Medieval Musical Instruments Part One

Definitely not a medieval recorder

Since everyone seemed to enjoy last week’s post complete with recordings of medieval music, I thought I’d continue with the theme and have a look at some of the instruments that were played in the fourteenth century.

I’m an amateur musician and my instrument is the recorder, so that’s where we’ll start. The recorder has been around since Neolithic times and was a fairly sophisticated instrument by the Middle Ages.

It’s essentially a wooden tube with holes for all the fingers, except the right thumb and the left little finger, to cover. There’s a hole at the back covered by the left thumb and seven holes on the front. The ways in which the holes are covered change the pitch of the notes played.

Medieval recorders were narrow tubes compared to those of the Renaissance (like the one in the photograph above), which meant they were, generally speaking, fairly quiet. You’ll notice that the Renaissance recorder is slightly flared at the bottom, but medieval recorders were straight. Medieval recorders didn’t have a beak like the Renaissance recorder, but were flat-topped. In most other respects, they were very like modern recorders. The player blows into the top of the tube, which is partially blocked by a piece of wood called, unsurprisingly, the block. There is a narrow gap between the wall of the tube and the block through which the player’s breath travels. This is the windway. The block comes to an end just above an opening, called the window, where the air is split by the labium, the piece of wood forming the bottom edge of the window. Some of the air continues down inside the recorder and some goes out of the window. The way that the air vibrates in the tube affects the sound that comes out of the window.

In the fourteenth century, as in the centuries that followed, music was rarely written for specific instruments. Groups played whichever instruments they had available. The music that I’ve chosen below could have been played on anything.

The first video is of two fourteenth-century tunes played on recorders. They’re not, as you’ll see, reproductions of medieval recorders, but the music is the important thing here. La Rotta is probably my favourite medieval tune.

The second track is taken from a recording that was made to demonstrate the sounds made by medieval and Renaissance instruments. This track is supposed to demonstrate the recorder, but the bells seem to take over just a bit.

You will notice in the list of sources below that I have, for once, used a reference from the internet. This is because Nicholas Lander’s website is the best place to start if you’re looking for information about the recorder.

Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2020. Recorder Home Page: History: Medieval period. Last accessed 31 July 2020.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Music

11 responses to “Medieval Musical Instruments Part One

  1. I learned to play a recorder at school, can’t remember being any good at it. Love that 1st video!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I was a very useful recorder player at school, because I had large hands for a child and could reach the holes on a tenor recorder. They’re pretty much the same size now, but I can play all sizes of recorder, so I’m happy.

      I’m glad you liked the Lament of Tristan and La Rotta. They’re good pieces.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Really good post April. As I fellow recorder player I am delighted that this explains a little of the recorder’s background and its repertoire. Look forward to the rest of this series.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Love it! Have a collection of medieval music from chants to bawdy stuff.

    My instruments are dulcimer and straight horn. Dulcimer isn’t medieval, but I know several fanfares on horn. Tried recorder, but fingering rough for short, stubby digits.

    Well done you for being able to handle any size!

    What about the double recorder? Is fingering different?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love this new series, April! It’s fascinating how modern recorders more closely resemble medieval rather than renaissance models.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Medieval Musical Instruments Part Three | A Writer's Perspective

  6. Pingback: Medieval Musical Instruments Part Thirteen | A Writer's Perspective

  7. Pingback: Medieval Musical Instruments Part Fourteen | A Writer's Perspective

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