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What Is a Lute?

By R. Stamm
Updated May 23, 2024
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The lute is a medieval string instrument that looks like a pear sliced in half with a slightly longer stem. It is played by plucking the instrument with the pads of the fingers and has a delicate, rich, guitar-like sound. Lutenists complain of the difficulty in keeping it in tune, due to the way the instrument is strung. It evolved from the Arabic instrument know as the Ud, and the art of construction was later refined by the Italians and Germans. The instrument was eventually phased out of use and replaced by keyboards during the Baroque period.

The pear-shaped body of the device is constructed from a thin, almost translucent piece of pine, making it lightweight and portable, but fragile. The upper layer of pine is reinforced with slightly thicker wooden bars and has a rose hole in the center which acts as speaker for the instrument. The delicate instrument is strung lightly to prevent it from breaking under the pressure of high tension. Early versions had a fretless neck while later versions were fretted and had a finger board.

The back of this stringed instrument is made from curved, molded strips of wood. These bent strips are glued together from edge to edge, giving the lute a bubbled look from behind. The underside was made from stronger woods such as sycamore, cedar, and cypress to give the instrument more durability. As a result of the different woods used, the instrument had a two-toned appearance.

The origins of the lute trace back to the Arab world and were later picked up by other countries and societies. Among these were the ancient Greeks who associated the instrument with Apollo — the god revered as the director of the choir of muses. Greek societies used the stringed instrument to stress climatic events in comedic and tragic theater productions. Its popularity grew and it became one of the most respected instruments of the Renaissance period in Europe. In fact, most of the music written for it originated during this period.

The lute appeared in many different forms of art, but gained the most popularity during the Renaissance. The lute appeared in many paintings and was often depicted with angels because of the wide use of the instrument during this time. The lute also found favor with sculptors, and they sculpted figures holding it in churches and others places. Playing off Greek tragedies and comedies, Shakespeare used this device to emphasize certain plot points in his plays.

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Discussion Comments
By popcorn — On Nov 28, 2011

@lonelygod - I went to a Renaissance Faire over the summer and some of the performers were performing music on authentic instruments used in medieval times, such as the lute. There is something very striking about seeing a troubador with a lute instrument and it made me want to buy a lute. Then I found out that they are actually hard to play, due to the high number of strings and the lute's tuning being especially difficult, so I wasn't so sure. It seems like an instrument that needs a unusually high amount of effort in order to master.

If you live in England there is an organization called the Lute Society which promotes the lute. There's a lute page for those who want to purchase lutes as well as find teachers.

By lonelygod — On Nov 27, 2011

Can anyone recommend some good lute music that could be performed at a medieval themed wedding?

My friend is getting married and she is going all out to make sure there is a very authentic feel to her ceremony. She's rented out a lovely garden and is now looking for music that will really capture the sound of the medieval lute.

I have suggested that she get one of her more talented musician friends to pick up one of the lutes for sale we have seen online, and try and perform for them, but we're not sure if he'll be able to master a lute guitar in time. If that falls through, we really need some music we can play.

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