copyright 1997, D. Glenn Arthur Jr. Passages quoted from Viola da Gamba Society of America News are copyright 1996, Viola da Gamba Society of America, used by permission. Entry for the Kantele is copyright 2002 Brett McCoy, used by permission. All images copyright 1997, D. Glenn Arthur Jr. so far, but I welcome submissions of images by others.
[What's new at this site] Last updated 2007-10-20.

[ About Donations ]

Musical Instruments Described

Now with (some) pictures! Click on the line drawings to see photos.

Here are definitions/descriptions of a bunch of musical instruments. Most of these are early (i.e. pre-Baroque), non-Western, or obscure, but I've included some that should be familiar to most readers for comparison, because they have an interesting history, because they're mentioned on one of my other pages, or just because I felt like it. Give me enough time and it might grow into an encyclopedia...

The following instruments are described here: bombard, serpent, ashiko, baryton, bodhran, bouzouki, bowed psaltery, chitarino, cittern, cornamuse, doumbek (darabuka, dumbek, tabla), dulcian, frame drum, flute, guitar, hammered dulcimer, kantele, krummhorn, lap dulcimer. lira da braccio, lira da gamba (aka lirone), lute, mandolin, oud (also spelled 'ud), plucked psaltery, recorder, sackbut, shawm, vielle, viola d'amore, viola da gamba, violin/viola/cello (violoncello), vulcan lyre,

To be added eventually are (among others): racket, crwth (pronounced "crowd"), hurdy-gurdy, rebec, zither, portative organ, lyre, djembe, conga.

[ashiko image]


The ashiko is a North African or West African (I've seen different sources claim each) hand drum shaped like a tapered cylinder, with the head on the wide end and the narrow end open. Like the doumbek and the djembe, it produces a lower tone when struck in the middle of the head and a higher tone when struck near the edge. Available in various sizes from about a foot and a half to three and a half feet tall, it is built of vertical staves (like a wooden barrel is). I am still tracing the history of this drum, which I am told was originally a log drum (solid piece of wood, rather than staves). Check back here in about a month, and, with luck, I should have more of the history.


Glenn Arthur Middleton writes in the March 1996 issue of VdGSA News:

This instrument, so associated with Esterhazy and Haydn, seems to be a modification of the viol which emerged in the early 17th century. This should not be confused with what may be called the "viola de bordone", a bass viol sort of instrument with sympathetic strings -- but which are not accessible by the left thumb, as they are on the baryton. The latter instrument usually has six bowed and fingered strings variably tuned (D-G-c-e-a-d' or A-d-f-a-d'-f' were frequent tunings), and up to 22 sympathetic metal strings (tuned diatonically or chromatically) which can be plucked by the left thumb. This left thumb plucking technique can be found on medieval vielles, but with only one drone string. The unifying feature of the lira da braccio, lira da gamba and baryton seems to be the presence of actually-played drone (unfingered) strings. Whether those of the lira family were sometimes plucked rather than bowed is a question. The baryton has some surviving literature other than the 175 or so pieces by Haydn, extending from about 1614 to the late 18th century. For the late use of the instrument, see J. Rutledge "Toward a History of the Viol in the 19th Century" in Early Music, August 1984. The instrument seems to be dominantly of South German and Austrian use.

See also: lira da braccio and lira da gamba.

[bodhran image]


The bodhran (the 'd' and 'h' are silent -- pronounciations I've heard include "buhRAHN", "BORahn", and "BOWrahn", with and without a rolled 'r'. I'm not sure which is correct.) is a Celtic frame drum, having a cross-brace in the back by which it is held. It is struck with a short stick called a "tipper", held in a grip similar to that used to hold a pencil.

[pictures of a bombard]


The bombard is a small, double-reed instrument, similar to a sopranino shawm in range but shorter in length. A shawm is actually longer than the wavelength of its fundamental note; a bombard, on the other hand, is the length one would expect for its key. (In the photos (click on the line drawing) you can see that a bombard in the key of D is slightly shorter than a soprano recorder in the key of C.)

Bombards are still used in some Celtic music. They are quite loud, despite their small size. Best used outdoors, their tone is high and penetrating.

[photo of bouzouki]


The bouzouki comes from Greece but is now at least as common in Irish music (at least as it's played in the U.S.). It is a stringed instrument with a small body and a long, fretted neck. It double-strung, which is to say that it has pairs of strings which are fretted and plucked together (as on a twelve-string guitar). It has three or four "courses" (pairs of strings), and several different tunings are used. One common tuning is G-D-A-E (low to high), an octave lower than a mandolin.

Other sources of information:

bowed psaltery

Bowed psalteries are triangular psalteries with the strings arranged in such a way that a bow can be used to sound them one at a time. Take a box shaped like an isosceles triangle pointing up, and add strings running vertically from pegs along the sides down to the base. One end of each string, where it reaches past the next shorter string, is accessible with the bow. The strings along the right-hand side are tuned to the "white keys" (notes of the C-major scale), and the strings along the left-hand side are the sharps and flats.

While there are pictures of triangular instruments which may or may not be bowed psalteries dating from the middle ages, the earliest I have heard the instrument definitely documented to have existed is the 1930's. They are easily available today from many makers, most often found at craft fairs and historical re-enactment events. I do not know of a large-scale "name brand" builder, but there are several small builders making good instruments.

Since there is no sound post, unlike a violin, notes played on a bowed psaltery continue to ring after they're sounded. This, combined with the effect of bowing the string so close to its end, give the bowed psaltery its distinctive tone.

Most bowed psalteries available today are sopranos, about two feet long, spanning two octaves. Alto, tenor, and bass bowed psalteries are available from some builders as well.


The chitarino is a renaissance instrument intermediate between the lute and the "parlour guitar". It has the beginnings of the familiar figure-eight shape of the modern guitar but is much smaller. It is strung and tuned like a lute, and the frets are made of gut (or, nowadays, nylon) like the strings and tied around the neck, unlike a modern guitar which has metal frets embedded in the fingerboard.


The cittern is a flat-backed, wire strung, fretted instrument. It is strummed or plucked.


Cornamusen are capped reeds , like the krummhorn, but are straight instead of curved. The sound is similar to a krummhorn.


The doumbek is a goblet-shaped drum made of metal or clay, native to the Near East. While skilled players can make an astonishing variety of sounds on it, the two basic sounds are a low, resonant note (dum) made by striking the center of the head, and a sharp, clicky note (tek) made by striking near the edge. (The third basic stroke, known as a "kah" stroke, is essentially a "tek" but struck with the left hand ("dum" and "tek" are done with the right hand) and often just a wee bit softer than a "tek".) If you've heard belly-dance music, you've heard doumbeks.


The dulcian is an extremely smooth and dark sounding double reed. If I'm not mistaken, it's an ancestor of the bassoon. If you have any liking at all for low notes, it is worth your while to seek out a competant dulcian player and listen to him or her for a while just to find out what I'm talking about. Admittedly, dulcian players are hard to find, but it's worth it.

[flute image]


Flutes are tubes sounded by blowing across an opening with the mouth. The general catagories of flutes are: fipple flutes (whistles, recorders), end-blown flutes (panpipes, shakuhachi (sp?), and transverse flutes. Fipple flutes are discussed in the recorder and whistle (coming soon) sections of this document. End-blown flutes are played aproximately the same way one blows a soda bottle, and will be described once I get my hands on one.

When not otherwise specified, "flute" usually refers to transverse flutes. Transverse flutes are held horizontally and are blown at an opening near the closed end. The other end is open, and there are tone holes along the length that are opened and closed to vary the pitch. The modern silver flute and piccolo, ancient wooden and bamboo flutes still used today, and fifes are all transverse flutes.

[size comparison of flutes and recorders]

framedrum images

frame drum

Frame drums show up in various cultures, with many names, sizes, playing techniques, and sounds. The term applies to any shallow drum made of a hoop of wood with a skin stretched over one side of it. A near-eastern frame drum (I think it's called a "tar" but I'm not sure) is held in front of the player with both hands and played with the fingertips. The Scottish bodhran is held in one hand and played with a tipper held in the other. The tambour is held in one hand and played with the fingers and thumb of the other, but using a full wrist motion, unlike the fingers-only technique of the eastern drum described above. One of the best known frame drums is the tambourine, which is a (usuallly smallish) frame drum with even smaller cymbals (zills) set into the hoop. (In rock and folk, most tambourines do not have heads, but in many other settings the tambourine does have a head, which adds a number of techniques and sounds not available on headless ones.) These are only the few examples that come readily to mind.

A bit of trivia: I'm told that most frame drums evolved from serving trays.


A proper discussion of guitars is beyond the scope of this page, though I do plan to write a detailed page dedicated to guitars in the future. There are a great many instruments properly called by the name "guitar", and several more members of the immediate guitar family. Guitars are descendants of the lute, usually via several intermediate stages. The most common guitars today are the six-string classical, folk, and electric guitars, the twelve-string folk guitar, and the electric bass guitar.

A general description of the guitar is a flat-topped, flat-backed, fretted instrument with six strings or pairs of strings, a solid neck, and a resonating cavity (or a solid body on which electric pickups are mounted), played by plucking with the fingers or by picking or strumming with a pick while the other hand is used to fret the strings. Exceptions to each part of this description can be found, however. For example, the ukelele, which is in fact a guitar, has only four strings. Ovation builds guitars with rounded backs. Many hollow-body jazz guitars have arched soundboards and backs. Fretless bass guitars are not uncommon, and fretless guitars are not unheard of. Lap steel guitars do not have a neck and are not fretted (they are played with a slide). Hawaiian guitars have hollow necks which are part of the resonating cavity. Guitars with seven, ten, and eleven strings exist. Harp guitars have additional strings on a harp frame above the neck. Double-necked guitars come in several combinations, and a guitar with five necks exists.

[hammered dulcimer photo]

hammered dulcimer

Hammered dulcimers are stringed percussion instruments, much as the modern piano is, except that the strings are struck by hammers held in the player's hands, rather than hammers actuated by a keyboard. Having been brought to Europe from Asia in antiquity, several cultures have hammered dulcimers or related instruments with other names, including the cymbalom.

The basic underlying principle behind the hammered dulcimer is simple: take a sounding box with strings stretched over one side of it (like a psaltery) and strike the strings with small wooden hammers to sound them. The tone of many dulcimers is like a cross between a piano and a wire-strung harp, but a very different set of effects is available: Unlike a piano or a harp, it is very difficult to play more than two notes at a time, but a tremolo/roll effect can be obtained by letting the hammer bounce on each stroke (much the same way that a snare drum roll is produced).

Most hammered dulcimers are in the form of a trapezoidal box with strings attached to the edges of the sounding board and crossing multiple "bridges". That is, a string will start on a nail or peg on one of the angled sides of the trapezoid, go over a low bridge to form the end of one vibrating section, then over a higher bridge 1/3 or 2/3 of the way across the instrument which divides the length of the string into two separate vibrating sections that can be played individually, then down, over another low bridge, to a tuning peg. The number of bridges and strings varies with the size of the instrument, with less expensive instruments having fewer strings and a single high bridge, and more expensive ones having not only more strings but a complicated-looking arrangement of "alternating bridges" such that odd strings will pass under the high bridge for the even strings on the way to their high bridge, so that each string has two vibrating sections, but the instrument as a whole has four areas in which to strike (of which three are used).

If you see an instrument that looks like a trapezoidal suspension bridge, it's a hammered dulcimer. Unless it's really huge, in which case it's probably a cimbalom. For more information, check out the dulcimer newsgroup,


This entry copyright 2002 Brett McCoy, used here by permission.

The kantele is a Finnish folk harp similar to a zither. Modern variants contain up to 36 strings, but traditionally kanteles had only 5 strings. The instrument is not fretted, and the notes are all on open strings. The 5 string kantele can play three chords, I IV & V, and is typcially tuned to D,E,F#,G,A, although they can be tuned in a variety of ways. As music was imported into Finland from Europe, the kantele began to acquire more strings and provided more melodic and harmonic variations.

The kantele, which is the national instrument of Finland, belongs to a musical tradition that goes back thousands of years and is still in use by Rune singers in parts of Finland, such as Karjala, Vadja, and Isora. The kantele was typically used as accompaniment for poetry and song, especially for the great Finnish epic Kalevala, and it is this oral tradition that has been in Finland for uncounted centuries. The Kalevala was not written down until the 1800s, by Elias Lo"nnrot, and is now the recognized national epic of Finland. The kantele is closely linked with the Kalevala, and indeed, one of the stories from the Kalevala tells how the wizard-hero Va"ina"mo"inen created the kantele from the music of the rowing of a boat.

Here is a link to some sound samples of what the kantele sounds like, as performed by Merja Soria.

More links on the Kantele:


Krummhorns are "capped reeds", which is to say that there's a double reed in there, but it's underneath a windcap so that the players lips do not actually touch the reed. They come in a range of sizes from soprano through bass, pitched like recorders of the same sizes (but with a much smaller range, alas -- only a wee bit over one octave).

Visually quite distinctive, krummhorns are bent into a "J" shape, somewhat like an umbrella handle. Krummhorns and cornamusen are often lumped together and reffered to as "buzzies" because of their distinctive buzzing sound.

[mandolin image]


Probably the smallest member of the lute family, the mandolin is the size of a violin, with four pairs of strings (each pair tuned in unison), and frets. Tuned in fifths like the violin, g-d-a-e, it is played with a pick. The mandolin is used in occasionally in the classical repertoire and occasionally in rock 'n' roll, but is most often associated with Mediterranean folk music and American bluegrass. Electric mandolins have been built, both as acoustic instruments with a pickup added (pictured in the image linked from the line drawing on this page) and as solid-body instruments akin to electric guitars. (At least one maker of solid-body electric mandolins used only four single strings, instead of pairs.)

As the mandolin does not have much sustain (that is, once plucked, a note does not continue to ring very long), continuous tremolo (rapid back-and-forth picking of one note) is often used. This is the sound many people most associate with the instrument. In bluegrass, the mandolin is often played with a bouncy, melodic style appropriate to playing fast fiddle lines. Because there are fewer sustained notes in bluegrass, tremolo is not used as often in that genre.

Larger members of the mandolin exist: the mandola is sized (and tuned) the same as a viola; the mando-cello and mando-bass are likewise mandolin versions of the violoncello (cello) and bass viol (double bass, string bass). Other than the mandola, which is somewhat uncommon, the others are downright rare nowadays. The bouzouki is an octave mandolin -- that is to say it is twice as long as a mandolin and tuned one octave lower. The bouzouki is a reasonably popular member of the mandolin family.

lap dulcimer or Appalachian dulcimer

The Appalachian dulcimer, or lap dulcimer, is not related to the hammered dulcimer. As far as I know, it is of American origin. A couple feet long, and slender, the lap dulcimer has three or four strings running over a fretboard that sits atop the sounding board. The fretboard runs nearly the length of the instrument and does not extend into a neck. Most are in one of two basic shapes: either tapered gently to narrow ends from a middle a few inches across, or with a narrow "waist" at the center of the instrument.

The lap dulcimer is strummed has a mellow tone, often with a hint of jangle to it. Imagine a banjo on powerful tranquilizers (though some dulcimers are even more mellow than even that). The fretboard is "diatonic", which is to say it does not provide for sharps or flats outside of the key to which it is tuned (though a fair number have one extra fret so that they can be played easily in two different keys). There are three "courses" of strings, one melody string and two drones. If it has four strings, one course is double-strung. The first drone string is tuned a fourth or a fifth lower than the melody string, and the second drone is tuned an octave below the melody string. While the drone strings can be fretted, much of the instrument's characteristic sound, as with the bagpipes, comes from the use of the drone strings as drones, maintaining a constant background beneath the melody.

(The similarity between the Appalachian dulcimer's drone strings and the bagpipes drones is probably not mere coincidence: a great many settlers in Appalachia were Scottish, and the Scottish influence in Appalachian music is quite strong.)

Some players use a "noter", which is a small stick used to press the strings against the fretboard, while others use their fingers for the same purpose. A handful of manufacturers also make instruments similar to the Appalachian dulcimer but built with a long neck and a small body so that they can be held like a guitar instead of played on one's lap -- these go by various names (e.g. "Strumstick", "Walkabout Dulcimer").

The lap dulcimer is an excellent first instrument, being easy to stay "in key" on, not requiring complicated fingerings or keeping track of which string is in use, and producing pleasing sounds without demanding more than normal coordination. While limited by its diatonic tuning, it is an instrument to be taken seriously and for some tunes there is simply no substitute.

One interesting dulcimer, built by Rocky Mountain Enterprises of Pittshburgh, PA, has a "vaulted" soundbox -- which is to say it is a round shape made of several thin ribs of wood, as on a lute. It has a very full sound, notes sustain much longer than on most other dulcimers, and the instrument throbs seductively in your hands when you play it.

To get around the limitations of a conventional dulcimer, Cliff Laufer plays a ten-string, chromatic lap dulcimer built by Steve Carmody of Silver Spring, Maryland. This instrument has five paired courses of strings, tuned d'd'-aa-dd-aA-dD; that is, the highest pair are tuned to D in unison, the next pair are tuned to the A below that in unison, the third pair are tuned to D an octave below the first pair, again in unison, the fourth pair are tuned an octave apart with the lower of the two being an octave below the second pair of strings, and the fifth pair are tuned an octave apart with the lower of the two being two octaves below the first pair of strings. It is played with a flat pick. The resulting sound retains the open drone sound of a conventional dulcimer but adds fullness in the bass and offers more possibilities for creating chords and for melodies that move across the fingerboard. The frets are arranged chromatically, as on a guitar, allowing the instrument to be played in any key (though it will, of course, be easier to play in keys near D). This particular instrument has a very clear and long-sustaining tone with very little "jangle".

lira da braccio

Glenn Arthur Middleton writes in the March 1996 issue of VdGSA News:

This instrument perhaps emerged in the last decades of the 15th century. Only one piece of muisic for the instrument survives, but at least ten instruments are extant -- two or three in apparently unaltered condition. Recently, Sterling Jones (formerly of the Studio dr Fr:uhen Musik) has written the book on this instrument (Indiana University Press). The instrument is pictured in (mostly Italian) paintings from around 1490 to the early 17th century. Apparently it was used mostly as a chordal instrument (this indicates a much earlier chordal harmonic understanding than most elementary college music texts teach) to accompany the voice or other instruments. A typical tuning is d-d'/g-g'-d'-a'-d; the two ocrave d's were off the fingerboard and doubtless served as drones either plucked (with the left thumb) or bowed. The octave pairs were shown sometimes as closer together than the others. Sterling Jones gives full instructions on chord fingering and use of the instrument, as well as an exhaustive analysis of the iconagraphy and extant instruments.

lira da gamba (lirone)

Glenn Arthur Middleton writes in the March 1996 issue of VdGSA News:

This instrument appears to be a bass model of the lira da braccio, but with more strings (9 to 14) on the fingerboard, thus permitting more keys. The pair of off=the-fingerboard drone strings was frequently tune G-g. This, like the lira da braccio, is usually shown as a very elegant, finely-made instrument. Both were apparently strictly instruments of the arisotcracy -- no folk associations. Usually it was also shown fretted. The instrument is first mentioned in the last half of the 16th century, and its use extended slightly past the mid 17th century. The tunings were reentrant -- permitting many key possibilities. Players usually played from a figured bass. For some of the tunings, see H.M. Brown's article in Grive 6. North Italy (and possibly France) was the area of its principal use.


Lutes are plucked string instruments with frets. They descended from the oud and are distant ancestors of the modern guitar. Lutes come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from the immense theorbo and archlute to the tiny mandolino (from which the modern mandolin evolved). They have bowl-shaped bodies and most have headstocks (the part where the tuning pegs are) that are "cranked back" at sharp angle to the neck. Lutes have anywhere from five to seven "courses" of strings, typically all double-strung except for the highest, which is single. The courses are tuned in unison, like a mandolin (as opposed to octaves, like a 12-string guitar).

In addition to referring to the medieval Western lutes, the word "lute" is sometimes used to mean any of the myriad instruments in the "lute family", including the oud, mandolin, cittern, and all the guitars.

[oud image]

oud, aoud, or 'ud

The proper spelling of the name of this instrument involves an alphabet I don't know. In English I have seen it written "oud", "aoud", and "'ud". The oud is a stringed instrument with a bowl- shaped body and no frets, played with a plectrum (pick). The headstock is "cranked back", as on most lutes (which derived from the oud). There are five to seven "courses" of strings, most double-strung but often with a single string for the lowest course. (Note that this is the opposite of a lute, on which it is usually the highest course that is a single string.)

An ancient instrument (a reference elsewhere on the web mentions the oldest known oud dating back to 1500 BCE ), the oud is still a current folk and professional instrument in the Near East, apparently an unbroken tradition.

More info on Ouds (from Lark In The Morning) There are additional links at the bottom of my A Guitarist's Introduction to the Oud page.

psaltery (plucked)

A psaltery is a wooden box with strings across the top of it, played by plucking the strings. It dates back to Biblical times. I have seen psalteries in various shapes, including rectangles, trapezoids, asymetrical quadrilaterals, and a shape similar to a trapezoid with the angled sides curved -- the "boar's head" psaltery. All the psalteries I have seen (all of modern manufacture) have been strung with wire. I do not know whether ancient ones were strung with wire or gut.

The psaltery is cheap, low-tech, and ubiquitous. Make it out of rubber bands and a cigar box, and it's found in elementary schools. Make it larger, with more strings and a way to strum chords with your thumb, and you have a zither. Add an arched structure to attach one end of the strings to and you have a lyre. Hit the strings with hammers instead of plucking them and you have a very primitive hammered dulcimer.

[recorder image]


Recorders are "fipple flutes", like whistles. Today most people's idea of a recorder is a small, plastic, squeaky thing played by fourth grade students, but in the hands of a skilled player even the highest-pitched recorder is a sweet-toned instrument that rivals the silver flute in all but range and volume. The modern recorder is a style introduced during the Baroque period. Renaissance recorders are less common, have a wider bore, and have a sweeter tone. Medieval recorders had a straight bore (as opposed to later recorders, which are widest near the fipple (whistle part) and narrowest at the foot (part furthest from the player)), a softer sound, and much less range. (Info on medieval recorders from the recorder home page. Info on renaissance and baroque recorders from personal observation.)

There are several sizes of recorder, ranging from "garklein" through "extended great bass". The size played by schoolchildren is usually the soprano, which has middle C as its lowest note. Above the soprano is the sopranino, which starts on F; and the garkelein, which starts an octave above middle C. Below the soprano is the alto, which starts on F an octave below the sopranino; the tenor, which starts an octave below middle C; the bass, which starts an octave below the alto; the great bass, an octave blow the tenor; and the extended great bass, an octave below the bass. While each recorder has a range of only two octaves (though I've seen references to skilled players being able to play part of a third octave), the recorder family as a whole spans pretty much the entire range of notes you'd want to hear. The most common sizes are sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

A recorder has seven holes on the front (three for the left hand and four for the right) and a thumb hole on the back (left hand). Most have double holes for the bottom two holes, and larger recorders have keys for the harder to reach holes.

There is an extensive recorder page on the web at

[size comparison of flutes and recorders]

[sackbut image]


The sackbut is the immediate ancestor of the modern trombone. It looks pretty much like a trombone with a smaller bell. The sound is a little "darker"; that is, the higher overtones of modern brass are less pronounced in the sackbut.

[serpent image]


The serpent is a brass instrument traditionally made of wood. That is, it uses a mouthpiece similar to that of a trombone and is sounded the same way as other brass instruments, so it is classified as "brass", but it was originally (and often still is) made of wood, covered with leather. The serpent is a bass instrument, in the aproximate range of the tuba. Dating from the late 16th century, it gets its name from its shape. Unlike the bugle and the "natural trumpet", which are limited to the harmonic series one can produce on a fixed length tube; or the sackbut and trombone, which vary the length of the instrument with a slide; or modern valved brass which uses valves to route air through different lengths of tubing; the serpent varies the effective length of the instrument by covering and uncovering finger-holes -- as on a wooden flute, recorder, or pennywhistle. It has a conical bore, meaning that the instrument gets wider all along its length (as a bugle does, or a saxophone).

Because the placement of the holes on a straight instrument long enough to play in the bass register resulted in holes no player could reach, the instrument was shaped into an 'S' curve.

The sound of the serpent is similar to other low brass, of course. I personally have heard only two serpents played, one of which had a rough, not quite "raspy" tone; the other, a homebuilt instrument made from PVC plumbing, has a very gentle, mellow tone. By "gentle" I do not mean "soft" -- the tone carries quite distinctly over ("under"?) a full band of guitars, violins, and woodwinds.

More information about serpents is available at The serpent home page.


Shawms are loud, double-reed wind instruments. Not quite as raucous as a bombard, they are excellent when you need the music to cut through a noisy environment and get folks' attention. In more reasonable listening environments, they have all the power of brass and at least as much majesty. If you want to herald the arrival of a king, a shawm consort playing a strong pavanne is the way to do it!


The vielle is a flat-topped, flat-backed, five-string, bowed string instrument, sometimes with frets. The sound is similar to a violin but more "nasal" (a friend prefers the term "raspy"). It was used from the tenth century through the fifteenth. According to a Viola da Gamba Society of America newsletter, there were several sizes of vielle, but I do not know how large a range there was. The ones I have seen were approximately violin-sized. From the same source, "Some of the earlier instruments had flat bridges and were used as drones. From models of today, we also hear a wide variation in tone quality."

viola d'amore (viole d'amour, viola of love, Liebes-Bratsche)

Franziska Jaeger writes in the March 1996 issue of VdGSA News:

The most outstanding characteristic is the use of resonance strings. Probably first built during the late 17th century in Austria and Germany, the viola d'amore is not standardized like the violin. It has five to seven bowed strings tuned to a d-major chord or sometimes A-d-a-d'-f#'(or f')-a'-d" and five to seven metal resonance strings which vibrate when the frequency is the same as the bowed note. These sympathetic strings start from pins under the tailpiece, pass through an opening in the bridge, and go underneath the fingerboard through the hollow neck to the upper pegs.

The English violet or viola angelica has seven bowed and from 14 to 18 resonance strings. The viola d'amore has been built in different shapes: baroque, gamba-body-shape, or similar to the violin or viola. Its shape has been developed from the viols with sloping shoulders and a flat back, but its fingerboard has no frets. The pegbox is surmounted by a scroll, a carved, blindfolded woman's head, a head of a cherub, a lion or a moor. The soundholes are in the shape of a flaming sword; a third soundhole (rosette) is very common.

"It is particularly suitable to the legato style, to dreamy melodies, tothe expression of ecstatic or religious sentiments." (Hector Berlinoz, 1844)

viola da gamba

The viola da gamba (often abbreviated simply "gamba") is a bowed, stringed instrument played with the body of the instrument resting on the players legs. A bass viola da gamba looks somewhat like a cello without an endpin, though the shape and construction are a little different. Unlike the violin family, viols have frets and six strings (except for the double bass, which somehow lost its frets and got adopted into the violin family, but it's really a viol.).

The sound of the bass viola da gamba is sweet and somewhat haunting, but not as resonant as a cello. It has often been compared to the human voice.

More information can be found on the Viola da Gamba Society of America web page, including a more detailed description of the gamba and related instruments.


The violin family consists of the violin, viola, and violoncello which is better known simply as the cello. (I have seen photos of double-bass violins, but they are rare. The double-bass with which most people are familiar is not a member of the violin family; it is actually a viol.) They are fretless stringed instruments with arched tops and backs, played with a bow. Most have four strings, tuned in fifths, but some players are using violins with five strings so as to be able to play violin and viola parts on the same instrument. (The viola is tuned one fith lower than the violin, so the addition of one string gives one instrument the range of both. The cello is tuned an octave lower than the viola.) I presume that most readers are at least somewhat familiar with the violin, so I will concentrate mostly on the differences between violins and earlier bowed strings.

Violins have arched tops (soundboards) and backs, unlike the vielle, which is flat. They have round "shoulders" (where the sides of the body meet the neck), meeting the neck at a right angle, unlike viols (which have sloping shoulders). They are louder than most of their earlier cousins. The violin and viola are played tucked between shoulder and chin (usually -- some fiddlers hold the instrument lower), as are the vielle and the viola da braccio. The cello is played upright, between the knees of a seated player, as is the viola da gamba, but unlike the gamba the cello is supported by an endpin which reaches the ground. The gamba is supported by the player's legs. Unlike the viols (with the exception of the double bass) and some vielles, violins have no frets.

[vulcan lyre image]

vulcan lyre

This is not the same instrument Mr. Spock played on Star Trek, but one inspired by it. Built by Rocky Mountain Enterprises, it is intended to be the "ancient" version of Mr. Spock's instrument. With strings at right-angles to each other, its appearance is distinctive. On a lyre frame are the chord strings arranged in groups of four strings. At the bass of the lyre frame is a soundbox on which single melody strings are mounted in the same manner as a plucked psaltery, passing over the lower portions of the chord strings. One hand plucks the melody strings while the other strums the chord groups. It can be thought of as a zither that has experienced a strange topological accident.

Most of the vulcan lyres built have diatonic melody strings (no sharps or flats) and five chords. Two were built with eight chords, and I had one of those modified so that it has chromatic melody strings (all the sharps and flats). This is done with "alternating bridges" much like a hammered dulcimer: i.e. the strings are angled, with one end closer to the soundboard than the other, and the "white keys" are angled in one direction while the "black keys" are angled the other way. Thus, plucking at one side of the instrument the natural notes are accessible and at the other side of the instrument the sharps and flats are.

(* email D. Glenn Arthur Jr. * Map Of My Web Pages * my main page * about me * musings and observations * me the musician * writings * events * humour *)
[ About Donations ]