Our Instruments


*Page Under Construction*

Over the years our instrument collections, both individually and group-owned, have become so large and varied that it is difficult to give a brief description. Here the instruments we have (as well as some we don't!) are arranged roughly by time period (medieval, Renaissance, baroque), and within that, by sound type (string, wind, percussion). Several of our instruments defy such classification! An instrument, once invented, may go out of general use, but it is remembered, and often played, somewhere in the world, only to return to general use later, as in our own time. Since our site is under construction, many of these instruments are merely listed; this year we hope to add not only descriptions and scanned photographs, but also midi sounds which may be visited by those with midi-capable systems.  Watch us for developments!



Medieval Instruments (before approx. 1450 CE)


Oud or Ud
(That's David, by the way!)

Mandora or Gittern

Gittarra latina

Gittarra moresca (saz)


Vielle (fiedel, fiddle)

Rebec or rebab

Tromba marina

Symphonium or organistrum (sometimes called a hurdy-gurdy, though this name more properly refers to a 19th century hand organ)


Both end-blown (like the recorder) and transverse (held horizontally and blown into a mouth-hole on the side) are known to have been made, usually of wood. Bone or ivory was occasionally used for the body, but more commonly to decorate the wood.

A double-reed straight-pipe instrument, with a slender cone-shaped bore inside, which produces a loud, piercing, clear tone. Unlike the later shawms and their descendents, the oboes and English horns, the medieval shawm reed is not articulated by the lips of the player; the reed is placed totally inside the mouth.

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Similar to the recorder in material and fingering, but played with a cupped mouthpiece, using the lips to produce the vibration, as in a modern trumpet.  Often the body was curved slightly, and the inside bore widens toward the end to give a shawm-like or trumpet-like sound.

A large organ, pumped with a pair (or more) of hand bellows to keep a continous positive pressure so that whenever a key is depressed, a note will issue from the corresponding pipe.  The positiv requires bellows operators separate from the keyboard player.  Organs (except for the portativ) were all operated this way until the invention of mechanical and then electrical assistance.

A hand organ, played on the lap or a table, pumped with a single bellows, but by the same player as operated the keys.  The portativ does not have continuous pressure, but must "inhale" like a singer, so that the player must articulate phrases as a singer would.

As the picture shows, it was usually heavy, closed so that it made a shorter but deeper sound than the modern triangle.  It also had rings around it which would dance and jangle.

It seems to have been associated more with the Mediterranian than with the Nordic countries.  The countries of southeastern Europe had very large instruments with two or even three layers of zils around the rim.  In the west smaller instruments were used, but still with the deep, double rows.  Very complex rhythms were achieved with a variety of finger, hand, and arm motions.

Tabor (two-sided drum, often with a snare)
This drum could be short, as in the picture, but it was often taller than its diameter; it was covered on both ends with skin, and the bottom often had one or more strings stretched over it, which would buzz when the drum was struck, like the modern snare drum.

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One-sided hand drum
These could be small or large; the larger ones had the skin stretched over a frame.  The drum was struck with the hand or with a beater.  Sometimes it could be tuned by turning the rope used to fasten on the skin, but the usual method for changing tension was to warm the drum head gently near a fire or by holding next to the player's body for a few moments.  The Irish bodhran is an example.

Nakers (tuned drums)
A skin was stretched over a rounded metal bowl and secured with ropes, the tension of which could be modified to adjust the pitch; ancestral to the kettle drums in the modern orchestra.

Bones (paired sticks)
Originally they were actual bones, gently struck together for a knocking sound.  With skill, the player can play very rapid, rhythmic taps, articulated with the right accents.

Jew's harp (or jaw harp)
A metal tine plucked while its frame is in contact with the teeth, for which the mouth serves as a resonating chamber.  The twanging sound can be skillfully manipulated by moving the mouth


Renaissance (about 1450-1600 CE)

Like its medieval ancestor, the renaissance lute is tuned in courses.  Each course is a pair of strings at the same pitch (or in octaves) close enough together so that a single finger-stroke plays them both.  The courses are tuned a perfect fourth apart, except for between the A (in the tenor size) of course 3 and the F of course 4.  The popular size in the early 16th century was six courses, tuned from the highest-pitched course 1 at g', course 2 at d', then a, f, c, and low G, similarly to the tenor size viol. The first course became a single-string course as players developed virtuosity at playing melodies on it with their finger-tips instead of using plectra as in the medieval lutes.  Finger-picking allows chord-playing much better than plectra, too, so that the lute flowered into it's most popular time in history.  Players learned how to do multiple lines in counterpoint, as well as how to play excellent accompaniments to singers.

The Spanish invented the vihuela (or viola da mano) as a lute in a different shape from the Moorish oud, to create a distinctive national style.  It is tuned and played like a 6-course lute, but the body shape, and the sound, is more like the guitar.  Like the lute, it comes in different sizes and pitches.

The guitar began in Spain as a treble instrument, small in length and with only four courses.  It shows more relationship to the medieval cithera family than the lute.  The 4-course model in the 16th century was tuned:  a'  e'e'  c'c'  g'g.  It was popular for the Spanish cancioneros (folk and love songs) and the Italian frottole.  The high pitch is quite loud when the instrument is strummed.

This wire-strung instrument is generally tuned like the lute, but its body is flat-backed, and the sides fancifully (suggestively?) curved to go with the love music that was usually played on it.  The head at the tuning box is generally carved as a woman's or a god's head.  It is played with a plectrum.

This wire-strung instrument is similar in construction to the orpharion, but it is larger, and tuned a fifth lower.  Also, the bass strings are longer, and the frets and bridge slanted proportionally.  It was usually used in broken consorts, groups of different instruments, including lute, viol, cittern, and recorders, or with voices.

Not to be confused with the gittern, the cithera, or many other terms for medieval instruments, this wire-strung plucked instrument is made with a rounded body shape suggesting to us its descendent, the banjo.  The body generally is of wood, and the scroll at the end of the long neck usually carved to resemble a god's head.  It has a distinctive tuning, different from the lute, and like the banjo, has a high note tuned among the bass strings, although it is the same length (re-entrant tuning).  It was used in broken consorts as well as for solo work.


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Baroque Instruments (about 1600-1800 CE)


This instrument continued to be used, but less now in consorts of mixed sizes and more as the bass size for continuo, to assist harpsichords to make a strong enough bass sound to match the singers or melody instruments.  It also became more of a solo instrument for virtuosos.

The great bass viol.  Some modern string basses preserve the shape of this viol closely.  There are pictures that show the player seated, with the instrument extended at an angle in front, like an oversized cello, instead of standing, as modern bass players do.

The violin was first known as a gypsy fiddle, a more powerfully voiced version of the rebec (a medieval bowed instrument with an internal sound post).  Its music during the Renaissance was regarded as lower class.  During the baroque it became more respected as an instrument with great technical and expressive possibilities. It has retained this respect to the present, proving itself useful for executing a wide variety of styles.

This instrument was first built during this period.  A member of the violin family (as opposed to the viols), it began steadily to displace the viol in orchestras, as it could make the stronger sound valued for the expressive music used in the masques and pageantry of the 17th century, and it had an increased pitch range for chamber music.

The lute was used extensively in the early 17th century as both accompaniment to singers and in large lute bands that had various sizes and pitches related to the most common tenor size by various intervals.  At first the lutes were strung and tuned like the Renaissance instruments; each course was a pair of strings at the same pitch (or in octaves) close enough together so that a single finger-stroke would play them both.  The courses are tuned a perfect fourth apart, except for between the A (in the tenor) of course 3 and the F of course 4.  The larger sizes had more and more courses.  In France, particularly, musicians began to experiment with other tuning relationships that might make the chords of the new baroque music easier to play.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the lute began to be displaced by bowed strings for larger compositions, and by guitar for use with songs, but it continued for solo use, mostly in France and the German areas, where it took on a very refined quality.  These instruments had from 11 to 14 courses, and each note of the bass octave had its own pair of strings.

About 1600, Italian lute-builders began to put long necks on lutes so that they could accommodate lower bass strings, better to add expression to accompaniments to song.  The first archlutes were tuned like Renaissance lutes, with extra bass single-string courses adding an entire lower actave.

The theorbo appeared about the same time as the archlute.  It has a similar shape, with a similar bass octave, but the body is larger, the courses are all single-string, and the highest courses have been tuned an octave lower, actually lower in pitch than the third course.  This is better for accompanying bass singers; the single-string courses are played with more (modern) guitar-like technique.  Many theorbists grew their nails long to use as picks.


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The 17th-century guitar  retained the octave tuning of its Renaissance predecessor on the fourth course, and added a fifth course in d, becoming  a slightly larger instrument.  Smaller guitars took up re-entrant tuning, in which both strings of the bass course were on the higher note, at a higher pitch than the third course.  With the strumming style this produced close harmonies at loud volume.  The guitar continued as the instrument of popular song, but some composers began to create a new repertoire for it with runs and picking style that began to resemble the Spanish style we now associate with it.  The sixth course, single-strung courses, larger size, and lower tuning were introduced in the eighteenth century, although double-strung courses continued to the present in the "twelve-string" folk guitar.





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Last update: 10/05/2009.