In this final post of the series I’m going to be rather lazy and cover a group of instruments. This is percussion. We’ve already come across a percussion instrument when we looked at the pipe and tabor.
Medieval percussion was, of course, wider than drums. There were also nakers, tambourines, chime bells, cymbals and triangles.
Nakers were kettledrums. Like so many other medieval instruments, they came from the Middle East with returning Crusaders and the name comes from an Arabic word that means ‘to strike’. They are the ancestor of the timpani and were usually played in pairs, as they are today in mounted military bands. Since they had to be carried by the musician, they weren’t large.
They were bowl-shaped drums, originally made from clay with an animal skin stretched over the opening. The skin was attached by string around the rim of the drum and beaten with sticks. The vibrations of the skin were amplified by the interior space.
Although it’s unlikely that anyone played like this in the Middle Ages, this video will give you an idea of what it would have looked like.
Tambourines are more or less what you think they are. Animal skin is stretched over a circular wooden frame. Objects that jingle or rattle are inserted into horizontal slits in the frame. Here’s a picture of a third-century Roman woman playing one.
I think the chime bells are my favourite piece of medieval percussion. They are tiny bells in different sizes. The smaller the size of the bell the higher its pitch.
This video appeared on the first blog in the series, when I was writing about the medieval recorder. It starts, though, with bells. The CD cover shows someone playing a set with wooden hammers.
Here’s another piece played on bells.
Cymbals are ancient instruments. They’re shaped rather like a broad-brimmed hat. They’re made of metal and there’s a hole in the centre through which a strap could be attached. The player held the strap and hit the cymbal with a stick. The width, height and thickness of the cymbal affected its pitch and its volume, but I suspect that none of that was particularly important in any musical ensemble that wasn’t playing in a royal or aristocratic household.
The medieval triangle was like the modern triangle, being made of a metal rod bent into the form of a triangle and hit with another metal rod. It had two differences, though. There was no gap where one of the bottom corners should be and it was not in the shape of an equilateral triangle. You can see one in this fourteenth-century picture. The gentleman in red is playing a triangle and the one on the far left is playing nakers. Early medieval triangles also had jingles along the bottom, which must have made an interesting noise.
Fortunately, you don’t have to imagine the noise it made. Here’s a demonstration.
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.