Medieval Musical Instruments
There were usually three known categories of musical instruments in the Medieval Period – wind, string, and percussion.
Medieval instruments were used by the musicians of the period including the Waits, Minstrels or Troubadours.
Many of the Medieval musical instruments are ancestors to our modern musical instruments.
Bas Instruments and Haut Instruments
Bas referred to soft instruments (literally, “low,” but referring to volume, not pitch) which were suitable for the chamber.
This type of instrument included the vielle, rebec and other bowed strings, the lute and other plucked strings and the recorders.
Haut referred to loud instruments (literally “high” but referring to volume, not to pitch) which were suitable for outdoors. This type of instrument included the shawm, sackbut, pipe and tabor.
Categories of Medieval Musical Instruments
There were many Medieval Musical Instruments that can be described as part of the following categories:
Woodwind Instruments – Musical instruments which were blown like trumpets or bagpipes
String Instruments – Musical instruments which were played with a bow or plucked
Percussion Instruments – various forms of drums and bells were used during the Medieval times
Types of String Musical Instruments
Stringed instruments today are a 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.
There were many types of string Musical Instruments played during Medieval times including the instruments detailed in the following list:
List of medieval instruments
- The Harp – The harp was a favorite instrument of the troubadours and minstrels and was about 30 inches in length
- Lute – A plucked string instrument having a pear-shaped body, a usually bent neck, and a fretted fingerboard
- The Fiddle – There were a variety of Medieval Fiddles which were played with a bow or plucked and usually held under the chin or in the crook of the arm. Easily portable and one of the most popular street musical instruments
- The Rebec – The rebec was an instrument with a round pear-shaped body much like an early violin
- The Psaltery – The Psaltery was a Medieval musical instrument which was a cross between a harp and a lyre
- Chittarone – a lute which could reach 6 feet tall
- Cittern – Similar to a modern guitar
- The Dulcimer – The Dulcimer was played by striking the strings with small hammers
- Gittern – Similar to a modern guitar
- The Viol – Viols were played with a bow and held on the lap or between the legs
- The Vielle – Popular string instrument with troubadours and jongleurs
- Mandolin and Mandore – A small and beautifully shaped string instrument resembling the lute
- The Clavichord – an early stringed instrument like a piano but with more delicate sound
- Harpsichord – a harp-shaped instrument of music set horizontally on legs, like the grand piano
- Spinet – The Spinet can be described as a keyed instrument of music resembling a harpsichord, but smaller
Types of Woodwind Musical Instruments
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.
There were many types of Woodwind Musical Instruments played during Medieval times including the instruments detailed in the following list:
- The Flute – Similar to our modern flutes. This type of Musical instruments played by flute-minstrels of the Middle Ages
- The Trumpet – Long instrument made of metal, often in four parts – often associated with fanfares and pageants
- The Pipe – The pipe was an extremely basic instrument usually having only three melody holes
- The Shawm – The shawm was a reed instrument with vent holes
- Recorder – The recorder was also an extremely basic instrument with melody holes
- Flageolet – A small fipple flute with four finger holes and two thumb holes.
- The Bagpipe – The Bagpipe was an ancient instrument, used by the poorest people and was made using a goat or sheep skin and a reed pipe
- The Crumhorn – The crumhorn (Curved Horn) was introduced in the 1400’s as a double reed musical instrument
- The Gemshorn – The gemshorn was made of horn of an ox, chamois or similar
- Cornett – The cornett was an early woodwind instrument taking the form of a long tube with woodwind-style fingerholes
- The Lizard – The lizard was a descriptive term for an s-shaped horn
- The Ocarina – An egg-shaped woodwind instrument with a mouthpiece and finger holes
- Sackbut – A medieval musical instrument resembling a trombone
- Hautboy – A slender double-reed woodwind instrument with a conical bore and a double-reed mouthpiece
- English Horn – Despite its name it is not a horn – this instrument is more similar to an oboe
- Cor Anglais – Another name commonly used for the Cor Anglais is the English Horn
- Horns – Originally made of a horn (ox or a ram)
- Bombard – The Bombard can be described as a large shawm
- Oboe – evolved from the Shawm into the hautboy and then the oboe
- Trombone- a long tube whose length can be varied by a U-shaped slide
- Tuba – an ancient trumpet, the lowest brass woodwind instrument
Types of Percussion musical instruments
Percussion instruments create a 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.
There were many types of Percussion Musical Instruments played during the Medieval times including the musical instruments detailed in the following list:
- The Drum – Drums were made initially from a hollow tree trunk, clay or metal and covered by skins of water animals – also called tambours
- Cymbals – Thin round concave metal plates
- The Triangle – The triangle was a musical instrument introduced during the 14th century
- The Tambourine – This musical instrument was traditionally used by a woman
- The Tabor – a small drum used as an accompaniment to a pipe or fife, both being played by the same person.
- Timbrel – This musical instrument was also referred to as a tambourine and dates back to antiquity
- Bells – the use of Bells also dates back to antiquity