Medieval Musical Instruments Part Five

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This week’s instrument is the hurdy-gurdy. It’s a bit of a mongrel, having both strings and a keyboard, of sorts. Like the bagpipe last week, it’s still a popular instrument in some parts of Europe.

The hurdy-gurdy is shaped like a vielle ( a predecessor to the violin), which we’ll come to later. It has three strings. More strings have been added since the Middle Ages and I’ve seen pictures of a modern one with eighteen strings. Instead of using a bow to vibrate the strings, the hurdy-gurdy player turns a handle which moves a wheel. The edge of the wheel brushes against the strings causing them to vibrate and make a sound. Two of the strings are drones, so the sound they make never changes. The player presses on the keys, which in turn press small bits of wood against the string, to play different notes.

Since the hurdy-gurdy has a drone, it could be used to replace the bagpipe and vice versa.

The hurdy-gurdy has been around for more than a thousand years. It developed from the organistrum which was so large that it required two people to play it.

Wikipedia.Commons / CC BY-SA (

You can probably tell that the person moving the keys is pulling them upwards, rather than pressing down on them. That’s not a terribly efficient way to play an instrument, so he’s not going to be able to play anything fast. The organistrum was mainly used for church music.

Here is the Early Music Consort of London demonstrating a hurdy-gurdy with a medieval tune.

In this video a hurdy-gurdy player demonstrates the instrument and explains some of the things going on in the innards. He mentions a bridge that produces a buzzing noise, but that was an embellishment created during the Renaissance. You might recognise where he is; it’s Kenilworth Castle, which served to illustrate some points of castle architecture in the Anatomy of a Castle series.

A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

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 Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life, Medieval Music

17 responses to “Medieval Musical Instruments Part Five

  1. Oh my god!I want one!I have used the word Hurdy-gurdy all my life to describe beach side amusements…(we say the Hurdy-Gurdies around here, in Cork they are called The Merries)t. Its mad to see that a hurdy-gurdy is a real thing!Thanks April.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Wish I could have found one for my post! Great to hear one on the video!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Sadly, first video not available. Second was fantastic!

    Sounds so Middle Eastern. Anyone know how to find info on the instruments the Crusaders encountered?

    I’d love to see how one of those is constructed.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks, April! I love the hurdy-gurdy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The hurdy-gurdy sounds lovely! I wonder when the change from pulling keys up to pressing them down occurred.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good question! Having owned pianos most of my life, I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that key striking came so much later.

      Harpsichords were plucked, which predated pianos.

      The history of music is fascinating!

      Liked by 2 people

    • It is lovely. I can’t imagine that it took long to work out that a two person instrument wasn’t practical. I should think it took even less time to realise that a movement that used the whole hand rather than a finger wasn’t viable.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Of course there is that wonderful song by Donovan: Hurdy Gurdy Man!

    Liked by 1 person

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