String Family History



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Early String Instruments:

Arched Harp | Angular Harp | Framed Harp | Rebec | Fiddle | Citole | Cittern | Gittern | Lute | Viol | Hurdy Gurdy | Psaltery | Dulcimer


Arched Harp.Arched Harp
The earliest form of harp was the arched variety. Its existence as far back as 3000BC is confirmed because of the funereal practices of the ancient Egyptians. Tomb paintings and offertory grave relics provide illustrations and actual examples of the early harp. Illustrations demonstrate that the arched harp was played vertically, sometimes in a kneeling position, with both hands used to pluck the strings.

The arched harp was universal in its appearance within all early cultures across Asia, Africa and Europe. It is in the African continent where it still has widespread use as a revered accompaniment to the performance of oral history and myth.

The construction was simple. A broad, wooden or hide-covered sound box was joined with a curved branch of appropriate dimensions. The number of gut strings varied anywhere between three and ten.

  Timeline  Angular Harp.Angular Harp
Angular harps appeared later though they were certainly in existence in the second millennium BC. Their frame consisted of a broad wooden or hide resonator that served as the perpendicular of the angle formed with the pegged, string-securing neck. The playing position could be hand-held and standing or floor-supported in a kneeling stance. Whichever the position, the neck formed the base of the triangular configuration and pointed away from the body with the perpendicular sound box reaching upwards against the player's body. The varying number of strings, mounted away from the body in a vertical position, formed a sort of sail-shaped hypotenuse with the angular frame.

The geometrically unstable shape of the angular harps necessitated low-tension stringing with the result that angular harps were lower pitched than the more solid and secure frame harps.

Framed Harp.Celtic Harp
Frame harps appeared in Europe during the first millennium AD. The addition of a fore pillar triangulated and strengthened the frame making it sufficiently secure to accommodate increased string tensions.

From the frame harp developed the Celtic harp. This was known as the clarsach in the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland. It was an instrument with a huge resonator carved hollow from a single block of wood. The neck was curved and the fore pillar was deeply out curved.

The Celtic harp was much prized, as was the more technically advanced telyn in Wales where it was associated with bardic ritual and oral traditions. Similarly, the Celtic harp in Ireland was an instrument that had associations with national identity. Here, too, it had a proud record of providing accompaniment for the oral traditions of the Irish people's history, myths and legends. It was also valued as a solo instrument worthy of merit in its own right.

Such was the esteem in which harps were held that they were handed down within families from generation to generation and in Ireland they came to be recognised as a national symbol.

The Celtic harp remained in the ascendant from the fifteenth century until the end of the seventeenth century though it still maintains strong cultural significance in both Ireland and Wales.

Harps similar in form to the Celtic harp were popular in Europe but by the beginning of the fifteenth century the huge sound box of the Celtic harp was replaced by a narrower, taller version and the out-bowed fore pillar was straightened and made more slender. This was the gothic harp that eventually evolved into the modern, double-action pedal harp.

Rebec (Ribible)


The rebec was one of the earliest bowed instruments. It was introduced to Europe in early medieval times, probably originating from the rebab, an Arab bowed instrument of the spike fiddle type.Whilst being a contributory ancestor of the violin its method of playing was sufficiently distinct to make the link tenuous. Unlike the violin, the rebec was always played vertically being positioned on or between the knees depending on its size. Rebab

Differing sizes obviously influenced the resultant pitch of each instrument that corresponded roughly to the soprano, alto, tenor and base of the human voice range.

The bowing action was also distinct from that of the violin being a palm-up action using a convex bow.

The rebec was fashioned from a single, solid block of timber with a rounded back. The overall shape could be described as an elongated pear. Three strings were usual but after the fifteenth century the number of strings ranged from one to five.

An early reference to the rebec is to be found in The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In twenty manner could he skip and dance
After the school ofOxenforde tho
And with his legges casten to and fro
And playen songs upon a small ribible,
Thereto he sang sometimes a loud quinible
And as well he could play on a gittern.

This excerpt gives insight into one manner in which a rebec might have been used in fourteenth century England. A lovely picture is painted of Absalom (the instrumentalist) singing and dancing to his own accompaniment. However, the rebec was not only used in the fashion so obviously enjoyed by Absalom. A common ensemble of instruments up until the fifteenth century would contain harps, fiddles, rebecs, psalteries and hurdy-gurdies. Such ensembles accompanied songs, poems and dances. They were known to precede a poem as a sort of overture as well as providing links between episodes of the narrative, augmenting the spoken word and providing an ensemble ending at the conclusion of the poem.


Medieval Fiddle A medieval bowed stringed instrument that had three to five strings tuned in fifths.

The fiddle was slightly larger than the modern viola but neither its shape nor size was standardised. It had a flat, round or heart-shaped peg-disc into which the tuning pegs could be mounted from above or below. The neck could be fretted or unfretted.

The beginning of a waist shape was evident though it was not well defined, being more of a concave curve than the definite, inset waist so characteristic of the violin.

The fiddle was played violin-style under the chin using a convex bow held palm downwards in the manner of violinists. This was distinct from the playing stance and bowing style of rebec players thus making the fiddle a more genuine ancestor of the violin that was to emerge in the sixteenth century.


Citole Said to be an ancestor of the cittern, the citole was known to have been in use by the late twelfth century.

From contemporary carvings and illustrations it can be seen that the citole was a four-stringed, quill-plucked instrument. Modern reproductions of the citole tend to be metal-strung but the original versions were more likely to have been gut-strung. In shape, it appears spade like and it was manufactured from a solid piece of timber.

The name "citole" disappears by the fifteenth century. There is no consensus about whether the citole evolved into the cittern or whether it just ceased to exist to be replaced by the cittern.


Cittern Developed from the citole, which was a quill-plucked, brass-stringed instrument of early medieval times.

In appearance, the cittern was flat-backed with a rounded, pear-shaped, lute-like body. The fingerboard was fretted and there were a variable number of metal strings set in pairs.

Like its predecessor, the citole, it was quill-plucked though by the sixteenth century it was plucked by finger to improve the tone.

The cittern was popular from the early fifteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century.It was particularly popular in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when it was used in Barber Shop Music. Whilst customers waited for shaving, hair-cutting, blood-letting or tooth extraction they could ease boredom (or calm fear) by strumming on the citterns provided by the establishment for just such a function.

Barbers, themselves, gained a reputation for members of their profession as being proficient musicians.The tradition of Barber Shop Music travelled from the Old World to the New from whence it has spread to be heard in the form of Barber Shop Singing (quartets and choirs) on both sides of the Atlantic.

The cittern should not be confused with the gittern, which was an earlier version of the guitar. An important difference between the cittern and the gittern is that the former is metal-strung whilst the latter is gut-strung. By the seventeenth century, gittern and guitar appear to be synonymous.


Gittern The gittern was a medieval, quill-plucked, gut-strung instrument that pre-dated the guitar.

It had a flat body and the body and neck were constructed from a single piece of timber. The gittern usually had four single courses of strings though an example with five double-courses is recorded.

A popular instrument with the common populace during the fourteenth century, the gittern remained in use until the mid-seventeenth century when it was finally replaced by the guitar.

The name "gittern" was imprecise in usage. During its declining years its nomenclature referred to any plucked stringed instrument that was not a lute so there was a time when "gittern" and "guitar" were interchangeable.


The forebears of the lute can be traced back to 2000 BC. It was of eastern origin and the name stems from a corruption of the Arabic, al’ud.

LuteThe lute appeared in Europe during the fourteenth century and by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it had become one of the most important European instruments. Such was its popularity that it was used as a solo instrument, in an accompanying role and as an ensemble performer.

The lute accumulated a prolific repertoire of music from composers such as John Dowland (1563-1626) and its credentials as a serious instrument were further verified by its inclusion in Bach’s St John Passion (1722) and in Handel’s final opera in 1741.

In recent times, renewed interest in the performance of early music has revived the popularity of the lute.

In appearance, the lute has a rounded body that could best be described as being the shape of a longitudinally sliced half pear. The soundboard is embellished with an intricately carved, decorative, yet functional, Sound Holesound hole. The strings run the entire length of the instrument without the support of a bridge. Depending on period and country of origin, the strings would be set in pairs ranging anywhere from six to thirteen courses (pairs of strings). The fingerboard was fretted by means of tying gut around the neck at the appropriate places.

Visually, the lute is easily recognisable because of its characteristically angled pegboard. This is set back at almost right angles to the fingerboard.  Chitarron

Larger members of the lute family, such as the chitarrone, could stand to a height matching that of an adult. These instruments, which served the same function as that of the double bass within a modern orchestra, had long necks that carried two peg-boxes. One carried strings that passed over the fretted fingerboard in the conventional fashion whilst the other carried up to six courses of open, bass strings which, because they could not be “stopped”, were unalterable in pitch.

  Timeline  Viol

The viol has enjoyed a revival of interest thanks to modern enthusiasm for authentic performance. It was previously prominent and popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. (Approximately 1450-1600 and 1600-1750 respectively.)

Viol During the period of its original popularity, the viol both preceded the violin and then remained contemporary with it.

The development of the orchestra in the eighteenth century allowed the violin to supersede the viol.  Public performance on a grander scale, more suited to members of the violin family, took precedence over the private performance with smaller ensembles in less spacious surroundings that was so well suited to the qualities of the viol.

Like the violin family that replaced it, the viol appeared in four sizes. The treble, tenor and bass were more common than the double bass version, the violone. violone

It was the treble, tenor and bass versions that were to be found in a consort of viols that usually consisted of two of each pitch.

(Consort meant ensemble. There were two kinds of consorts: whole and broken. A consort of viols or a consort of recorders were whole consorts because they contained family members only, whereas a broken consort would contain mixed instruments.)

A group of viols was also known as a chest of viols, which were just that; a set of viols kept in a custom-built chest and used for domestic performance.

The bass viol, which is about the size of a cello and serves the same function as a cello, is known as the viola da gamba. The term actually refers to all members of the family of viols since it means viol of the leg and refers to the way in which the instruments were positioned during performance. Viols were played vertically, resting on the knees or between the legs depending on the size of the instrument. Viols are thus distinct from viola da braccia, which refers to those instruments held under the chin as arm viols. 

That the bass viol is considered to be the viola da gamba is because it was the last of the viol family to be replaced by the violin family, having maintained its popularity, and, consequently expanding repertoire, well after the other family members had fallen into obscurity.

Viol family members can be identified by the way in which the shoulders of the body slope away from the neck, rather than project more sharply in the manner of a violin. Viols have a flat back, like a guitar, and they have six gut strings. Like the violin and unlike the lute, the strings run over a bridge. However, unlike the violin and like the lute, the fingerboard is fretted with tied gut. The sound holes have a characteristic “C” Shape and are positioned similarly to the “f” shaped sound holes of the violin.

As mentioned above, viols were played vertically on the knees or between the legs and the convex bow was held using an underhand grip.

Hurdy Gurdy

To the French, the hurdy gurdy was the vielle a roue (wheel fiddle) which perfectly describes it in terms of familial relationship and method of sound production.

As the first musical instrument to which the keyboard principle was applied it was also notable for the mechanically operated wheel that replicated the function of a bow.

Hurdy Gurdy The lute-shaped body contained the wheel mounted beneath an arched cover into and through which the strings passed. The rosined wheel was cranked by means of a handle protruding from the base of the sound box. The strings, ultimately six with two free-standing drone strings, could be activated by depressing small, piano-like keys mounted on the short, stocky finger board. The action of depressing a key caused the rotating wheel to vibrate the string(s) and the selected freestanding drone string.

The earliest hurdy gurdies were cumbersome constructions requiring the services of two people to operate them. Such instruments were popular in the early twelfth century as providers of church music.

By the thirteenth century, advances in construction techniques allowed the hurdy gurdy to become a portable, solo-operated instrument that, singly or in ensemble, accompanied the dance.

Testament to the qualities of the hurdy gurdy is the fact that it survives to this day in folk music.

Barrel organs and street pianos are sometimes erroneously referred to as hurdy gurdies. This is not the case since the only similarity is that their operation involves the turning of a handle.


The psaltery was an ancient and medieval, stringed instrument that had similarities with the zither and the harp and, because of its quill-plucked strings, it could be considered an ancestor of the harpsichord.

Psaltery Originating in the Middle East, the psaltery enjoyed widespread use and popularity in fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe.

The body of the instrument was a distinctive, trapezoidal shape with two opposing sides indented with curves towards the narrower end. The strings passed over a decorated sound hole and ran horizontally across the width of the instrument.

As in the harp and lyre, the playing length of the strings was not adjusted by “stopping.” Each string, therefore, produced one note only dependent upon its permanent length; a fact that determined the distinctive shape of the psaltery as it tapered from the deepest to the highest strings.

Illustrations from contemporary manuscripts and carvings from ecclesiastical buildings of the gothic period of architecture indicate that the psaltery was played resting against the chest with the bass end uppermost and the strings horizontal. 

The psaltery was plucked, either with the fingers or with two quills; one in each hand.

A dulcimer and a psaltery share many of the same properties, the major distinguishing feature being that the strings of the dulcimer are hammered and the strings of the psaltery are plucked.


Dulcimer The dulcimer resembles the psaltery in appearance having a trapezoidal, shallow sound box across which wire strings are strung horizontally. There the resemblance ends! Sound production and playing position for the two instruments are entirely different.

The strings of the dulcimer are struck by two, hand-held, wooden, spoon-shaped hammers whereas the strings of the psaltery are plucked. This action of striking strings with hammers makes the dulcimer a definite ancestor of the pianoforte.

Furthermore, the dulcimer is positioned on the knees or an appropriate flat surface and the psaltery is held upright against the chest.

The dulcimer is an instrument of great antiquity, originating in the Middle East and appearing in England by the fourteenth century.

In late seventeenth century Western Europe, advances in the technology and popularity of keyboard instruments prompted a decline in the use of the dulcimer though, to this day, it maintains an important role in Eastern European folk music. It also remains an important instrument in China where it is known as the yang qin.

In Hungary, the dulcimer, known as the cimbalon, evolved into a substantial instrument mounted on four legs.

The Appalachian Dulcimer, a three-stringed, American folk instrument is, in fact, not a dulcimer since its strings are plucked, not hammered. It is, therefore, more closely related to the psaltery.

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