic culture, in the 6th century CE, the prophet Mohammed banned instrumental music as a forbidden pleasure. He specifically mentioned the lute, the harp, and the flute, and also banned the drums as frivolous and morally loose. Surprisingly, he thought drums were okay for social festivities.

Neo-Platonist Ya’qüb ibn Ishäq al-Kindï  (called Alkindus) (c790-c874 CE) mentions the fretted lute and describes sounding intervals of fourths, fifths, octaves, and other intervals simultaneously with the melody (the beginnings of harmony? Or perhaps faux bourdon?). He also described eight rhythmic modes (see my blog Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes for more on this kind of thing).

It’s believed that the lute was introduced to Europe by the Saracens, and there’s an ivory carving dating from 968 CE that provides the oldest piece of evidence of the lute being in Europe.

In the 11th century, jongleurs (a kind of wandering minstrel) in France were expected to play an instrument. These could be a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery, or a small organ. Guiraut de Calanson wrote, in “Conseils aux Jongler” in 1210, that an accomplished jongleur had to play the lute.

In Europe, the lute’s use seems limited to Spain and France until the 13th century. In the 14th century, Juan Ruiz, a Spanish poet known as the archpriest Hita, made a list of all the instruments in Spain, including the lute. By then, the lute was also known in Italy and Germany, and was mentioned by both Dante and Boccaccio, and by Heinrich von Neuenstadt. Even so, it was used sparingly because the mandola (a relative) was preferred. The mandola was also easier to construct and to play.

By the 15th century, the lute pushed the mandola into the background and became one of the most important instruments of the period (resurgence number one). More strings were introduced to the instrument, increasing from five to eleven, with the highest strings reserved for the melody, and the others, arranged in pairs, for the accompaniment.

The lute’s popularity in the 15th and 16th century is probably due to its ability to play chords, which were a new invention. The lute could play a melody and accompany itself at the same time, which meant that a single musician could entertain the crowd.

By the 16th century, the lute was far and away the most influential plucked instrument, much like the piano would be in the 19th and 20th centuries. The lute was an essential part of chamber music, but it was also present in larger ensembles, and was much favored as a solo instrument. It was super popular in the 16th and 17th centuries in France, becoming the central instrument for roving vagabonds, who lived and played outside the law, as had their forebears the Troubadours and Trouvères in the 11th through the 13th century.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the lute had lost much of its high esteem because music was becoming so complex. In order to adapt, the number of strings increased in the bass, but it still couldn’t compete with the deeper archlute or theorbo (relatives of the lute). By 1727, when E.G. Baron wrote his “Treatise on the Lute,” the instrument was nearly completely out of favor. Lute music stylings were taken over by keyboards, like harpsichordists, organists, and pianists.

Nowadays, no one seems to be composing for the lute. When you hear it played, it’s usually a performance of Renaissance music. But thanks to the uptick of interest in historically informed performance since 1979, lutes are not uncommon at early music concerts (resurgence number two).

Lute Structure

The lute was originally similar to the vièle, which has a pear-shaped body, a shallow bowl, and a neck that comes out of the body without demarcation. The main difference is that the vielle’s strings come from a tailpiece and over a bridge (a 90-degree angle), and the lute has a string-holder that is glued directly to the table (the front face) of the lute (a straight line). The lute’s tuning pegs are at right angles to the neck because the peg box is bent toward the player at a 90-degree angle, making the pegs parallel to the table; the vielle’s tuning pegs are perpendicular to the table (like a guitar). The lute is distinctive in its vaulted back and bent-back peg box that holds the tuning pegs.

Early forms of the lute had a soundbox made from a tortoiseshell with a stretched leather table. Strings were gut on a wooden ridge, and placed in a spreading fan pattern. (It must have been pretty!)

In the 13th century, luthiers began to separate the construction of the body and the neck. They also made the back out of staves rather than a single piece of wood, which made the instrument more resonant. It was at this point that the number of strings increased from six to ten and were tuned in pairs, either identically or in octaves.

To improve the grip of the left hand on the stringboard, gut nooses, now known as frets, were tied around the neck, increasing from four to eight frets in due time. The body became larger as the need for louder music grew. Multiple sound holes on the table merged into one single and fairly large hole, usually carved into a decorative rose.

By the Renaissance, lutes were often made of precious materials such as ivory, ebony, or Brazil-wood.

In the 16th century, lutes were lightly constructed, often with six or seven doubled strings (called courses).

The oldest lutes had three to five strings, usually plucked with a little rod or plectrum, or, rarely, with the fingers. As time progressed, strings were added and finger plucking grew more popular than strumming or plucking. Modern (post-Renaissance) lutes have between 15 and 24 strings, some doubled into courses, and some single strings.

By the 10th century, it was common for the strings to be tuned in fourths like a modern guitar.

Origins of the Name:

In Persian, the name of the instrument is al’ūd, which means “the wood.” This evolved into the “oud,” and then became a lute in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. The instrument is still commonly used in Arabic music.

The Greeks used the same Sumerian noun for the long-necked lute as the word for “bow.” Sadly, the source that gave me this tidbit didn’t say what that word was. (Does anyone speak Sumerian?)

Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the English were playing the lute. The guitar reached England in the 13th century, before the introduction of the lute, which is kind of backward to the rest of Europe. It doesn’t appear in English carvings or illustrations until the 15th century, but it’s mentioned in the list of instruments at the Feast of Westminster in 1306.

Obviously, the lute made its way to France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Michael Praetorius, in the 16th and 17th centuries (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) for more on this great musicologist ) describes Recht Chorist or the Alt-Laute as the parent to the contemporary lute. Perhaps in Germany, these were names of earlier instruments, but clearly, it wasn’t invented there.

Descendants of the Lute

The following list is alphabetical rather than chronological.

The angelica was a kind of theorbo with 17 diatonically tuned (do-re-me) strings. It’s also called the Angelique.

The archlute, as the name implies, is a much larger form of lute. It was made as early as the 16th century but only came to importance in the 17th. It had diapason strings, meant to stay open, that ran beside the finger board, and allowed sympathetic-string ringing, like a harp’s unplucked strings. It had 16 or 17 single strings on two peg boxes.

The chitarrone reduced the size of the body but increased the length of the bridge piece that connected the two peg-boxes. The instrument was a monster, being from five to six-feet long.

The colascione was a European long-necked lute with 24 movable frets and three courses of metal strings. Its body was occasionally made partially of parchment. (You may recall that parchment was very thinly tanned animal hides, not a form of paper.)

The long-necked lute was a medieval instrument with strong Moorish associations and might be the same instrument that’s called guiterre moresche. Both are described with a long neck and a small body with a movable bridge, and only three strings.

The mandore and mandola were small lutes with short necks and four doubled strings. These instruments were also called the pandurina, mandurina, Mandüchen, and mandolin. It has the characteristically backward-bending head and five or six pairs of strings, which later became single strings (like in the mandolin).

The pandurina was a small-sized mandora with four or five strings and was played with the fingers or a plectrum. Despite its Italian-sounding name, its use was limited to France.

The theorbo’s had two tuning heads. The main head was only slightly bent and the second peg-box was joined to the first by a short connecting piece.

The theorbo-lute kept the traditional bent-back head of the lute and had an additional peg box beside the main head for additional strings.

Famous Lute Players

You may have heard of the famous English lutenist and composer John Dowland, but there will be others in this list that are more obscure. There’s Francesco de Milano, Michelangelo Galilei (uncle of Galileo), Henry VIII of England, James IV of Scotland, and Pietrobono, mentioned by Tinctoris in his medieval treatise on music.

Current big names in as lutenists are Munir Nurettin Beken, August Denhard, Lutz Kirchhof, Jakob Lindberg, Paul O’Dette, and Marco Pesci.

Famous Composers

There are too many composers for the lute to name even a very small percentage, so I’ll just include the biggest hitters. Guillaume Machaut (see Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377)), Franscesco Landini (biography to come), and John Dowland are probably the most famous, with Jacques Champion de Chambonnieres (after 1601-c1671), Francesco di Milano, Albert de Rippe, and Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo’s father) making the list.

One of the greatest innovators was a fellow called Denis Gaultier (c1597-1672), who ranked as the highest official in a French province after the governor himself. Gaultier invented his own nomenclature for modes, where Dorian appeared as D major and Sousdorien as A major. (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes for more on that sort of thing). Although dance rhythms appear in his works, he named none of them after dances, which was the usual practice of the day.

Happily, people are still making music on lutes, and I hope this little article makes you want to go out and hear a concert or twelve.

You can check out more of my blogs on


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

“Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint)

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

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

“The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943

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

“Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” edited by Russell E. Murray, Jr., Susan Forscher Weiss, and Cynthia J,. Cyrus. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010

Instrument Biography: The Psaltery

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The psaltery is a plucked stringed instrument with open (unfretted) metal strings stretched over a flat soundboard and plucked with  a quill or the fingers. It’s frequently mentioned in the Bible (Old and New Testaments), and seems to have spread north to Europe from the Middle East. Like the harp and the lute, it’s a chordophone.

There are some nice images of psalteries on David Owens’ site. (The bowed psalteries in the steep isosceles triangle shape that you see there are a 20th century invention, and although the sound is somewhat similar, the scales and method of playing have nothing in common with the more ancient, and now rare, psaltery.)

The shape varies, but a hog-nosed-shaped trapezoid with incurved sides is most common. You can see an example of this in my blog The History of Music Notation.  There’s also a triangular-shaped psaltery, sometimes called the rote or rotta, that is essentially the same instrument. I didn’t find any information on reasons for this difference, but it was probably something like national or ethnic preferences.

As far as we can tell, the psaltery’s tuning was diatonic (do-re-me) once those scales were invented, but before that, it must have reflected Jewish modes (see my blog Musical Modes, Part 3A (Non-European: Israel))and the later Greek and Church modes (see my blog Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes)). Imported to Europe during the Crusades, the psaltery was very popular during the Middle Ages as a solo instrument, as part of an ensemble, and as accompaniment to singing—pretty much anytime there was music. By the 15th century, though, the harpsichord and virginals gradually pushed it aside.

In the 16th century, plucked instruments like the psaltery and the lute (see Instrument Biography: The Lute for more on this instrument) were integral to the musical scene, whether at court or domestically in Spain and Italy. They were used for recreation or entertainment, or as a pedagogical or compositional tool. This was a departure from traditional musical activity, as instrumentalists became transcribers for vocal polyphony. Playing a stringed instrument soon became a symbol for cultural and social accomplishment.

The psaltery appears to have been invented in Southwest Asia in the 9th century BCE. Early biblical images show King David (c1040–970 BCE) holding one (also a harp or a lyre—see biographies for these instruments here  and coming soon) so we know that it made its way to the Middle East. It’s entirely possible that the psaltery came west with other instruments, like the lute (see Instrument Biography: The Lute).

The psaltery is often mentioned by Catholic church founders, and it appears in psalms and songs. It first appeared and was called a psaltery in Europe in the 12th century CE. (See more on the name, below.)

Clement of Alexandria (c150-c220 CE) limited instruments for worship to the harp and lyre because he worried about pagan influences. He forbade psalteries, along with trumpets, timbrels (an ancient tambourine), and aulos (a flute, sometimes with two tubes for playing), as they were used by those “expert in war” and he worried that the sound might over-excite the dejected minds of pagans.

Eusebios (c260-c340 CE), who was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and author of “Ecclesiastical History” (the most important church history of ancient times), disapproved of the use of instruments of any kind, including the harp. He said that the body of living souls singing God’s praises made up a living psaltery, implying that any other form of instrument was unnecessary. Basil (c330-379) defended the psaltery as symbol of the body of Christ and claimed that the 10 strings represented the ten commandments.

St. Augustine (354-430 CE) saw the instruments of the psaltery and the timbrel as symbolic. The skin or leather is stretched on one and the gut strings are stretched on the other, both symbolic of crucification, according to him.

We don’t hear much about the psaltery for quite a few years, so presumably, it was maintained by secular musicians, who were often illiterate and left little or no documentation of such things. Odo (see Composer Biography: Odo of Cluny (c878-942)) mentioned that he was fond of the instrument in the 10th century, and documents about jongleurs in France in the 11th century say that they were expected to play an instrument—a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or perhaps a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery, or a small organ.

The 10 strings probably caused the misunderstanding by the Cistercian reform in the early 12th century that the modes should only have 10 notes in them. Psalm 150 says, “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet; praise him with the psaltery and harp,” after all (King James Version, Psalm 150:3). The Cistercians were a more severe order of Benedictines founded and spread by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153, France. For a little about him in context of Hildegard von Bingen, see Composer Biography: Hildegard (1098-1179)).

Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the Irish played the harp and psaltery, and also mentions the rote. It was also common in England.

Guiraut de Calanson mentions a rotta with 17 strings in his 13th century book on French jongleurs. He tells us that the lyre-shaped psaltery was preferred in Germany and England, and the triangular type in Spain. His contemporary, the trouvère Henri d’Andeli, describes the music in his retinue as including bells, rebecs (sort of like a violin, but played on the forearm instead of under the chin), and viols, psalteries, and small flutes, along with singing.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400) mentions the psaltery in “Canterbury Tales.”

In the 14th-16th centuries, instruments were classified for their ability to be loud, called haut (French for “high”) and bas (French for “low”) for their volume, not their pitches. The most common low instruments were harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, transverse flutes, and recorders. Among the high instruments were shawms, cornets, and trumpets. Percussion instruments, including kettle drums, small bells, and cymbals, were common in ensembles of all kinds.

Because of its quiet bas nature, the psaltery didn’t really survive the late middle ages because it didn’t develop tuning engineering and so couldn’t adapt to more complex scales in addition to not being loud enough to contribute to concert-hall music. It was pretty much gone from the music scene by the 16th century.


Usually trapezoidal, psalteries were occasionally triangular or rectangular, like a zither.

The Moors refined it and called it a qanun. Their version was trapezoidal, or hog- nosed (like mine that you saw in The History of Music Notation).

Early psalteries were plucked with a quill or a plectrum, and later versions were plucked or strummed with the fingers.

Strings were gut until the Middle Ages, when steel strings came into vogue in some countries.

The psaltery is played by silencing strings through touching them with the non-plucking hand in order to strum the remaining notes in a chord. Most of the time, the strings are left open.

Origins of the Name:

The English name probably comes from the Ancient Greek psaltērion, which meant to touch sharply, to pluck, pull, or twitch. As I mentioned before, it’s sometimes referred to as a rotta or a rote, and I didn’t find any information on that name.

The Arabic name is qânûn, from which we get the word “canon” in French, “canale” in Latin, “kanon” in German, “caño” in Spanish.

A smaller type was known as a micanon, medium canale (which became medicinale), metzkanon, or medio caño.

The dulcimer is a descendant, if you think of it as combined with the monochord (a single-string instrument used to find a drone and against which other note’s distance could be measured Odo of Cluny, who named the intervals A-B-C was fond of this instrument). The most obvious difference is that the monochord and the dulcimer can change notes along the length of the strings by pressing them, and the psaltery’s strings are played as they’re tuned. There is no way to change keys or sharpen or flatten a note while playing.

Famous Composers

The only mention of anyone composing specifically for the psaltery that I encountered was Guillaume Machaut (see Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377). It’s probable that the convention of not taking credit for writing music prior to the high Middle Ages prevented people from declaring ownership of their works.

For more blogs like this one, see under blogs or look at the Completely Off Topic page.


“Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint)

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

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

“The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943

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

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 6, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Instrument Biography: The Harp

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The harp is one of the oldest stringed instruments on the planet. It’s a close relative of the lyre and the psaltery, and is a plucked stringed instrument in the family of instruments called “chordophones” that includes lutes, lyres, and zithers.

The lyre is a U-shaped piece of wood with a cross bar to which the strings are attached from the base of the U. The harp is made with three pieces of wood that form a triangle, and strings of metal, gut, or twisted hair that go from the sounding board side (near the player) to the neck (at the top) where the tuning pegs are, and with the third side providing structural integrity. (There’s a LOT of tension from those strings.)

The lyre and harp are used similarly—the lyre has strings of a single length, and the harp uses multiple lengths and thicknesses of strings for tuning. The larger scale and tunability of the harp was much in demand by the Middle Ages. When I began my research on the harp, I’d intended to say that the Middle Ages were the harp’s zenith in popularity, but really, the harp started popular and stayed popular until the end of the 20th century.

Early harps had anywhere from six or seven to 25 strings. Metal strings were (and are) plucked with fingernails to give a harsh, brilliant tone, and gut strings make a softer sound and are played with the pads of the fingertips. By the late Middle Ages, there were two types of harp: a massive Irish harp with metal strings and a lighter Gothic harp with gut strings. But I get ahead of myself.

A Harp History

The harp is thought to have originated in Syria, and Francis W. Galpin (musicologist, early 20th centur) calls the harp the most characteristic of Sumerian musical instruments. There’s a restored specimen from around 2700 BCE in the British Museum that is thought to be the Sumerian harp of Ur (where the biblical Abraham came from). It has 11 strings. Other examples, in vestiges or images, have as many as 15 strings.

The oldest Sumerian harps were bow-shaped (like a bow and arrow’s bow) and strung cross-wise. The Assyrian harps were upright and strung vertically, like modern harps. Both lacked the fore-pillar, so they might be considered lyres, if you are particular about these things.

The harp appears in Egypt in the 15th century BCE. Apparently the subjugated kings of southwestern Asia sent tributes to Egyptian rulers that included dancing and singing girls and their various strange instruments. Egypt’s music underwent a significant change when these things were introduced to them and nearly all of their own ancient instruments were discarded. It wasn’t long before the standing harp became larger and gained strings; shrill oboes replaced the softer flutes; and new forms of lyres, the new lute, and small hand drums that came from Asia became the sound of Egyptian music. Marrying well with the Arabic sensibilities, Egyptian music became noisier and more stimulating as a result. (Think belly dance music.)

But the Egyptians weren’t the only ones borrowing. Everyone was learning from other cultures. The Egyptians borrowed musical technology from Mesopotamia and Syria as well as from Asia; the Jews borrowed from the Phoenicians; and the Greeks from Crete, Asia Minor, and Phoenicia. And once someone heard the new sounds, they had to try it too. It wasn’t long before the harp, lyre, double oboe, and hand drums were played in Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy—all around the Mediterranean Sea.

The bowed harp was popular in Egypt from around 1550 to 1080 BCE. With only three or four strings and a pointy bottom for support, these harps reached sizes of up to six feet tall.

Harps appear among Greece’s favorite instruments, but they preferred the lyre type, especially within the cult of Apollo. Archeologists have found a Babylonian vase that shows two harps, one with five strings, thought to ward off suffering, and the other with two, thought to be the more sacred of the two styles.

The second Temple of Jerusalem, built in the late 6th century BCE on the site of the original Temple of Solomon, was a place for public worship until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. In it, Jewish religious observances centered around the sacrifice of a lamb by the priests as assisted by Levites (members of the priestly class, including musicians), and witnessed by laypeople. Choirs of Levites sang the psalms assigned to the day, accompanied by harp and psaltery (see Instrument Biography: Psaltery, coming soon).

As the religion of Islam gained in popularity, harps were pushed out of Arabic music. The prophet Mohamed said that music had no place in secular culture, and he specifically banned instrumental music as a forbidden pleasure. He mentioned the lute, the harp, and the flute, and he also banned the drums as frivolous and morally loose. Sacred music was very specific in Islam and has remained nearly unaltered to our own time.

But Muslims weren’t the only ones to ban musical instruments. Eusebios (c260-c340 CE), who was a Catholic bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and author of “Ecclesiastical History” (the most important Catholic church history of ancient times), also disapproved of the use of ancient instruments of any kind, including the harp. He says that the body of living souls singing God’s praises made up a living psaltery and that more than the voices was an unseemly excess.

Clement of Alexandria (c150-c220 CE) was a little more lenient. He limited instruments for Christian worship to the harp and lyre because he worried about pagan influences with the others. (It must be noted here that it was women who were playing the drums. There is some misogyny involved with this sort of ruling.)

But the harp couldn’t be quieted. By the 8th century, harps appeared in Pictish stone sculptures in Scotland. These were the triangular (not bowed) style. In secular music, the harp spread all over Europe. It was played from the early to the late Middle Ages without much alteration. But that wasn’t true of the music itself, so by the late middle ages, the need for greater range meant greater number of strings.

The harp was much used in the Middle Ages as an expressive solo instrument and as accompaniment to monophonic (meaning no harmonies) singing. Its repertoire was improvised or memorized, partly because there was no notation yet (see the History of Music Notation), and partly because that was the taste of the time.

In France, the jongleurs (a sort of precursor to the troubadours) in the 11th century were expected to play an instrument—usually a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery or small organ.

By the 12th century, troubadours had taken the harp on as a primary instrument, and a little later, the trouvères used it too. Because music notation was in its infancy, we don’t have anything but the lyrics for most of this music, but experts guess that it sounded a lot like the better-documented church music, as it was a habit, then and now, for one to borrow from the other.

In France, 13th century trouvères used various sizes of harps, each diatonically tuned (do-re-me). Chromatic harps (like all the notes on the piano, black and white, played in succession from one end to the other, one at a time) didn’t come into use until the end of the 16th century.

In the 14thto the 16th centuries, instruments were chosen for their ability to be loud. This distinction was called haut (French for “high”) and bas (French for “low”) for their volume, not their pitches. The most common low instruments were harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, transverse flutes, and recorders. Among the high instruments were shawms, cornets, and trumpets. Percussion instruments, including kettle drums, small bells, and cymbals, were common in ensembles of all kinds.

During the Renaissance, the harp was pushed aside by the fully chromatic lute, but a chromatic harp, with two rows of strings, was developed in the 16th century and revived it a bit. By 1600, the triple harp had been invented, with three rows of strings and 4 1/2 octaves. It became a useful continuo (a specific kind of accompaniment) instrument in the early Baroque.

By the Baroque, harps were taller, wider, and typically chromatic, having a separate string for each of the 12 notes in a chromatic scale. Even more successful than the chromatic harp was the Hakenharfe, or hooked harp, invented in the Tyrol in the late 17th century. The Hakenharfe was tuned diatonically (do-re-me) and had hooks on the neck (the top portion). The player pressed the string against the hook, causing the note to sharpen (be slightly higher in pitch, like the difference between a white note on the piano and its neighboring black note). This was the forerunner of today’s sharping levers. (There’s more about sharping levers in the structure section.) There’s a similar instrument to the Hakenharfe still in use for folk music in the Czech Republic.

The pedal harp was invented in Germany around 1720. All of the most commonly sharpable strings were attached to a single mechanism that could be actuated by the player’s feet. The older system of levers and hooks necessitated taking one hand away from playing the strings to press a string against the hook, so using the feet allowed more intricate tunes with both hands available throughout. There were seven pedals, all of which could be fixed in a depressed position, facilitating a modern key signature. (Older music had a somewhat more fluid attitude about sharps and flats. Modern key signatures insist that every time you play a certain note in any octave, it will always be treated the same way.)

It is the Baroque sensibility that most influenced the look of modern harps, with their classical-looking columns for the pillar. It was then that harps began to appear with the filigree and other excesses of the German Baroque.

The 17th and 18th centuries brought other changes to the harp, like a pointed harp in England, an arpetto in Italy, and a Spitzharfe in Germany. The latter is shaped like a wing and has a soundbox between two ranks of strings—the high notes on one side of the soundbox and the low notes on the other. These were played by resting the instrument on a table or a lap, plucking the melody on the high side and the accompaniment on the other.

The Classical harp was louder and capable of more virtuosic playing than the Baroque, and this is when the finesse of the new pedal harp really came into its own.

Harps continue to be popular in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Asia. New schools of playing include French, Russian, Viennese, Attl, St. Petersburg, and others. Most of these have to do with differences in how the arms are held and how the thumb moves.

Harp Structure

By definition, the harp has all its strings on a single plane, perpendicular to the sounding board. (A lyre has them all on the same plane.)

The European harp includes the three parts of an equilateral triangle. One side of the triangle is the sounding board, held against the body, with the strings attached. The top side of the triangle (the pointy end of the triangle is as the bottom—a harp needs a stand or some sort of foot to stay upright) is called the neck, and is where the strings attach at the other end. Tuning pegs are lined up on the neck, and sometimes, it’s curved downward or angled. (Mine has a pretty swoop to it.) The third side of the triangle is called the pillar. It provides strength and contributes to the resonance. Sometimes, the pillars have a slight outward curve, which makes it easier to reach the lower strings without interference.

The double-action pedal harp (invented by Sebastien Erard in the late 18th century) has two pegged disks on the neck below the tuning pegs that put a kink in the strings. If the pedal is depressed halfway, the string is sharped by a half-step (from a white key to its neighboring black key on the piano) and if the pedal is fully depressed, the string is sharped by a whole step (from one white to the next when there is an intervening black key on the piano). All strings that sound that particular note through all of the octaves are affected the same way. The pedals can be fixed to put the instrument into a particular key or they can be temporarily fixed by treading on the pedal. This invention made the harp suitable for symphonic and opera orchestras. (Erard also received patents for improvements to the piano, which was his primary interest.)

The ability to play arpeggios (small step-wise leaps across several notes upward or downward) and chords (multiple notes played all at once) were not the only reasons that musicians found the harp appealing. The overtones and harmonics created by the vibrations to neighboring strings add a certain inviting charm. Because the body of the sounding board is hollow, when the string is plucked, both the string and the sounding board resonate. As the sounding board responds, nearby strings are affected and produce a slight hum, creating harmonics and overtones that are so appealing. It’s considered to sound particularly nice with wind instruments such as flutes, trumpets, and so forth.

A fellow called G.C. Pfranger invented a chromatic harp in the 19th century which was improved by Jean Henri Pape in 1843. Pape made the strings correspond to the white and black keys of a piano by having the “white” notes on one plane and the “black” notes on another, at slight angles. The two sets cross each other about half-way down. (This is the scheme for what are called double-strung harps.) Further improvements came in the United States by a fellow called Gustave Lyon.

Modern harps are strung with wire, nylon, gut, or silk. On a small harp, the core material is the same for all lengths and thicknesses. On larger harps, string materials are mixed to attain a greater range of notes. European-style harps have C strings tinted red and F strings tinted blue or black, which is a great aid in locating specific notes in a sea of strings. Wire strings are either silver or bronze for the same reason.

Tuning pins are usually metal. The bottom end of the string is threaded through a hole in the sounding board and tied in a knot. The upper ends of the strings are threaded through a tuning pin. Like other stringed instruments, a tuning pin winds the string as it’s turned and can be adjusted to make the notes higher or lower, as needed.

Lever harps have a small lever joint near the tuning pins that sharps individual strings when it’s flipped. The harpist must take one hand off the strings to make adjustments during performances for accidentals (sharps outside those specified in the key signature) and key changes.

Some harps (like mine) have neither pedals nor sharping levers and must be played in a single key signature throughout the performance.

In Medieval and Renaissance harps, some strings had a braying pin attached to the tuning pin, which buzzed when the string was plucked. This fashion was no longer the style by the Baroque period and is seldom seen today, even in period music ensembles.

The instrument rests between the knees or on the lap of the harpist, and against their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp and early Scottish or Irish harps are played against the left shoulder. Only the first four fingers of each hand are used. The pinky finger is considered too short, and using it distorts the shape of the hand, according to most schools of harp instruction.

Dynamics (loudness and softness) are controlled by how hard the strings are plucked. A fuller sound can be produced by plucking near the center of the string, and a more twangy, guitar-like sound by plucking near the bottom of the string. Tone is also affected by the skin on the harpist’s hands, by whether it’s oily or dry, and by the thickness of callouses.

Concert pedal harps have 47 strings (6 ½ octaves). They weigh about 80 pounds and are about 6 feet tall. The rods that effect the sharping in a pedal harp are hidden in the pillar.

The Name

The ancient instrument was also called the pectis or magadis. The latter had 20 strings, making it possible to play in octaves. The Egyptians used the Sumerian word for “bow” to name the harp although it is often called the cithara, especially in medieval documents.

The English word harp comes to us from the Old English hearpe. The German word is harfe and the Dutch word is harp.

Nations of Harps

Ireland, especially the Celts, really took to the harp. There are images dating from as early as the 9th century, including some on an elegant a reliquary and on a Carolingian manuscript. The harps in both images are based on Syrian models that are bow-shaped and have fewer than a dozen strings. Celtic harps were part of the bard tradition, which involved singing epic tales at banquets and other occasions. Fiddles were also popular among the Celts, and remain so today.

The English poem “Beowulf” has the word hearpe in it, dating from the 8th century, although they might have meant nearly any plucked instrument (like a psaltery or a lyre). But the harp was definitely in England by the 10th century. Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the Welsh and the Scottish played the harp and psaltery, and also mentions the rote (like a psaltery and sometimes called the rotta—see Instrument Biography: Psaltery, coming soon). Chaucer’s friar enjoyed singing with a harp in “Canterbury Tales” in the 14th century, and his pardoner character speaks of harps as the instruments of the devil. (Pardoners were those clerics who accepted money and other tokens in exchange for forgiveness for crimes and sins, or for relics, most of which had questionable provenance.)

German manuscripts of the 12th and 13th century include the expression cithara angelico, meaning harp of the angels. In the 14th century, Dante refers to the harps in Ireland, and Michael Praetorius (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius, coming soon) in Germany mentions the Irish harp in the 17th century

In France, harps are depicted with vièles, mostly as used by troubadours. The trouvères also used them, especially as music changed from being performed by aristocrats to being performed by the bourgeois. (Troubadours, trouvères, minnesingers, and minstrels are all forms of traveling musicians that were in vogue in the Middle Ages.)


There are several less-than-traditional forms of harps. The Aeolian harp is a box with a bunch of varied-width strings all tuned to the same note. Each string, because of the differences in girth, has a different timbre. The box is placed so that the wind makes the strings sound, and the overtones become the sort of essential fairy-like sounds that we associate with the Romantic period. The Aeolian harp is probably as old as biblical times, as King David’s harp (from the Old Testament) was heard to be played by the midnight wind. St. Dunstan (d.988) was thought to have magic powers because he placed such a harp in a draft and it played all by itself. Father Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) built a modern-style Aeolian harp, and Alexander Pope introduced an Aeolian harp to England in the early 1700s. You can still buy Aeolian harps in specialty music stores today.

Latin Americans liked the Baroque harps brought from Spain and they were widely adopted in Mexico, the Andes, Venezuela, and Paraguay.

African harps tend to be without a pillar and are often bowed. Chinese harps are somewhat rare today, and mostly take the form of zithers. The Kafir harp in Afghanistan may predate European harps and is still played today.

Famous Harp Players

Aristocratic women were often trained to play the harp as an “accomplishment” in Europe from Baroque times until the Victorian era, but it was also considered an instrument for professionals. The most famous include Nicholas Bochsa (harpist to Napoleon I), Elias Parish-Alvars, and Albert Zabel. Although part of a rather comical family, Harpo Marx was a fine harpist in the 20th century.

Current experts include Andrew Lawrence-King, Cheryl Ann Fulton, Sylvia Woods, Andreas Vollenweider, and more.

Jazz harpists include Casper Reardon, Dorothy Ashby, and Alice Coltrane. These names should also appear among the composers below.

Famous Harp Composers

There are relatively few composers who devote themselves to the harp, but Turlough O’Carolan (see Composer Biography: Turlough O’Carolan). Those with less of a focus, but who also admired the harp include Georges Cousineau, who, by 1782, transformed the instrument from a simple pedal harp to a double pedal harp. Piano-maker Sebastian Erard (mentioned above) solved the pedal problem by the 1810s, making a harp with 6 ½ octaves.

Handel, J. C. Bach, Mozart, Albrechtsberger, Schenck, Dussek, and Spohr were Baroque composers who used the harp. Then came Wagner, Louis Spode, Mozart, Delibes, Gounod, and Massenet in later periods. You can’t ignore the others either, such as Berlioz, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Puccini, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss.

Occasionally you’ll find a harp used in popular music, such as The Beatles 1967 album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Cher’s “Dark Lady, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” and Heatwave’s “Boogie nights.” Most often, Gayle Levant, a Los Angeles studio harpist played on these recordings.

Go ahead. Look on your shelves. You probably already own something with a harp on the CD. And if you go to Ireland, you’ll see it everywhere—on the money, on labels, in statues.


  • “Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint).
  • “Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978.
  • “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
  • “A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010
  • “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943
  • “A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabether Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

Written by Melanie Spiller

January 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm