During the medieval period, many Musical Instruments were used in Europe. They were often made of readily available materials, such as wood, metal, and animal hides. Some of the most popular instruments included the lute, the harp, and the flute. Percussion instruments, such as the tambourine and the drum, were also commonly used. In addition to being used for entertainment and leisure, the instruments played essential roles in medieval society, used in religious ceremonies, courtly events, and as a form of communication between towns and villages.
This blog will explore Medieval Musical Instruments from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Come along with us on a musical journey through the list of medieval musical instruments!
Medieval Musical Instruments List
The Vielle, also known as the medieval fiddle, is a stringed instrument popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. It is similar in appearance to a modern violin, with a pear-shaped body and a long neck. It has a more rustic and primitive sound due to the use of gut strings rather than the metal strings found on a violin. Ville instruments existed as early as the 7th century, but in the 11th century, they became prevalent in western European cultures. They were favoured for their sweet tones and easy portability for groups travelling together on pilgrimages or crusades of battle. Many theories exist about its name; some suggest it comes from Vielle (French for small), while others say it is derived from the villa (Latin for country home).
The Lute is a plucked string instrument popular in Western and Central Europe throughout the medieval period. It has a neck, fingerboard, strings, pegbox and tuning pegs, a resonance chamber made of wood and usually frets on the fingerboard. The instrument’s body was typically round or pear-shaped and had between 5 to 7 strings (4 can be found in some ancient instruments) which were tuned according to different systems but commonly used just intonation or meantone tuning or scordatura. Lute makers often crafted their instruments from precious wood such as maple, rosewood or ebony, which were chosen for their light weight and excellent sound properties.
The Lute was used prominently in both sacred music (religious songs) and secular pieces, such as courtly love songs. It can be seen depicted in paintings from classical historians such as Ducerceau, Machault, Palmezzano and Gebelin, depicting scenes from courtly life where musicians playing the lutes were commonplace. Also, fancy improvisations were possible, leading to their high popularity among amateurs.
The Psaltery is one of the most popular instruments during the medieval era. It is a stringed instrument with an angular harp-like body that was plucked. Psalteries were made from wood, boxwood, and ivory. Sometimes they were partially covered in leather or even completely covered by leather. They also sometimes came with gut strings and fingerboards attached to them.
Psalteries were typically used in folk, and religious music played in churches or hosted public concerts called tourneys. This instrument left subsequent generations captivated and inspired by its charm. The Psaltery has been extensively employed in Renaissance music ensembles, French Romantic music and much more recently adopted by modern-day rock groups! Besides being often used in waltzes and other court dances, it can also be used for accompaniment of aelas (medieval poetry).
The Sackbut is an early trombone that was extremely popular during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Its design allowed it to span a wide range of pitch and timbre.
The name “sackbut” comes from the French words for push (“sacquer”) and pull (“bouter”), referring to the movement of its slide mechanism. The Sackbut had a wider bore than its modern equivalent, helping it to achieve a louder and fuller sound that could be heard in large concert halls. While traditionally played exclusively with brass mouthpieces, some players chose to augment their instruments with fingerings such as mutes and trills to produce more varied sounds.
In addition to having a unique timbre, the Sackbut’s portability made it ideal for use in large groups such as travelling bands or royal processions. In many religious settings, multiple sackbuts were even employed together to create a grander musical effect, as demonstrated by musical works from this period.
Bagpipes were widely used throughout medieval Europe, often associated with military music and the development of infantry armies in the 11th-12th centuries. The most primitive bagpipes consist of a leather bag, inflated by blowing into it through a reed, along with one or more pipes that served as picks. Its distinctive sound could also be heard for long distances due to its carrying power outdoors. So these advantages made it popular with medieval musicians from Ireland to Persia.
The Hurdy-Gurdy was one of the earliest string instruments. It had a long wooden body with a wheel and strings stretched from the wheel to the neck. A musician would play the instrument by turning the wheel while pressing down on the strings with keys on the neck. The sound can be described as an aerial drone, similar to a bagpipe.
The hurdy-gurdy is also sometimes referred to as a “wheel fiddle”, as its name suggests, due to its violin-like form. Its origins date back to antiquity though archaeological evidence of its early form appears in Roman times and ancient Egypt.
Chimes were a popular and versatile Medieval instrument made from metal, bone, and stone. They produced both pitched and unpitched sounds, depending on their form. It could be used for various purposes like signalling the hour, driving away evil spirits or dark forces, calling people to worship, or creating music.
The two main types were canon chimes and single-tone chimes. Canon chimes were arrays of tubes attached directly to a mount or hung with leather strips. When struck with a hammer, they created different tones that sounded harmoniously with each other. Single-tone chimes instead hung from clappers that would vibrate against the columns when shaken, creating a single harmonic tone over time.
Musical interpretation has changed dramatically since medieval times, but we can still look back on a list of medieval musical instruments and their beginnings for inspiration today.
Today, some Medieval Musical Instruments are still played, while others are rarely heard outside the museum display cases. However, the vibrant history behind the medieval instruments is fascinating – they can remind us how far we have come in our pursuit of creating beautiful notes with simple tools.