This week we’re looking at another stringed instrument: the psaltery. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s an ancestor of the harpsichord and the piano.
Although some psalteries were shaped like harps, they weren’t really alike. The psaltery had metal strings, while harps had gut strings. Both were plucked with the fingers, though, although the psaltery could also be plucked with a plectrum.
The main difference, however, is that the psaltery’s strings were strung over a wooden soundboard and it was the vibrations of the strings against this that produced the sounds. It’s in this way that the psaltery resembles the harpsichord and piano.
The strings are of different lengths. The shorter strings produce higher pitched notes and longer strings produce the lower pitches. On some psalteries there was more than one string for some notes.
Psalteries came in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and you’ll get some idea of that from the two videos below. As with many medieval instruments, variations of the psaltery continue to be used in folk music, often with a bow.
This is another medieval tune, played on an instrument that looks completely different.
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca