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What Are Medieval Instruments?

By Soo Owens
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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Discussion Comments
By RocketLanch8 — On Nov 03, 2014

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.

By Buster29 — On Nov 03, 2014

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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