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Instrument Biography: The Free-Reed Organ (Harmonium)

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In the interest of space, the reed organs known as the harmonica and the accordion have been broken out of this biography. For more on organs in general, check out my blog post on Pipe Organs.

Reed organs were the main type of organ in households and smaller churches before there were electronic organs. Their volume and tonal range was quite limited and had only one or two manual keyboards and, rarely, a pedal keyboard. The bellows were operated by the feet, which would make a pedal keyboard quite a feat (har har) of coordination.

There are three types of reed organs covered in this article: pump organs (like a small pipe organ with sewing-machine-style foot pedals), melodeons (like a virginal or a table-top keyboard with the bellows hidden in a small chest-like box on the table), and harmoniums (a portable box containing a bellows with the keyboard attached to the front that the player sits on the floor to play).

Several million pump organs were made between the 1850s and the 1920s. Often ornately carved, they were a sign of affluence in private homes. The melodeon predates the pump organ, and the harmonium, like the accordion, is limited to folk or ethnic music.

Squeezeboxes, such as the accordion, concertina, bandoneon, are also free reed instruments, but they that are played by squeezing the bellows as part of the gesture of making notes sound. Unlike other instruments where the bellows are separated mechanically from the keyboard, the keyboards and chord buttons are attached to the bellows itself and the movement of the arms to pump the bellows must be coordinated with the playing of the hands across the keys. You’ll find out more about them in my Instrument Biography: The Accordion.

The harmonica is also a reed organ, and in this instrument, human lungs are used as the bellows, and the reeds work in two directions (sucking and blowing). You can read all about them in Instrument Biography: The Harmonica.

Reed Organ History

It’s thought that the Chinese free-reed instruments traveled through Russia, and then came to the rest of Europe in the late 18th century. Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang. All of these are probably the ancestors of the western reed organ. The panpipes and the bagpipes are other ancestors. It’s a big family.

In the early 19th century, European instrument makers played with the idea of freeing the reeds from the pipes, and created a mouth organ (a flat box with grooves for the reeds—now a harmonica), an accordion (using the whole instrument as a bellows with reeds in the two headboards). These styles played both by blowing and sucking.

Pump Organ

Styled after the regal organ (biography to come) with free reeds, the pump organ was created to be more expressive during the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the Romantic, when dynamics (loudness) became essential to the success of musical instruments. Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), a professor of physiology at Copenhagen, is thought to have invented the first such instrument in Europe. It was further perfected by Parisian G.J. Grenie (sorry, I couldn’t find dates for him) in 1810, and both called It an orgue expressif.

Despite impressive dimensions, early pump organs weren’t particularly nice, musically. The pipes were out of tune and too loud, there wasn’t a proper keyboard, and the player had to pull and push sliders one at a time in order to make a sound. A melody could be played only very slowly, and more than two parts was impossibly complex. So instrument makers kept working on their design.

Alexandre Debain (1809-1877) improved on the instrument and called it a harmonium when he patented it in 1840. (Resources waffle between calling a piano-like pump organ a harmonium and calling a simple accordion-like box with a keyboard a harmonium. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I will call only the accordion-like instrument a harmonium.) Debain’s model was good enough to be considered a suitable substitute for an orchestra in domestic music and light music arrangements until the first half of the 20th century. It was also popular for church music and silent movies.

After emigrating to the US, a mechanic who’d worked in Debain’s factory created a suction bellows to replace one that forced air outward through the reeds. By 1860, suction bellows organs had become the main mode of construction in the US. This instrument is quieter and has a more pipe organ-like tone than the other kinds of reed organs.

Theodore-Achille Muller made a model that could be folded up into a box. The original instrument was patented in 1842 and had a three-octave keyboard, one set of reeds (later versions have four sets) of varying thicknesses and lengths, and a single blowing pedal-driven bellows. More advanced models had five-octave keyboards, stops and couplers for fancy things like octaves and vibrato. Each key on the keyboard controlled a valve that regulated the amount of wind produced by the compression bellows. Another advance was a shifting keyboard, which permitted transposition at any interval, while playing the music as notated. I’d like one of those!

In 1854, Victor Mustel (1850-1890) added a divided expression stop that was worked by knee levers. As you’ll learn in the Structure section, this stop allows louder and softer sounds to come from the instrument when the stop is pulled.

In the late 19th century, the reed organ was popular in Europe and the US for classical music, regarded as a serious instrument for serious composers (see below for a list). It was often used to accompany voices. In the US, the repertoire tended to target amateur musicians, often used in folk music of the Appalachians, for instance.

By their heyday, pump organs came in many different styles, from compact single-keyboard instruments with a single set of reeds and one or two foot treadles to pump the bellows, to two-keyboard instruments with several sets of reeds of differing colors and pitches, powered by a separate blowing lever or electric motor, like those on a pipe organ. The most common type of pump organ has two-to-five sets of reeds, one keyboard, and accessories (couplers) to achieve octaves and tremulant (vibrato). These instruments competed with the piano for parlor space in the 19th century, and were common in small churches.

Pump organs were at their most popular in small churches and chapels where a pipe organ was inappropriate due to size or expense. Pump organs weigh less than pianos of a similar size and are physically hardier. This made them popular in oversees outposts because they shipped and transported easily across unpredictable terrain. Reeds hold their pitch even in humid or hot weather, unlike stringed instruments, such as pianos. They became so popular as colonial instruments, in fact, that manufacturers began to impregnate the wood casings with a chemicals that helped prevent woodworm damage.

At its peak of popularity, variety in structure and ornamentation was extensive. There were plain cases with only four stops (or none) and ornate cases with a dozen stops and other mechanisms, such as couplers. The expensive ones were built to resemble pipe organs, with ranks of fake pipes attached to the top. A few were built with two manual keyboards, and some were built with pedal keyboards, which meant that an assistant had to pump the bellows until later versions ran on electricity.

Large versions were meant for home use, which allowed pipe organists to practice on an instrument roughly the same size as the organ they performed on. Missionaries, chaplains in the armed forces, and evangelists found the smaller ones more convenient because they folded to the size of a large suitcase. Some of these had a short keyboard and only a few stops, by they were sufficient for accompanying small congregations.

Pump organs became quite complex and it was common for manufacturers to develop their own versions and patent them, especially the bellows mechanisms. As the number of manufacturers grew, so did the complexity of the instrument, with levers, cranks, rods, and shafts. This made them more vulnerable to failure and also contributed to the popularity of the electric organ.

The invention of the electric organ in the 1930s provided the funeral dirge for the pump organ. The Hammond organ could imitate the tonal quality and range of a pipe organ with the same small dimensions. Maintenance was less and there were more stops and other features possible.

The last mass-producer of pump organs was Estey, in the US (Vermont), who stopped manufacturing pump organs in the 1950s. Instruments and replacement parts became increasingly hard to come by, and many were updated with electric blowers. Electronic instruments completely took over the domestic market and modern instruments have an electric wind supply, leaving the feet free to play pedal keyboards.

Despite such general ignominy in the west, pump organs have remained popular in South Asia.


The melodeon is a reed instrument with an air reservoir and a foot-operated bellows, popular in the US in the mid-19th century. It looks like a very skinny upright piano or an impractical writing desk. Its whistle-like reeds are often hidden behind an attractively carved cover, and it comes with a keyboard and one or two sets of interchangeable reeds. Like the pump organ, wind is moved past the reeds by way of treadles through a bellows and several coupling contraptions.

The reeds are tuned as they are in the pump organ, with a flap of metal or wood, shaved to produce a specific note, and vibrated by means of the air passing by. The difference between a pump organ and a melodeon is one of portability and ornamentation.

There’s another instrument called the melodeon that’s like an accordion, but without a keyboard. It’s played with push buttons determining the notes. The right hand plays the high notes and the left hand plays the low notes, and both operate the bellows by pushing and pulling, just like an accordion. This instrument is also occasionally called the lap organ.

Writing this piece, where harmoniums are pump organs and melodeons are pump organs and both are accordions, I am reminded of royalty in England, where everyone seems to be a Henry or an Edward, or maybe, for a little variety, an Alfred, Mary, or Jane. If you invent something or found a dynasty, please do your biographers a favor and give your progeny a unique name, okay?


The harmonium came to India in the mid-19th century via missionaries from Europe and England and it quickly became popular. (India is the one place where it has stayed popular, too.) It became a staple of North Indian classical music concerts and is commonly found in Indian homes. Although originally derived from a French version, Indian musicians developed it further, including drone stops and a scale-changing mechanism, to better serve the Indian sensibilities.

In Calcutta (also called Kolkata, the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal) the harmony flute was developed into a hand-held harmonium, which has become an integral part of Indian music to this day. Internationally renowned India poet Dwijendranath Tagore (1840-1926) is said to have used one in 1860 in his private theater, but it’s possible that this was a pedal-pumped version, or some form of reed organ. Regardless, the harmonium’s popularity rose as a result, and the hand-held version evolved.

The American harmonium was invented in Paris (how ironic) in 1835 and was further developed by Estey of Vermont (in the US) and by Mason and Hamlin of Massachusetts (US again) in 1861.

The harmonium was widely used in Parsi and Marathi stage music in India in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, nationalist movements pushed the harmonium out. It couldn’t produce slides between notes (called meend) and it couldn’t be tuned during performance, both of which made it seem less useful than indigenous instruments. It was banned from All India Radio between 1940 and 1971 and the ban still stands for harmonium solos.

Despite these limitations, the harmonium is used in Indian classical music of the early 20th century—it is easy to learn, it supports group singing and large voice classes, ragas (chants) can be learned on it, and it’s loud enough to provide a drone in a concert hall. Nowadays, it’s the instrument of choice for accompanying North Indian classical vocalists.

Since the 1920s, small harmoniums have been made in India and Pakistan. They’re widely used to accompany devotional music in India and wherever else Indians have settled, and sadly, have contributed to the diminishing popularity of indigenous Indian instruments.

All Indian instruments are played while sitting on the floor or stage, so the harmonium was placed on the floor or held on the lap. It was usual for Indian homes not to have tables or chairs, so the switch to a home version was quite natural. The player could use his feet to pump the bellows, leaving both hands free to play the keyboard for chordal music (from the West). But Indian music isn’t chordal, so only one hand was necessary to play the keyboard and the other could be used to pump the bellows most of the time.

Hindus and Sikhs often use a harmonium to accompany devotional songs (bhajan or kirtan), and most Hindu or Sikh temples have at least one harmonium, world-wide. The harmonium is often accompanied by the tabla (two small hand drums, side-by-side, much like a detached bongo) and a dholak (a two-headed barrel-shaped hand drum).

Because the harmonium can’t be tuned and is certainly not flexible in tuning while being played, it’s controversial in Qawwali music (Sufi worship music), although it’s often the only instrument providing the music.

Harmoniums were particularly popular during a folk music renaissance in the late 1970s in the European north, particularly in Finland. Folk bands often consisted of a violin, double bass, and harmonium.

There is a 22-microtone harmonium developed by Vidyadhar Oke (dates unknown, but he’s still alive) that can play all the notes required in Indian classical music rather than the more limited 12 tones of the western scale. The fundamental tone and the fifth are fixed, but the other 10 notes of the western scale have two microtones each, one above and one below the pitch. The microtone is produced by pulling out a knob beneath the key.

Another fellow called Bhishmadev Vedi (sorry, again I couldn’t find dates, but I did find a contemporary mention in 1915) changed the instrument by augmenting it with a harp-like string box attached to the top. His disciple, Monohar Chimote (1929-   ), called the instrument a samvadini.

A near relative of the harmonium is a shruti (or sruti) box. This is a simple form of harmonium, where only a single note is meant to be played at a time. A stop allows airflow past the chosen reed, and the bellows are worked with one hand. The shruti box looks something like an office file with accordion pleats, and sounds like a reedy bagpipe drone. It’s used to accompany singing or flute playing, but is too quiet to participate in orchestral compositions. I have one, and I adore it for singing chant against, or teaching a voice student about tuning. It has 12 notes, but the scale is pentatonic (five notes to the scale rather than eight), so some notes are repeated in the octave.

Reed Organ Structure

“Reed organ” is the generic term for a keyboard instrument whose sound is produced by freely vibrating reed tongues, usually without individual resonators, and activated by air pressure or suction.

First, a definition. A reed is considered “free” if it is allowed to vibrate without restraint. So an oboe or a shawm is technically a free reed instrument. One end is attached, and the other vibrates, as a function of air pressure, within the player’s mouth. An instrument like a recorder or a pipe organ is not a free reed. The air passing through the tube of the instrument bounces of the walls and is squeezed through a specific stiff opening in order to produce the note. You could think of it as the difference between blowing across a blade of grass (free reed) and blowing across an open bottle (fixed reed).

Reeds can be made of wood, metal, paper, or cloth. Anything that retains its shape and can be affixed snuggly at one end will do, really. In the case of pump organs and harmoniums, they’re usually metal or wood.

The reed is screwed down tightly at one end and is shaped to fit closely into an aperture in a rigid piece of metal, which lies between a lower wind-chest and an upper wind-chest. Air fills the lower wind-chest and spreads around the reed into the upper wind-chest. The upper wind-chest’s opening is covered by a felted block of wood. When the appropriate key is depressed, the block is raised and the air that surrounds the reed escapes from the upper chest.

When the block is raised, the pressure surrounding the reed changes. There is greater pressure below the reed than above (because of the open block), and the reed is forced upward, with the air rushing past it from the lower chest. Before the pressure in the two chests can equalize, the reed returns to its original position so that the flow of air is stopped. Now the pressure in the lower chest increases until it forces the reed to move out of the way again. This happens very quickly, in the form of a vibration.

The free reed of the pump organ is riveted into a metal frame. The range of vibrations from the reed is affected by damping (being mechanically touched), allowing the sound produced from the various reeds to be somewhat homogenous. Air must be pumped at a minimum speed to get any sound, and pumping too hard silences the reeds. Between the two extremes, it’s possible to get degrees of loudness. For this, there’s a stop, often operated by the player’s knee, that can increase or decrease the volume by changing the speed of the airflow.

The free reed mechanism is identical for both western and Indian harmoniums as well as the reed organ.

A reed organ is similar to an accordion or a concertina in that the reeds vibrate with either suction (a vacuum) or pressure. An accordion accomplishes this through the player’s hands, pulling and pushing on the bellows. A reed organ is usually on the floor (rather than held in the arms), and the bellows might be hidden by a wooden casing.

The bellows are operated by means of a treadle, like an old-fashioned sewing machine. (Maybe that’s where they got the idea for the sewing machine?) Harmoniums are hand pumped. In fancy pump organs, an assistant might be required to maintain the flow of air.

Debain (remember him from the History section?) developed a reservoir so that the action on the treadle was reflected through the feeder bellows directly onto the wind channels, creating crescendo and diminuendo (gradual loudness and softness). At about the same time (the 1840s), L.P.A. Marin de Provine (sorry, I couldn’t find dates) invented the prolongement to sustain notes after the key was released, and percussion, in which small piano hammers struck the reeds as if they were strings, giving a quicker and more precise response than wind.

Pitch depends on air pressure. In bass notes, the fundamental frequency (in hertz) decreases with medium pressure and increases by several hertz at high pressure (the note raises or lowers with more or less wind). High pressure can bend the reed beyond its frame, which limits its use.

The overtones of the reeds are harmonic rather than inharmonic (they’re limited to certain specific notes from the overtone scale), which matters if you’re looking for a rich and full sound. Overtones contribute hugely to whether an instrument sounds in tune, especially when played loudly.

Air pressure affects both pitch and volume. How fast or slow the bellows move determines how loud the notes are. In order to control the difference between pitch and volume, pressure bellows were invented to stabilize the amount of air available to the reeds. Instruments with pressure bellows are harder to build and are often more expensive, so North American and British reed organs and melodeons often use suction bellows and operate by creating (using) a vacuum.

The American reed organ is a foot bellows or electric reed keyboard similar to the harmonium but works on negative pressure (it sucks air through the reeds rather than pushing it through).

German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) wrote “On the Sensations of Tone” in 1875, which used a harmonium to test a variety of tuning systems. He said that the instrument sustained tones evenly with a piercing character, and that it combined tones in a unique and distinctive way. He considered the vibrators (reeds) to be tunable to a particularly fine degree.

Using two manual keyboards and two stop sets tuned differently, Helmholtz was able to compare Pythagorean tuning (a complex system where all intervals are based on a ratio—it has to do with dividing string lengths, and is WAY too complicated to go into here) to Just tuning (another ratio-based interval system) and Equal tuning (this system is based on equal distances between notes) and observe the “out-of-tune” degrees inherent in each temperament. Helmholtz subdivided the octave into 28 tones so that he could modulate among 12 minor and 17 major keys in Just intonation without creating unpleasant dissonances. Quite difficult to play, this was not a popular arrangement.

Other modified instruments were used for experimental and educational purposes, most notably the generalized keyboard designed by Englishman Robert Holford Macdowell Bosanquet (1841-1912). He built it in 1873 for use with a 53-tone scale (a “normal” chromatic scale has 12 notes). This harmonium had 84 keys, to make fingering convenient.

Lord John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919), an English physicist famous for explaining why the sky is blue, used the harmonium to measure sound frequencies because of its clear overtone patterns that could be counted easily. He approximated Equal temperament intervals and examined their overtone beats. He had to concede, though, that the air pressure had to maintained exactly, or the tone fluctuated.

Orchestral instruments are tuned to 440 Hz, harmoniums are frequently tuned to 438 Hz, accordions are tuned to 442 Hz, and Baroque groups tune to 415 Hz. This is why you don’t see a lot of harmoniums (or accordions) playing with orchestras.

The Name

Common names for reed organs are harmonium, melodeon, lap organ, pump organs, vocalion, seraphine, orgue expressif, cabinet organ, or American organ (used in Europe to distinguish a suction instrument from a pressure instrument). Also aeolina, aeolodicon, euphonion, melodiflute, melophone, organochordium, and physharmonika.

Other reed organs include accordions, concertinas, and harmonicas.

The poikilorgue was Cavaille-Coll’s version of the pump organ, with a range of an octave and a half.

To make things more confusing, in North America and the UK, a reed organ with a pressure bellows is called a harmonium and a suction reed organ is called a melodeon. In Europe, any reed organ is called a harmonium, even if it has a suction bellows.

Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang.

In India, the melodeon is what westerners would refer to as a concertina (see the article on accordions for more on these), and a harmonium is the portable chest variety of reed organ described above. Indian Sikhs call the harmonium a vaja or a baja. Some also call it a peti (which means “box”).

The name “harmonium” has been used in England and Europe to refer to reed organs in general. Larger instruments in Germany were sometimes called Kunstharmonium (art harmonium).

Reed Organ Composers

Repertoire for reed organs includes many pieces written for church organ despite their small range and minimal stops. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Fantasia in C major (BWV 570) can be played on a four-octave reed organ. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote Petite Messe Solennelle for piano and harmonium.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote Symphony No. 7 for chamber orchestra, and it was prepared for performance by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his Viennese friends on two violins, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, horn, piano (four hands) and harmonium. They never did perform it, and it wasn’t performed publically for another 60 years.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, and Movement II: Purgatorio has a reed organ in it. Cesar Franck (1822-1890) wrote a collection called L’Organiste for harmonium, some with piano accompaniment. Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote Five Bagatelles for two violins, cello, and harmonium (Op. 47). Alban Berg (1885-1935) wrote Altenberg Lieder. Frederic Clay (1838-1889) wrote Ages Ago, with libretto by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.

Claude Debussy (1862-1914) wrote Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, from a chamber ensemble arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. Gustav Mahler(1860-1911) wrote Symphony No. 8. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ariadne aug Naxos, which is an opera that uses a harmonium with many stops, as specified in the score. Edward Elgar (1857-1954) wrote Sospiri, an Adagio for String Orchestra, scored for harp or piano and harmonium or organ, and Vesper Preludes. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote Hin und zurück, which is an operatic sketch that uses a harmonium on the stage.

The Kronos Quartet produced an album called Early Music, with several pieces that feature a harmonium.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) was a harmonium virtuoso who also wrote pieces for the instrument.

Reed Organ Players

As the sources used reed organ and harmonium as synonyms, it was hard to distinguish harmonium from reed organ from melodeon, so here’s a nice list of modern folks who’ve used one or the other of them.

Timo Alakotila plays Nordic folk music, as does Milla Viljamaa and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan play Qawwali music (Sufi worship music) in Pakistan. And Sigfrid Karg-Elert was a German harmonium virtuoso.

Tori Amos played a harmonium during her Boys for Pele tour (1996). The Beatles used a harmonium in quite a few recordings, including Doctor Robert, the Inner Light, We Can Work it Out, Cry Baby, Rocky Raccoon, and the final chord in A Day in the Life. Pink Floyd used the harmonium on their The Final Cut album. Radiohead used an antique harmonium on their Motion Picture Soundtrack album on Kid A. They toured with a harmonium throughout 2001 until it broke at a show in Oxford England. Tom Waits plays a harmonium on his albums Swordfish Trombones and Rain Dogs. It also appears on Night on Earth, the soundtrack of an eponymous film. Neil Young plays Like a Hurricane on a harmonium.


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews & Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Leicesteshire, 2012.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.


Instrument Biography: The Portative Organ

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

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

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

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

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

Portative Organ History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portative Organ Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portative Organ Name

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

The Magrepha was a Hebrew version with 10 pipes.

Portative Organ Composers

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

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

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

Portative Organ Players

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Instrument Biography: The 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 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.