medieval music instruments

Sounds of the Past: Popular Medieval Instruments Explored

Step back in time to an era of minstrels, troubadours, and courtly music with a journey through the fascinating world of medieval instruments. These instruments, whose sounds have endured through centuries, offer a glimpse into the musical tastes and cultural values of the Middle Ages. From the ethereal beauty of the psaltery to the energetic rhythms of the shawm, each instrument has its unique story to tell.

Let’s explore the sounds of the past and discover the fascinating world of medieval instruments.

Key Takeaways

  • Medieval instruments offer a glimpse into the musical tastes and cultural values of the Middle Ages.
  • Each instrument has its unique story to tell, from the ethereal beauty of the psaltery to the energetic rhythms of the shawm.

The Lute: A Melodious Medieval Instrument

The lute is a quintessential medieval instrument, beloved for its delicate yet rich sound. It is a type of plucked string instrument that first appeared in Europe during the Moorish occupation of Spain in the 8th century. Over time, it evolved into various forms and sizes, from the small mandore to the large theorbo.

The lute’s construction is intricate, consisting of a hollow wooden body, a neck, and a headstock that supports the tuning pegs. The body is usually bowl-shaped, made of thin strips of wood glued together, and elaborately decorated with carvings and inlays. The strings, usually made of gut or nylon, are stretched across the body and neck, passing over a bridge that transmits the vibrations to the body.

The lute’s sound is unique, characterized by a warm and mellow tone that is often associated with melancholic or romantic music. It has been a popular instrument for solo performance, accompaniment, and ensemble playing, featuring prominently in genres such as chanson, madrigal, and consort music. Its versatility and expressive range make it a favorite among musicians and composers alike.

The Lute in Medieval Music

The lute’s popularity surged during the Renaissance, when it became a symbol of refinement and sophistication. However, it was already a beloved instrument in the Middle Ages, played in various settings ranging from the court to the tavern. It was frequently featured in troubadour and trouvere songs, which often dealt with themes of love, chivalry, and courtly life.

The lute was also an essential instrument in the Ars Nova and Ars Subtilior movements, which introduced complex rhythms, harmonies, and notations to medieval music. Composers such as Guillaume de Machaut, Francesco Landini, and Johannes Ciconia wrote numerous pieces for the lute, showcasing its expressive capabilities and technical virtuosity.

Despite its popularity, the lute fell out of favor by the end of the 16th century, as newer instruments such as the violin and the guitar replaced it in popularity. However, it remained an inspiration for later generations of musicians, who revived its repertoire and techniques in the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods.

The Lyre: A Versatile Instrument of the Middle Ages

The lyre, a stringed instrument with a wooden body and a yoke that holds the strings, was a popular instrument in medieval times. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Greece and it was used across many different cultures throughout the Middle Ages.

There were several types of lyres in use, including the harp-like lyre with a curved yoke and the bowl lyre with a flat, circular body. The lyre was often played as an accompaniment to singing and was also used in instrumental ensembles.

Aside from its musical use, the lyre had cultural significance as well. It was often depicted in medieval art, such as illuminated manuscripts and sculptures, and was associated with courtly love and chivalry.

The lyre’s versatility and popularity ensured its use throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Today, it is still played in various forms across the world, including in traditional folk music and modern interpretations.

The Hurdy-Gurdy: Unraveling the Mystery of this Medieval Instrument

The hurdy-gurdy is a medieval instrument that has long fascinated musicians and music enthusiasts. Also known as the wheel fiddle or vielle à roue, this unique instrument produces a haunting and mesmerizing sound that is difficult to replicate with any other instrument.

At its core, the hurdy-gurdy works much like a violin or cello. The player uses a bow to create sound by rubbing a wheel against the strings, while pressing keys or buttons to change the pitch of the notes. However, the hurdy-gurdy adds a mechanical element to the process, as a crank turns the wheel and creates a continuous sound as long as the instrument is played.

While the exact origins of the hurdy-gurdy are unclear, it is believed to have been invented in Europe during the 10th century. It gained popularity throughout the Middle Ages, particularly in France and Germany, where it was often played by wandering musicians and troubadours.

Construction of the Hurdy-Gurdy

The hurdy-gurdy is a complex instrument with many parts, including the wheel, strings, keys, and crank. The body of the instrument is usually made of wood, with the top resembling a violin or lute. The soundboard, which amplifies the sound of the strings, is often made of thin wood or animal skin that is stretched over the body of the hurdy-gurdy.

One of the most fascinating elements of the hurdy-gurdy is the trompette, a small wooden or ivory piece that rests against the player’s chin and creates a buzzing sound, similar to a kazoo. This gives the hurdy-gurdy its distinctive drone sound, which is often used as a background or accompaniment to other instruments in medieval music.

The Sound of the Hurdy-Gurdy

The sound of the hurdy-gurdy is difficult to describe, as it is both percussive and melodic. The drone from the trompette creates a hypnotic background sound, while the keys and buttons allow the player to create melodies and harmonies on top of the drone. The sound is often described as haunting, mysterious, or even eerie, which is why the hurdy-gurdy has been used in many horror movie soundtracks.

Despite its unusual sound, the hurdy-gurdy has had a lasting impact on music. It has been used in many different styles of music, from medieval and Renaissance music to contemporary folk and rock music. Even today, musicians are finding new ways to incorporate the unique sound of the hurdy-gurdy into their compositions, ensuring that this medieval instrument will continue to captivate and inspire for generations to come.

The Recorder: The Renaissance Flute of the Middle Ages

The recorder, a popular medieval instrument, is a type of flute that gained popularity during the Renaissance period. Though the recorder’s exact origins are unclear, it is believed to have been developed in the Middle Ages and was widely used throughout Europe during the Renaissance.

The recorder was a versatile instrument that could be played solo or in groups, making it a popular choice for both secular and religious music. Its distinct sound, which was achieved by blowing into a whistle-like mouthpiece and covering finger holes along the length of the instrument, gave it a unique quality that was well-suited to a variety of musical styles.

Playing the recorder required a different technique than other woodwind instruments, such as the clarinet or saxophone. Instead of using a reed to produce sound, the player had to create a steady flow of air through the whistle-like mouthpiece. This technique, known as “embouchure,” required patience and practice to master, but allowed for a greater range of expression and nuances in the instrument’s sound.

The recorder played an important role in medieval music, both as a solo instrument and as part of larger ensembles. It was often used in courtly music, as well as in church music, where its clear and bright sound made it well-suited for accompanying choral music.

The recorder underwent a resurgence of popularity in the 20th century, thanks in part to its use in early music performances and recordings. Today, it is still widely appreciated as a unique and charming instrument, beloved by musicians and listeners alike.

The Shawm: The Energetic Sound of Medieval Festivities

The shawm is a popular medieval instrument that had a prominent place in festive occasions. This double-reed woodwind instrument has a distinct and energetic sound that adds to the liveliness of any celebration.

The shawm was a versatile instrument that could be played in both large and small ensembles. It was commonly used in outdoor events such as processions, parades, and military marches. Its piercing and dynamic sound could be heard from far away, announcing the arrival of important personalities or significant events.

The shawm was also used in indoor events, such as banquets, dances, and theatrical performances. Its smaller variant, the soprano shawm, was ideal for playing in intimate settings where a mellower sound was desired.

The shawm has a long and rich history, dating back to ancient times. Its origins can be traced to the Middle East, where it was known as the zurna. The instrument then spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, gaining popularity in courtly and folk music alike.

The shawm comes in various sizes and shapes, each producing a different sound. The soprano shawm, alto shawm, tenor shawm, and bass shawm were the most commonly used variants during the Middle Ages. They were made of wood, usually boxwood or maple, and had a conical bore that ended in a flared bell.

The shawm was played by blowing air into the reed, which vibrated and produced sound. The player used his fingers to cover and uncover the finger holes, producing different notes. The instrument had a wide range of notes and could play both melodies and harmonies.

The shawm has left a lasting impact on medieval music and continues to be played in modern times. Its energetic and vibrant sound is still appreciated in traditional and folk music across the world.

The Psaltery: The Heavenly Strings of the Middle Ages

The psaltery, also known as the “sawtry” or “sauterie,” is an ancient stringed instrument that reached its peak during medieval times. It consists of a flat soundboard with hitch pins, which hold the strings in place. The psaltery is played by plucking the strings with one hand while the other hand dampens or presses them against the soundboard to create different notes.

The psaltery was a popular instrument in both sacred and secular music during the Middle Ages. It was used to accompany hymns and psalms in churches, but it was also played in courts and castles for entertainment. Nobles and troubadours alike favored the psaltery because of its delicate, ethereal sound that evoked feelings of heavenly beauty.

The psaltery had different variations such as the plucked psaltery, the bowed psaltery, and the dulcimer, which had a soundbox. It was also played in various sizes, including the larger psalteries that were held on the lap and the smaller ones that could be held in one hand.

The religious significance of the psaltery is evident in the psalms of the Bible and medieval hymns. It was believed that the sound of the psaltery had healing properties and could dispel evil spirits. It was also used in processionals during religious ceremonies, such as the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The psaltery has had a lasting impact on music through the centuries. It influenced the development of other stringed instruments, such as the harp and the guitar. Today, there are still musicians who specialize in playing the psaltery and keeping its enchanting melodies alive.

The Organetto: The Portable Pipe Organ of the Middle Ages

The Organetto was a portable keyboard instrument resembling a tiny pipe organ that was popular in the Middle Ages. Originating in Italy, the instrument was widely used in the 14th and 15th centuries and was played in both sacred and secular contexts.

The organetto was constructed with wooden pipes that produced a fluty sound when air was pumped through them by a bellows. The player would use a keyboard to control the airflow to the pipes, producing a distinct melody. The instrument was small, lightweight, and could be easily transported to different locations, making it a popular choice for traveling musicians, troubadours, and minstrels.

Type of Instrument Classification Playing Technique
Keyboard instrument Aerophone Played with one hand on the keyboard and the other on the bellows

The organetto’s popularity waned in the 16th century, as it was gradually replaced by other keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and the organ. However, the organetto’s legacy lived on through its influence on other instruments, such as the accordion and the harmonium.

Today, the organetto is still played by a small number of musicians, particularly those interested in historical performance practice. Its unique sound and portability make it a fascinating instrument to study and perform.

The Trumpet: The Regal Sound of Medieval Fanfare

The trumpet was one of the most prominent instruments in medieval music, often used for fanfares, ceremonies, and battles. Its commanding and regal sound made it a popular choice for heralding important events and signaling the presence of royalty or nobility.

Early trumpets were made of bronze or silver, and their narrow shape with a flared bell allowed for a bright and piercing sound. In contrast to modern trumpets, medieval trumpets had no valves, meaning that the player had to adjust the pitch by varying the air pressure and lip tension.

Trumpets were also commonly used in medieval courtly music, accompanying dances, processions, and banquets. They were often played in ensembles with other wind instruments, such as shawms and cornetts, or with percussion instruments, such as drums and tambourines.

One notable type of trumpet was the clarion, a smaller and higher-pitched version of the trumpet used for signaling. It was often played in pairs to create complex harmonies and melodies.

The trumpet’s use in battle cannot be overstated. It was used to signal the advance or retreat of troops, to communicate orders, and to intimidate the enemy. Its powerful sound carried over distances and could strike fear into the hearts of soldiers.

Although the trumpet’s popularity waned in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it remains an iconic instrument of medieval music and an important symbol of pomp and ceremony.

The Drum: The Rhythmic Heartbeat of Medieval Music

The drum, with its deep and resonant sound, played a vital role in medieval music. Different types of drums were used for different purposes, ranging from military marches to accompanying dance music.

One of the most commonly used drums in medieval music was the timpani, which was often used in large ensembles. It was made of a large copper or brass bowl, stretched with animal skin, which was played with a pair of sticks or mallets.

Another popular drum was the tambourine, which was used primarily for dance music. It had a circular frame with jingling metal disks attached to it and was played by shaking or striking it with the hand.

For military music, the snare drum was often used. It had a distinctive sound, with a set of wires or gut strings stretched across the bottom of the drumhead, which produced a buzzing effect when the drum was struck.

Drums were also used as part of religious ceremonies, such as during processions and for calling people to prayer. The small hand-held drum, known as a tabor, was often used for this purpose.

Overall, the drum added a powerful and rhythmic element to medieval music, making it impossible for listeners to resist the urge to dance or march along.

The Enduring Legacy of Medieval Instruments

As we’ve explored in this article, medieval instruments offer a unique glimpse into the musical traditions of the past. From the melodious lute to the regal trumpet, each instrument has its own distinctive sound and cultural significance.

A Rich History

These instruments were an integral part of medieval society, used in everything from religious ceremonies to festive occasions. They evolved over time, with new variations and styles emerging as music and culture changed.

Continuing Influence

Despite their age, many medieval instruments continue to have an impact on modern music. Musicians and composers have adapted and incorporated them into contemporary works, creating new compositions that honor the rich legacy of these instruments.

The Joys of Discovery

Exploring the sounds of the past is a fascinating journey of discovery. Each instrument has its own story to tell, and delving into their unique characteristics and histories can be a rewarding experience for anyone with an interest in music or history.

So whether you’re drawn to the ethereal beauty of the psaltery or the energetic sound of the shawm, there’s no shortage of fascinating instruments to explore in the world of medieval music.

Take the time to appreciate these enduring treasures of the past and let their melodies transport you to another time and place.


Q: What are medieval instruments?

A: Medieval instruments are musical instruments that were used during the Middle Ages, roughly from the 5th to the 15th century.

Q: What are some examples of medieval instruments?

A: Some examples of medieval instruments include the lute, lyre, hurdy-gurdy, recorder, shawm, psaltery, organetto, trumpet, and drum.

Q: What is the history of the lute?

A: The lute is a plucked string instrument that originated in the Middle East. It became popular in medieval Europe and was known for its melodious sound.

Q: What is the significance of the lyre in medieval times?

A: The lyre was a versatile instrument in the Middle Ages, used for both secular and sacred music. It had various types and played a significant role in medieval culture.

Q: How does the hurdy-gurdy work?

A: The hurdy-gurdy is a string instrument with a wheel that is turned by a crank. The wheel rubs against the strings, creating a distinctive sound.

Q: What is the recorder’s role in medieval music?

A: The recorder, also known as the Renaissance flute, was a popular instrument in the Middle Ages. It was used in both solo and ensemble performances.

Q: What occasions were the shawm often used for?

A: The shawm, a wind instrument, was commonly used for festive occasions such as processions, weddings, and other celebrations.

Q: What makes the psaltery unique?

A: The psaltery is a string instrument that is played by plucking or stroking the strings. It has a heavenly sound and was often associated with religious music.

Q: How does the organetto differ from a regular pipe organ?

A: The organetto is a portable instrument that resembles a small pipe organ. It was popular in the Middle Ages and could be played in various settings.

Q: What was the trumpet’s role in medieval music?

A: The trumpet was commonly used for fanfares, ceremonial music, and military purposes in medieval times. It had a regal and powerful sound.

Q: What types of drums were used in medieval music?

A: Various types of drums, such as the tambourine, kettle drum, and frame drum, were used in medieval music. They provided rhythmic accompaniment and added depth to compositions.