Medieval Music

History of Medieval Music

A favourite historical period of mine is the Medieval approx 500 – 1440. It is no co-incidence that the music of this time is of particular interest.

There were surprisingly lots of different instruments used during this time. The instruments can be sorted into three distinct categories.


The Harp – The medieval harp was the favourite instrument of the troubadour, being small enough to be held on the players lap and normally had between 7 and 25 strings made from gut, hair as well as wire.

The Fiddle – (or Fydell) Medieval fiddles came in all sorts of different shapes and sizes and was plucked and latterly bowed. The fiddle had 3- 5 strings. The fiddle was played on its own and also in combination with the harp and percussion instruments.

The Psaltery – This was a cross between a harp and guitar. Early versions were simply a wooden board with gut stretched between pegs. The strings were plucked either with fingers or a plectra. The instrument would have been played on the lap or a table.

The Dulcimer – very similar to the psaltery, but the strings are beaten with two small hammers.

The Hurdy-Gurdy – A four stringed fiddle. The bowing action of the fiddle is replaced by a wheel turned by a handle. Keys pressed against the strings produced different pitches.
The Viol – A fairly large bowed string instrument typically 30 – 35 inches in length. Early instruments were carved from a single block of wood and had three strings, probably the precursor to the modern cello.

Wind Musical Instruments

The Flute – Very similar to our modern flutes, the medieval instrument was a slender tube closed at one end and an opening at the other across which the breath is blown. Pitch changes are made by closing over holes along the pipe

The Trumpet – a long instrument made of metal tube ending in a bell shape. The medieval trumpet had no valves and therefore the sounds were limited to what the mouth could achieve on the mouthpiece. You often see these on television playing a fanfare or to announce a jousting tournament

The Shawn– made of wood a bit like a recorder, except played with a double reed. It had seven finger holes and one thumb hole and was likely to have been invented in Asia and introduced to Europe during the crusades.

The Recorder– Probably one of the world’s oldest instruments and one that survives today. Made of bored wood and having seven finger holes and a thumb hole. Blown through a hole at the top, it gave a much softer sound than the Shawn and came in a variety of sizes, the larger the recorder the deeper the sound.

The Gem shorn – This is a medieval flute made from animal horn. The shape and therefore the sound was determined naturally. It has a soft haunting sound, but fell out of use by the end of the medieval period


The Drum – originally made of a hollow tree trunk and covered with stretched animal skins, the drum was beaten by hand, stick or small mallet. They existed in a variety of sizes .

The Tabor – This was a small drum and normally played at the same time as a pipe and by the same person

Cymbals – pretty much as we know them today, made of concave metal plates

The Tambourine or Timbrel – a wood instrument with metal discs attached

Generally there were two types of medieval musicians. Most people know the term minstrel. These were servants employed specifically as court musicians. They often created their own songs or ballads and sang about legends or myths, romance and love, with tales of heroic deeds.
Eventually they were replaced by Troubadours who were travelling musicians. They travelled from village to village singing about chivalrous deeds, romance and love. Because they travelled around and sang for kings and queens and the nobility as well as common people, they were able to deliver news and gossip that they picked up on the way.

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