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What Are Medieval Instruments?

Medieval instruments are fascinating relics from a bygone era, offering a unique window into the past. They range from the haunting tones of the hurdy-gurdy to the rhythmic pulse of the tabor. Each piece tells a story of medieval life and culture. Curious about the sounds that shaped an age? Let's delve deeper into the symphony of the Middle Ages.
Soo Owens
Soo Owens

Medieval instruments are historical devices used to produce music between ancient times and the Renaissance. Most medieval musical instruments have descendants among modern instruments. They can be subdivided, more or less, into wind, plucked string, bowed string, keyboard, and percussion categories.

During the medieval era, instruments were chosen based on where a song was to be played and not the song itself. Medieval instruments were typically considered to be either secular or religious in nature and were rarely used for both purposes. It was especially uncommon to see secular instruments used in a religious setting. In general, instruments used to play secular music were less expensive than their religious counterparts. Secular musicians generally used whatever instrument was available given their income and place of residence.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Since most medieval instruments, even the winds, were constructed from wood, very few have survived to modern times. Those still in existence tend to be fragile, structurally unsound, and rarely playable. Modern knowledge of medieval instruments is largely derived from surviving medieval images and text.

Musical instruments were widely used by the ancient Greek, Minoan, and Egyptian civilizations. Many of the instruments crafted during these eras were reworked during the Medieval Period. For example, the ancient Greeks constructed a water-powered organ, known as a hydraulis, for entertainment. Organs based on this design were used during the medieval period, but their use steadily declined in religious settings because of their pagan associations.

Medieval wind instruments consisted of recorders, crumhorns, pan flutes, and shawms. Crumhorns were curved and produced a nasally hiss, while the shawm, the ancestor of the oboe, was arguably the most influential reed instrument of the Medieval Period. Keyboards took the form of a harpsichord or a portative organ. The bellows of a portative organ were operated by the player or another individual. The harpsichord gained prominence around 1500 CE.

Stringed instruments were plentiful in the Medieval Period and were either plucked or played with a bow. Plucked medieval instruments included the lute and harp as well as the psaltery, which was brought to Europe after the Crusades. The lute's beginnings date back as far as 711 CE, and its popularity was likely due to its ease of use, portability, and relatively inexpensive construction. Bowed strings consisted of the vielle, the viol, the rebec, and the hurdy-gurdy. The vielle and viol are the ancestors of the modern violin and viola, respectively.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some examples of medieval string instruments?

Medieval string instruments included the vielle, a precursor to the modern violin, and the psaltery, which was played by plucking strings stretched over a flat box. The harp, with its distinctive frame and resonant sound, was also popular, as was the lute, known for its rounded body and fretted neck. These instruments were central to medieval music, providing both melodic and harmonic textures in various social settings.

How were medieval wind instruments different from modern ones?

Medieval wind instruments often had a simpler construction and fewer keys or holes than modern ones, resulting in a more limited range of notes. Instruments like the shawm, the ancestor of the oboe, and the recorder were common. The bagpipe, with its distinctive drone produced by air from a bag squeezed by the player's arm, was also widely used. These instruments were crafted from materials like wood, horn, and leather.

What role did percussion instruments play in medieval music?

Percussion instruments in medieval music provided rhythm and emphasis within compositions. Instruments like the tabor, a small drum played with a single stick, and the nakers, a pair of small, hand-held drums, were commonly used. Bells and the tambourine also added rhythmic layers to music. Percussion was essential in dances and processions, helping to maintain the tempo and enliven the spirit of the performances.

Were there keyboard instruments during the medieval period?

Yes, the medieval period saw the emergence of early keyboard instruments. The organistrum, a large stringed instrument operated by a crank and played with keys, was an early form of the hurdy-gurdy. The portative organ, small enough to be carried and played by one person, and the positive organ, a larger stationary instrument, were also in use. These instruments were often found in churches and wealthy households.

How did medieval instruments influence modern music?

Medieval instruments have had a lasting impact on modern music, influencing the design and development of contemporary instruments. For example, the vielle evolved into the violin family, while the lute contributed to the development of the guitar. The rich textures and modal scales used in medieval music continue to inspire composers and musicians, and there is a thriving interest in early music performance, with many ensembles using replicas of medieval instruments to recreate authentic sounds.

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Discussion Comments


I remember watching a Christmas program on public television where they only used Medieval instruments and a madrigal choir. I thought a few of the instruments sounded like modern ones, especially the shawm. It played a lot of the melody lines, because it could cut through the drone of the other instruments and percussion. I don't know if I would want an entire album of Medieval music, but it was certainly interesting to hear what Christmas music sounded like 500 years ago.


During one of my music theory classes in college, my instructor played an album of Medieval music played on authentically reproduced Medieval instruments. He wanted us to hear how the music would have sounded to the original audiences. I couldn't believe the difference between modern and ancient instruments. I have to admit those recordings were a challenge to appreciate. Most of the Medieval instruments sounded really thin and reedy, unlike modern instruments with deep, rich sounds.

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