Medieval Musical Instruments
During the medieval period (12th – 16th centuries) music was evolving and changing in new and exciting ways, including the introduction of many foreign instruments into European culture. Lots of the instruments invented and developed at that time became the precursors of modern instruments we use today, though some have disappeared from common use. Here is our top ten of instruments that you may (or may not!) recognise…
Recorders are a type of “duct flute”, which have been found throughout history from the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 years ago!). Recorders, like all wind instruments, come in a variety of sizes and can play a huge range of pitches and tones.
If you’re visiting our Medieval Music Weekend, don’t forget to bring your recorder along so you can join in with our minstrels!
Lutes are often associated with love songs and serenading people below windows and were largely used in the 15th century to accompany secular songs (music not connected to the church). Lutes are shaped like a large, curved violin and are an early ancestor of guitars.
Sackbuts may have a silly name but are actually an early trombone, developed from trumpets in the 15th century. The name wasn’t written down for a hundred years or so after its first appearance, being played in a fresco by Filippino Lippi in the “The Assumption of the Virgin” from 1488-93.
Trumpets and Cornetts
Medieval trumpets were very simple, a single straight tube with no valves (buttons). Most melodies written for a solo brass instrument were for the cornett – not to be confused with the modern cornet! – a straight or slightly curved wind instrument with tone holes and a brass mouthpiece. The length of them determined what pitches they could play.
Viols (unsurprisingly) are early violins, often having five to seven strings and all being plated upright between the players legs, like a modern cello. Viols were used as melody and accompanying instruments and gained popularity from the 15th century onwards.
Chalumeau is a French name for the ancestor of the clarinet. Although the first written instances and models of them date only to the 17th century, it is believed they were first developed in the 12th century. Chalumeau make quite a thin, squeaky noise, very different from modern the clarinets we hear today!
Although flutes have been around for millennia, the transverse flute was a purely medieval invention, able to be played upright like a recorder and sideways like a traditional flute, by opening and closing the embouchure holes (where you blow). Some of these transverse flutes only had three finger holes but could play a full range of notes.
Harps were first invented in Sumeria and have a changed a lot in shape, size and string number over the years. Harps were originally designed to be played whilst held or in your lap and it was only with the introduction of harps into orchestras in the 19th century that they became better known as large, floor-standing instruments.
Serpents are the big brothers of cornetts and really do look like snakes! They are made for playing bass notes, so need to be much longer than their melodic counterparts. By curving the instrument, it allows it to be longer without being too big to hold, although some stand at six feet tall! Serpent were used in military bands until the 19th century and are the ancestors of modern tubas.
This has got to be our favourite instrument, for its name alone! The hurdy-gurdy originated from the Middle East in the 9th century and was developed for western music in Spain in the 11th century. It’s a violin-shaped instrument with strings attached to a neck, a wheel and crank at the bottom to rub against the strings to make them vibrate, and buttons to press against the strings to play a melody. Hurdy-gurdies can play melodies and an accompanying drone at the same time, like bagpipes, and the two were often played together. They were popular in England between 1500 – 1650 and are seeing a revival through experimental ambient music.
We can’t promise a hurdy-gurdy or a chalumeau over our Medieval Music Weekend (25th – 27th August) but we can promise a noisy time. So come along, join in a performance with minstrels and make your own lute or a rattle drum!