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.

Medieval musical instruments were divided into three categories. The woodwinds were instruments that were blown, such as flutes or trumpets. Strings were instruments whose strings were played with a bow or plucked. Instruments like the harpsichord, which had keys similar to a piano, were also considered strings. And finally, percussion instruments included drums and bells of all sorts, much like those we use now.

Woodwind Instruments

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.

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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.

Reed instruments enjoyed popularity during medieval times as well. The shawm evolved gradually into the hautboy and finally into our current-day oboe. A similar instrument is the English horn, or Cor Anglais, another that is still played today. The crumhorn was a long, curved horn with a double reed that produced a distinctive buzzing sound in a very limited range of pitches. Of course there were also bagpipes, the instrument of choice among the poor, who could fashion them out of goat or sheep skin and a pipe.

String Instruments

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.

The harpsichord and clavichord were essentially harps set horizontally on legs. Clavichords used keys and hammers to achieve the desired notes on each string. The harpsichord evolved out of the clavichord toward the end of the Middle Ages, and the most notable difference between the two is the addition of a damper to the harpsichord, so that the sound stops immediately when the key is no longer being pressed.

Percussion Instruments

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.