medieval musicians

The Vielle: Medieval Europe’s Beloved Stringed Instrument

The medieval period saw the emergence of various musical instruments, each with its unique features and significance. However, none captured the attention of music lovers as the vielle did. This stringed instrument was popular in medieval Europe for its enchanting sound and versatility, making it a favorite among musicians and music enthusiasts alike.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the vielle, exploring its origins, design, playing techniques, repertoire, and role in medieval music. We’ll also examine its decline and revival, modern adaptations, influence, and legacy.

Key Takeaways

  • The vielle is a cherished stringed instrument that played a significant role in medieval music in Europe.
  • It was popular in courtly settings and religious ceremonies and was used in troubadour songs and dances.
  • The vielle declined in popularity during the Renaissance but made a resurgence in modern times.
  • Modern adaptations of the vielle include electric versions and innovative playing styles.
  • The vielle’s lasting legacy is seen in its influence on subsequent stringed instruments and its impact on contemporary musical practices.

Origins of the Vielle

The vielle is a stringed instrument that originated in medieval Europe, with its roots tracing back to ancient stringed instruments. In the early Middle Ages, the vielle was widely used among musicians and was considered a prominent instrument in the medieval orchestra. Its popularity can be attributed to its portability and versatility, which made it a favorite among traveling musicians.

The vielle’s design and structure evolved throughout the medieval period, adapting to the changing musical styles and preferences of the time. It is believed that the instrument was first introduced in France, and from there, it spread to other parts of Europe, where it gained different regional variations.

The vielle was a member of the medieval family of bowed instruments, which included the rebec, the lira, and the fiddle. It was played by pressing the strings against the frets and bowing the strings with a horsehair bow, which produced a distinct and expressive sound.

Origins of the Vielle

The exact origins of the vielle are not known, but it is believed to have developed from the ancient lyre and lute. Like these instruments, the vielle had a hollow body and was played with a plectrum or a bow. However, unlike the lyre and lute, the vielle was a bowed instrument with frets, which allowed the player to produce specific pitches.

By the 11th century, the vielle had become a popular instrument in France, where it was played in courtly settings, as well as in churches. It was also commonly played by troubadours and traveling minstrels, who entertained audiences with their musical skills. As the instrument gained popularity, it began to evolve, with changes to its design and playing techniques creating different regional variations.

Design and Characteristics of the Vielle

The vielle is a unique stringed instrument that features a unique design and characteristics that make it stand out from other medieval musical instruments. The body of the vielle is made from various materials such as wood, metal, and animal skins, and is shaped like a truncated teardrop. At the top of the body is a curved neck that holds the strings, which are usually made from gut.

The vielle is played with a bow that is made from horsehair and is held by the player’s right hand. The horsehair is attached to the strings using a small wooden bridge, and the player’s left hand is used to press down on the strings to change the pitch of the notes. The vielle has a warm, rich tone that is well-suited for playing both solo pieces and accompanying other instruments and singers.

The vielle is a versatile instrument that can be played in a variety of ways, depending on the musician’s preferences. Some players use a technique called “block playing,” where they hold down more than one string at a time to create a chord. Others use a technique called “bowed playing,” where they use the bow to play one string at a time, creating a more melodic sound.

Overall, the vielle has a unique and distinctive design that makes it one of the most beloved stringed instruments of medieval Europe. Its warm, rich tone, and versatile playing techniques have continued to make it a popular instrument among musicians today.

Playing Techniques and Repertoire

The vielle’s unique sound is produced by a combination of bowing techniques and finger movements on the strings. The player can use a variety of bowing techniques such as arpeggios, tremolos, and trills to create different sounds and effects on the instrument.

The vielle’s repertoire is vast, and it was commonly used to play both secular and religious music. Popular compositions included dance music, courtly love songs, and sacred hymns. One of the most famous vielle compositions is the “Estampie,” a type of medieval dance music that was typically played during royal or noble gatherings.

The instrument was also often used in accompaniment to troubadour songs, which were popular in the courts of medieval France and Spain. The vielle added a rich texture to these songs with its unique sound and ability to blend well with the human voice.

Playing the vielle required a high level of skill, and it was often played by professional musicians who were hired by nobles or wealthy merchants. However, some nobles and members of the clergy also played the vielle as a hobby or pastime.

Examples of Vielle Playing Techniques

Technique Description
Arpeggio A broken chord where the player plucks the strings in a specific order, creating a cascading effect.
Tremolo A rapid repetition of the same note, creating a vibrating effect.
Trill A rapid alternation between two notes.

Popular Vielle Repertoire

  • “Estampie”
  • “La tierche estampie royal”
  • “Cantigas de Santa Maria”
  • “Chanson de toile”

“The vielle adds a richness and depth to medieval music that cannot be replicated by any other instrument. Its unique sound and versatile playing techniques make it a beloved instrument of the era.”

The Vielle’s Role in Medieval Music

The vielle, as a beloved stringed instrument in medieval Europe, played a significant role in the music of that era. It was a staple in courtly settings, dances, troubadour songs, and religious ceremonies. The vielle’s unique sound and style made it a popular choice among musicians and composers alike.

One of the ways the vielle was commonly used was in courtly settings. It was often played by minstrels or travelling musicians who would perform for noble audiences. The vielle’s melodic strings and complex harmonies created a sophisticated atmosphere, adding to the elegance of the occasion.

The vielle was also a popular instrument for dancing. Its lively, rhythmic sound was perfect for accompanying both formal and informal dances such as the carole, estampie, and saltarello. The vielle’s versatility in this regard made it a staple for medieval dance music.

Troubadours, or travelling poets and musicians, also utilized the vielle in their compositions. The instrument’s melancholic tone was often used to express heartbreak or loss, creating a profound emotional connection with their audiences.

Lastly, the vielle was also featured in religious ceremonies. Its use was common in Gregorian chants, adding depth and texture to the choir’s performances. Additionally, it was also used in some religious dramas, such as the plays performed during the miracle plays.

The vielle’s role in medieval music was varied and widespread. Its unique sound and style made it a popular choice for musicians, composers, and audiences alike. Its legacy can still be heard and appreciated in early music today.

Famous Vielle Players of the Medieval Era

The vielle was a beloved instrument in medieval Europe, played by both amateurs and professionals. Many of the most renowned musicians of the time were highly accomplished vielle players, admired for their virtuosity and skill.

Player Birth/Death dates Notable works
Gautier de Coincy 1177-1236 Les Miracles de Nostre-Dame
Guillaume de Machaut 1300-1377 Messe de Nostre Dame
John Dowland 1563-1626 Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares

Gautier de Coincy was a French abbot and poet who wrote extensively for the vielle, resulting in an extensive repertoire of songs that were widely circulated throughout the French courts. Guillaume de Machaut, a prominent poet and composer, also wrote extensively for the vielle, helping to popularize the instrument in the courts of France and England.

John Dowland, an Elizabethan-era composer, is perhaps best known for his melancholic lute songs, but he also composed pieces for the vielle, including “Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares,” a collection of instrumental pavans that was widely influential in the early 17th century.

Other notable vielle players of the time included Gilles Binchois, who along with Machaut helped to lay the groundwork for the development of early polyphony, and Richard de Fournival, a 13th-century French court composer who wrote extensively for the vielle.

In Conclusion

These and many other vielle players of the medieval era helped to shape the instrument’s reputation as a beloved and versatile musical instrument, whose legacy continues to resonate to this day.

Decline and Revival of the Vielle

Despite its prominence in medieval Europe, the vielle saw a decline in popularity during the Renaissance period. As new musical instruments emerged, the vielle gradually fell out of favor and was largely abandoned by the 17th century.

However, in recent years, there has been a significant effort to revive the vielle and preserve its legacy. Contemporary musicians have brought new life to the instrument, exploring its unique sound and experimenting with its potential.

One of the key factors in the vielle’s revival has been the establishment of organizations dedicated to its preservation and promotion. The Vielle Association, for example, was founded in France in 2002 and has since expanded its reach to include members from all around the world.

Another contributing factor has been the growing interest in early music and historical performance practices. As musicians seek to explore the music of the past in its original context, the vielle has once again become a popular instrument for performing medieval music.

Today, the vielle continues to inspire musicians and audiences alike, both as a treasured artifact of medieval Europe and as a unique and distinctive instrument in its own right.

Modern Adaptations of the Vielle

The vielle has undergone numerous modern adaptations that have led to the instrument being used in contemporary music. While the traditional vielle was made of wood, modern adaptations have seen the use of materials such as carbon fiber, resulting in a lighter and more versatile instrument.

One of the most notable modern adaptations of the vielle is the electric vielle, which has been used in various genres of music, including rock, jazz, and electronic music. This innovation has enabled the instrument to produce a wider range of sound, making it perfect for musicians looking to push the boundaries of traditional music.

Contemporary Vielle

Another approach to modernizing the vielle is by combining traditional playing techniques with contemporary styles. Contemporary vielle players have experimented with various techniques such as loop pedals, reverb, and distortion, to create unique and innovative sounds.

This approach has resulted in the vielle being featured in modern compositions, including film scores and experimental music. By combining tradition with experimentation, contemporary vielle players have expanded the instrument’s potential and introduced it to new audiences.

The Vielle’s Influence and Legacy

The vielle, as a treasured stringed instrument in medieval Europe, played a significant role in shaping the music of its time. Its unique sound and design influenced the development of subsequent stringed instruments, such as the violin and viola da gamba, and left a lasting impact on the world of music.

The vielle’s legacy can be seen in contemporary musical practices that draw on medieval music, such as early music ensembles, folk music, and even experimental music. Its influence is also apparent in the cultural heritage of many European regions that have preserved and celebrated the vielle through festivals and other events.

Today, the vielle continues to inspire and fascinate musicians and listeners alike, attracting new generations of players and enthusiasts who appreciate its historical significance and unique sound. Its legacy as a beloved and influential instrument is sure to endure for ages to come.

Preservation and Appreciation of the Vielle Today

The vielle may have enjoyed its heyday in medieval Europe, but it remains beloved to this day. Fortunately, there are many efforts in place to preserve and appreciate this treasured stringed instrument.

Organizations such as the Viola da Gamba Society of America, the Viola da Gamba Society United Kingdom, and the International Society of Bassists work to promote the continued appreciation of the vielle and other early stringed instruments. Meanwhile, festivals like the International Festival of Vielles and Traditional Instruments and the Boston Early Music Festival bring together musicians and enthusiasts to celebrate the vielle’s rich history and ongoing legacy.

Recordings also play a significant role in the preservation and dissemination of vielle music. Labels such as Glossa Music, Harmonia Mundi, and Alpha Classics offer numerous recordings of vielle music performed by skilled musicians from around the world.

Thanks to these efforts and the enduring appeal of the vielle as a unique and expressive instrument, its legacy continues to thrive in contemporary musical practices.


As we have seen, the vielle was a beloved stringed instrument in medieval Europe that made a significant contribution to the music of that era. Its origins can be traced back to ancient stringed instruments, and its evolution throughout medieval Europe resulted in a unique design and key features that set it apart from other instruments.

The vielle was employed for a variety of purposes, from courtly settings to dances, troubadour songs, and religious ceremonies. Renowned vielle players of the medieval era made a lasting impact on the instrument’s popularity and its role in medieval music.

While the vielle declined in popularity during the Renaissance period, it has since experienced a revival in modern times, with efforts made to preserve and revive the instrument. Modern adaptations and contemporary approaches to the vielle have also emerged, including the use of electric vielle and innovative playing styles that blend tradition and experimentation.

The vielle’s influence on subsequent stringed instruments and its lasting legacy in the realm of early music highlight the significance of this treasured instrument. Efforts to preserve and appreciate the vielle today, including organizations, festivals, and recordings, add to its continuing popularity as a cherished part of our musical heritage.

Vielle instrument, medieval music, stringed instrument


Q: What is a vielle?

A: The vielle is a medieval stringed instrument that was popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. It is played with a bow and has a unique design and sound.

Q: How old is the vielle?

A: The vielle has ancient roots and can be traced back to early stringed instruments from various cultures. It flourished during the medieval period, which lasted from the 5th to the 15th century.

Q: What are the key features of the vielle?

A: The vielle has a pear-shaped body, usually made of wood, and typically has three or four strings. It has a bridge and is played with a bow, similar to a violin.

Q: What kind of music was played on the vielle?

A: The vielle was used to perform a wide range of music in medieval Europe, including courtly music, dance tunes, troubadour songs, and religious music.

Q: Who were some famous vielle players?

A: Renowned vielle players of the medieval era include Guillaume de Machaut and Jehan des Murs. They were influential in popularizing the instrument and expanding its repertoire.

Q: What caused the decline of the vielle?

A: The vielle’s popularity declined during the Renaissance period as new instruments and musical styles emerged. However, it has experienced a revival in modern times.

Q: How is the vielle preserved and appreciated today?

A: There are organizations, festivals, and recordings dedicated to preserving and appreciating the vielle today. These efforts contribute to its continuing popularity and ensure its legacy.

Q: What is the vielle’s influence on contemporary music?

A: The vielle has had a lasting impact on subsequent stringed instruments and has influenced contemporary musical practices. Its unique sound and playing techniques continue to inspire musicians today.