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A Guide to Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period

The Medieval period in European history is often ignored in many ways. It lasted for a thousand years, and it could be argued that not much changed, apart from towards the end of it.

It effectively started as far back as the fall of the Roman Empire. A transitional period before the Renaissance arrived in the 15th century. But the “Age of Discovery” that became the Renaissance had its roots in Medieval Europe.

Medieval Social Status

Medieval Social Status

This was the defining issue. And this status was clearly defined. Over 90% of people were peasants, and the divide that existed between them and the nobility was huge. There was also the Clergy, but they were not necessarily considered a separate class.

What they all had in common, though, was that their lives were defined by the community, family, and circles they mixed in. They never left it, and that was all they had. For the duration of their lives, they lived in villages with a local noble and learned to be self-reliant.

But, they also learned to entertain themselves. And we will learn how they kept their spirits up with A Guide to Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period. But first, a little history.

The Three Periods

These periods, it could be argued, were separated as much by learning as by time. The Early Medieval period lasted roughly from 500 to 1150AD. This was a period when instruments were at a premium, and most music was religious or Gregorian chants.

The High Medieval period from about 1150 to 1300 was when we started to see other instruments. Music became more than a religious expression. It also became entertainment. And for a few, an occupation; and new instruments began to arrive, created by experimentation.

The Late Medieval period, from 1300 to the commencement of the Renaissance in the early 1500s, was a great time of learning and understanding. But it was also the start of a period of exploration of philosophy, art, and of course, music.

Are periods of oppression followed by periods of change?

It is an interesting question, and in this context, you could easily argue it was. People gradually became better educated and learned to read. They met art and philosophy head-on, and the reaction was the Renaissance.

Was this the only occurrence of such a phenomenon? You could provide a good case for the baby boomer generation closeted in the gray world of the post-war 50s being similar. Just as the Renaissance arrived, so did the 1960s. More dramatic, more influencing it might have been. Nevertheless, an outpouring of social change that completely altered the system.

The Medieval Instruments

They were, in many cases, the forerunners of some of the things we have today. Some progressed and developed; some just fell by the wayside. But all the instruments we will look at played their part. Across all these periods, they arrived and added to the lives of the people who heard them.

Unfortunately, we have very few actual examples of some of them. We rely on art and descriptions and the musical scores written for them. Let’s take a look, first, at the Woodwind options.

Woodwinds

We have selected seven to have a look at…

1 – The Shawm

 The Shawm

The first instrument was known as a Shawm. This has a conical bore and has two reeds. It was made in the 12th century and onwards. In some parts of the world, it is still made today. It was the most popular instrument during the later Medieval period and into the Renaissance.

It is a predecessor of the Oboe. As the manufacture of the Oboe improved, and it gained in popularity, the Shawm rather disappeared from use. It has an almost trumpet-like sound and was used mainly out of doors.

2 – The Recorder

An instrument we still have today and one of the first introductions to music many children will have. The medieval instruments were almost the same, with eight finger holes and the recognizable mouthpiece.

These days, they are usually made from plastic, but in Medieval times they were constructed from wood. There are some examples of some rather ornate designs from that period.

3 – The Flageolet

This is a close cousin of the recorder. A member of the family of instruments that included the Flute and the Tin whistle.

It is hard to know when they first arrived. Variations in design may have been in existence for many hundreds of years. They did, though, lose favor and die out in the 1800s.

They were used by amateur musicians. There were two versions. The English version has six finger holes and one on the back, and the French with four and two on the back.

4 – The Flute

The Flute

The forerunner of what we know now but quite different. Today’s instruments are made from anything from a Nickel Alloy for a beginner to Silver-plated alloys. They are often made from Solid Sterling Silver for a professional player.

However, you can still get wooden flutes that have metal fittings. It is interesting to hear the variation in sound between wood and metal.

Furthermore, Medieval Flutes would have been less complex by design, just using simple holes for the fingers to cover. This instead of today’s complicated designs.

5 – The Pipe

The pipe was a basic woodwind instrument featuring only three holes. It was played with one hand, allowing the other to play a tabor drum, which was a kind of portable snare drum that I will cover later on, or another small percussion instrument.

6 – The Bagpipes

What is often described as the ‘unique’ sound of the bagpipes is most usually associated with the Scottish highland clans. But it was in existence way before any records of it being used in Scotland. It is also a part of St Patrick’s day parades in Ireland.

The design is mentioned in the Bible, but not the name. However, the accuracy and description are vague, to say the least. They were around in early Medieval Europe, judging by artworks from the time that depict their use.

That being said, Early Medieval bagpipes would have been made from sheep or goat skin for the bag. There would have been a reed pipe. The Drone, the one-note pipe providing the ‘non-stop‘ sound, was added in the 13th century.

7 – The Cornett

No, this isn’t the instrument we recognize as a small trumpet. This was an instrument that resembled a pipe. It was made from wood or sometimes ivory that was often covered in leather.

It was played like a woodwind instrument with holes along the top. But it had a mouthpiece that resembled what you might see on a brass instrument. It was very popular in the period from 1500 to 1670.

Brass Instruments

Just two to consider here…

1 – Trumpet

Trumpet

The early trumpets from the medieval period were straighter and much longer, more like horns than what we know as trumpets. They didn’t have valves, so the only notes they could play were from harmonic scales.

The Buisine trumpet from Southern Italy was the first trumpet and hailed from the 11th century. However, it is thought the ancient Greeks might have had some versions.

They were sometimes used to announce the arrival of nobility as fanfares and often used in pageants. Additionally, they could be heard over great distances, which also gave rise to their future use in military situations.

2 – The Sackbut

If you had ever seen a picture of a Sackbut, you wouldn’t need me to explain what it was. It was a very early version of what we now call the Trombone. The bell is narrower, but the slide action for changing pitch is evident. The Sackbut, of course, evolved into the Trombone as manufacturing and design improved.

String Instruments

We could make A Guide to Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period using only string instruments. Here are seven great instruments from the Medieval Period…

1 – The Lute

Lute

Let’s start with the most influential medieval instrument that left its mark on the world and encouraged a whole way of life. The Lute appeared in the early 15th century in its various forms, and by the 16th century was one of the most popular instruments in the world.

It, therefore, made the transition from medieval to the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. We know that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote pieces for the Lute. We still see it even in the Classical period. It was designed to provide instrumental accompaniment to a singer. Is that a clue where we end up?

It is a deep-bodied instrument that is the forerunner of the guitar, though it was plucked with a quill. It is one of only a few Medieval instruments that are still with us and being played in their original forms.

A revival…

Its use died away in the early part of the 19th Century as the huge orchestras, and their symphonies took hold of the music. There was no place for the Lute. However, it has seen a revival in the 20th century in modern folk and progressive rock music.

One such adherent was Jan Akkerman of the Dutch band Focus. He released two albums played on the Lute in the 70s.

2 – The Gittern

A cousin of the Lute though much smaller, another instrument that turned into a guitar. The Gittern is a close relative of the Lute as well as of the modern guitar. In fact, the design mirrors some guitar designs that come much later, having a one-piece neck and body.

It first appeared in the 13th century and became one of the most popular instruments of its time. It was played across the social spectrum and in many different musical styles.

3 – The Dulcimer

The Dulcimer was a member of the Zither group of instruments. You sat down to play with it on your lap using small hammers with which you hit the strings. The strings were made of metal and therefore produced quite a unique sound. Much different from the gut-strung instruments of the time.

Another instrument that saw the end of its popularity during the Classical period. However, it is still used in its modern redesign in some American folk music.

4 – The Harp

The Harp

An instrument we are familiar with today and one that still has an important presence. A variant form was known to exist about 3500 BC in Egypt and the Nile Valley regions. Its use spread across Asia and arrived in Europe sometime in the 8th century.

By the time of the Medieval period, it was a popular instrument carried around by minstrels. Although, it has to be said, a very scaled-down version of the pedal harps we know today. The tradition of the harp and harp playing has now spread all over the world, including to the Americas.

It didn’t disappear as some instruments did because it was often included in Orchestral pieces. Today it is very prominent in some musical circles, and you can even get electric harps.

5 – The Hurdy Gurdy

Just about the strangest instrument you are ever likely to see. In its earliest forms, it needed to be operated by two people. One to turn the crank, the other to play the notes. In later times it was reduced in size and given a different design that allowed one player.

It appeared in the medieval period and was limited in its uses. Somehow it survived, initially as part of the culture of certain locations. But also when British 60s singer Donovan recorded the song “The Hurdy Gurdy Man.” That aroused enough interest in it to put it back in people’s consciousness.

It was very popular during the Renaissance period. The sound is not unlike the Bagpipe, with a drone sound being emitted under a melody. They are still made today.

6 – The Viol

Also known as the Viola da Gamba, it arrived at the end of the medieval period as people began to turn towards stringed instruments. They come in different sizes, but the most common were those that were played between the legs seated. Similar in design and idea to the later Cello.

7 – The Rebec

Another stringed instrument towards the end of the Medieval period. It has a very narrow body and was played with a bow. This could be played under the chin as with a violin or resting against your arm.

Percussion

A Guide to Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period would be incomplete without mentioning percussion. We have three to look at…

1 – The Timbrel

Timbrel

Really just a tambourine to us. It was a wooden frame that had bells and jangles around the edges. You shook it or just hit it in time with the music. A popular instrument because it was cheap and easy to make.

2 – The Naker

Similar to what we would today call kettle drum but rather smaller. It was brought back from the Middle East, where it became popular in the early Medieval periods.

3 – The Tabor

We mentioned the Tabor as it was often used in conjunction with the Pipe woodwind instrument. It was simply what we would call a snare drum. Just used as a rhythmic accompaniment played by hand or played on its own with two sticks.

Keyboard Instruments

Three very influential instruments to finish…

1 – Pipe Organs

Pipe Organs

Known for their place in the churches of the day, they were quite often elaborate, ornate, and very large. They are still seen today in various guises but more especially in a certain scenario.

The Royal Albert Hall in London has its 70 foot high and 65 feet wide pipe organ, but that is only the second largest. It is beaten by the Pipe Organ in Liverpool Cathedral. Both were built by the same man, Henry Willis.

Seen in Medieval times as official and religious rather than entertainment, they grew in stature as well as in size. Later, Bach wrote many famous pieces on one, and Mozart called it the “King of Instruments.” Its high points during the Medieval and later periods were never repeated. Other than permanent reminders as in Liverpool and London and some other places.

2 – The Portative Organ

A similar principle in design to the Pipe Organ in that it was driven by air. But this was a much smaller instrument fixed with some bellows to create the air needed. It was strapped to the performer who not only had to pump the bellows but also play the music. It didn’t fare so well.

3 – The Harpsichord

The Harpsichord

We come to the end of our journey through medieval music with perhaps the period’s most famous instrument. It was invented in the Medieval period.

The instrument of Bach in the Baroque period that followed the Renaissance. Mozart in the Classical period, and the forerunner to the piano of Beethoven, as we entered the Romantic period, Liszt, and Chopin.

You will find it played today in various places, both in their original formats but also in today’s music. It is even included in the software for computer recording. A testament to its quality and how people still love the sound.

Want to Learn More About Music and Music History?

Let our experts enlighten you. Check out our detailed guides on The Romantic Period of MusicAmazing Facts About JS BachAmazing Facts About Mozart, What is Considered a String InstrumentWhat is a MetronomeTypes of Vocal Timbre, and some useful Tips for Memorizing Music.

You may also be interested in some instruments that have their roots in the Medieval Period. Take a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Bagpipes, the Best Kalimba, the Best Tin Whistles, the Best Hammered Dulcimers, the Best Mountain Dulcimers, and the Best Mandolins you can buy in 2021.

A Guide to Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period – Final Thoughts

These were some of the instruments that shaped the future. Some became instruments we know, others fell by the wayside for various reasons. One of the reasons being the growth of the large orchestra and their lack of input to the sounds of the composers of the time.

Nevertheless, some of these have had a resurgence in recent years, and why not. They contributed so much, as did those that played them, to what we have now.

If you are interested in what they were actually playing to their listeners, you can get an idea by listening to this album of Medieval Music. Or, if you want to listen to some of the instruments I have covered, then Medieval Music (Digitally Remastered) is a great option.

And, if you would like to enjoy some of Bach’s work on the Pipe Organ, take a listen to J.S. Bach- Organ Concerts.

Hopefully, you found this information useful and enjoyable. Until next time, let the music play.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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