A Concise Guide to Medieval Instruments



Chalumeau: A simple rustic reed-pipe, an ancestor of the clarinet, with 6 to 8 finger-holes. Also applied to the shawm, and to the double-reed bagpipe chanter. Very similar in design to the Pocket Clarinet pictured here.

Dulcimer: A shallow closed box over which are stretched wires to be struck with 2 wooden hammers held in the player's hands. Also known as a Cimbalon. The name is also wrongly applied to certain plucked zither-like folk-instruments.

Flute: A Woodwind instrument of ancient origin formerly made of wood. From Medieval times two methods of producing sound were used: (i) blowing across a round mouth-hole as on the panpipes or transverse (side-blown) flute. (ii) blowing into a whistle mouthpiece (end-blown) as on the recorder. During Medieval times, the word flute was indiscriminately used to denote both side and end blown types.

Harp: The Harp, which is of very ancient lineage, can be simply described as an open frame over which is stretched a graduated series of strings, which are vibrated by plucking with the fingers. One early form of the harp is the Welsh harp or telyn, which has 3 rows of strings, the two outer rows (tuned in unison or octaves) giving the diatonic scale and the inner row the intermediate semitones: a simple musical modulation can be made simply by touching one of the inner strings.

Jew's Harp: One of the most simplest, and most widely distributed instruments. It consists of a tiny iron frame, open at one end, in which a single strip of metal vibrates. The frame is held between the teeth, and then the strip is plucked by the finger. The strip itself is capable of only producing one note, but the harmonics of this note are made available by resonance, through the various shapings of the cavity of the mouth. The origin of its name is unknown, and seems to be unconnected with Jewry.

Lute: A fretted stringed instrument played by plucking with fingers (or with a plectrum). The 'long lute' with the neck longer than the body predates the 'short lute' with the neck slightly shorter than the body, by several hundred years. The lute was later transformed into the European lute. The lute has a round body, like a halved pear, a flat neck with seven or more frets, and a seperate pegbox usually bent back from the neck at an angle.

Lyre: An ancient Greek instrument, like a small harp in which strings were fixed to a cross-bar between two arms and plucked by fingers or plectrum.

Mandolin: A plucked instrument of the lute family, usually with 8 strings tuned in pairs and played with a plectrum, generally in a sustained tremolo.

Pan-Pipes: An ancestor of the flute, this instrument is a series (usually four to twelve) of short vertical pipes of wood, cane, or pottery fixed side by side and graduated in length to give the pitches of the different notes. The player blows across the open ends. The ancient Greeks credited the god 'Pan' with its invention.

Recorder: A woodwind instrument of ancient lineage, made without a reed. The recorder is the forerunner of the flute, but is end-blown through a whistle-mouthpiece. In Medieval times the recorder was known under the Latin name fistula, hence the name 'fipple flute'. It has seven finger-holes in front and one thumb-hole behind, and a beak-shaped mouthpiece.

Zither: A folk instrument, which consists of a flat wooden soundbox over which are stretched four or five melody strings, and up to thirty-seven accompanying strings. The melody strings are nearest to the player, and are stopped on a fretted fingerboard with fingers of the left hand and plucked by a plectrum on the right thumb. The accompanying strings are plucked by fingers of either hand.

References: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music


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