Medieval Musical Instruments
Music was a major part of
life in medieval times. Minstrels and Troubadours travelled the
countryside performing; labourers sang as they worked; music
featured heavily in celebrations. A number of musical instruments
came out of medieval times and in many cases they are easily
recognized as the forerunners of the musical instruments we know
Today, brass instruments such as trumpets and tubas are their own musical category, but in medieval times they were considered part of the woodwind family. Trumpets, which were simply coiled brass horns lacking today’s familiar valve structure for pitch change, were often used in pageantry and for fanfares. The sackbut, the obvious ancestor to today’s slide trombone, featured a delicate structure that lent itself well to chamber music and other indoor recitals. The medieval tuba was quite similar to the trumpet and often as popular, but produced a louder, richer sound.
Many types of flutes were also widely used. The standard flute was
very similar to our modern flutes, with a mouthpiece, holes, and
keys. The pipe, the lute and the flageolet were played very much the
same way. The flageolet produced a softer, quieter, higher-pitched
sound than other flutes and is considered the ancestor of today’s
piccolo. Simpler instruments were the recorder, the ocarina, and the
gemshorn, which all featured only holes, no keys.
Harps were exceptionally
common among travelling musicians of the time, but there were many
other types of stringed instruments as well. The dulcimer was
similar to the harp, but was played by striking the strings with a
small hammer rather than strumming them. The lute and the cittern
featured fretted fingerboards much like today’s guitars, and the
fiddle was one of the most popular instruments of the time, either
plucked or played with a bow. The rebec and viol were predecessors
of the modern violin family, and were played with a bow.
Drums, or tambours, were originally made from hollowed tree trunks or clay canisters covered taut with animal skins. Timbrels or tambourines were much like they are today, and were traditionally played by women rather than men. The tabor was a smaller drum designed to accompany a pipe and played by the pipe player. Bells were also commonly used, and the triangle was introduced during Medieval times.