Musical Instruments in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Music has been a large component of human social interactions, personal expression, and culture throughout recorded history. While many consider the Middle Ages a time of hard work, famine, disease such as the Black Plague, and warfare, music was as alive and important during this period of history as any other. In some cases, music was the only exposure individuals had to artistic expression. In general, music was a source of inspiration, revelry, and good times, often utilized during weddings, festivals, and other large-scale social events.
Many of today’s musical instruments have their roots in musical instruments in the Middle Ages. Some have changed more than others throughout the centuries, and some have fallen out of use entirely. However, like today, the musical instruments of the time were divided into three rough categories: Wind instruments, such as flutes, stringed instruments, like harps, and percussion instruments, like drums. These same categories can be applied to many or most instruments in common use today.
The simplest and most obvious example of a wind instrument is the flute. While flutes have continued to become more elaborate over time in order to provide more consistent sounds and more variation in possible notes, today’s flute bears a strong similarity to the flute of the Middle Ages. Flutes produced a high-pitched sound, with notes changing based on finger placement on holes or keys. The flute is unusual among instruments in the way it is held, sideways from the mouth rather than straight out or down. Wandering minstrels often played the flute, as it was easy to carry and required little preparation to begin playing.
Instruments similar to the flute included the shawn, the gemshorn, the crumhorn, and the recorder. The shawn was a simple instrument that used vent holes and a reed, a small piece of wood that vibrated against the tongue or lips to produce sound. Today’s saxophones and clarinets are reed instruments. The crumhorn was a curved horn that utilized a double reed to produce a similar sound, much the same way an oboe uses a double reed today. The recorder was a very simple instrument not significantly different from a flute. The gemshorn was played like a flute as well, but was a horn-shaped instrument made from ox horns.
Bagpipes were used during the Middle Ages as well. The bag was often made from animal skin, and the horn, or pipe, could be fashioned of wood or bone. The bagpipes were played with a reed. Bagpipes were particularly common among poorer people, perhaps because they could be made at home with materials readily available, such as the skins and bones of livestock.
Stringed instruments today are little different from the stringed musical instruments in the Middle Ages. Some were clear precursors to more modern versions. Others have been abandoned or relegated to strictly historical status due to their sometimes cumbersome natures and the amount of practice needed to become skilled players. Stringed instruments included not only easily portable ones such as fiddles, but also largely stationary instruments, like the harpsichord.
Like the flute, the fiddle was a favorite of minstrels who traveled from village to village in search of work. Fiddles could be played with a bow, like violins, or plucked with the fingers. Each style produced a distinctive and unique sound.
An early ancestor of today’s violin was the rebec. The rebec had a rounded, pear-shaped body, very similar to the shape of modern violins. Rebecs, too, could be played by plucking or by bowing. Viols were popular as well, and could vary in size. Some were placed on the lap while playing, while others were large enough to rest on the floor. These would be the earliest versions of the modern viola and cello. They were not instruments that traveled as well as others, owing to the musician’s need to be seated in order to effectively play them.
The harp was one of the most common instruments of the time. Middle Ages harps were somewhat smaller than those we are accustomed to seeing today, generally measuring about 30 inches in height. Harps were played by strumming or plucking the strings in order to produce sound, and were easily transported enough that they were yet another favorite among minstrels.
The dulcimer and the harpsichord were unique instruments. Each was essentially based upon the harp, with the harpsichord offering keys to strike each string and the dulcimer requiring the player to strike the strings himself with a small hammer. Eventually, stationary, seated instruments such as these would give way to the piano, one of the most popular musical instruments in the world today.
Percussion instruments create sound not with strings or with the musician’s breath, but by being struck. Drums are perhaps the most obvious type of percussion instrument, both today and in the Middle Ages. Drums were generally made from a hollowed-out trunk of tree or a metal or clay bowl. Animal skin would be stretched across the top of the hollow area, and beating, hitting, or striking the skin would create a percussive sound used to keep tempo and add interest to musical pieces.
Other musical instruments in the Middle Ages qualified as percussion instruments as well, however. The tambourine was designed by stretching animal skin across a hollow circle of wood, clay, or metal and affixing bells to the edges. The tambourine could be struck or shaken to produce two very different sounds, the first being a drum-like beat with added bells and the second being a simple bell jingle. Tambourines were widely considered a feminine instrument, and generally played by women.
Cymbals and the triangle rounded out the most widely used percussion instruments of the time. Cymbals were, like today, thin metal plates that could be struck with a hammer or crashed together. The triangle has not changed at all since its origination in the 1300s; triangles are smaller metal pipes bent into a triangular shape and struck with a mallet or hammer to produce a high-pitched, bell-like percussive sound.