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also: chifonie, symphonia

gallery #1
hurdy gurdy
detail #1
audio #1


Contextual Associations

The hurdy-gurdy is a mechanically bowed box-zither chordophone with keyboard-operated tangents. Pictured and described here is a modern replica of the hurdy-gurdy inspired by iconographic representations of instruments in use during  Medieval times in Europe. Strongly associated with dancing, wandering minstrels, beggars, and blind musicians, the Medieval hurdy-gurdy was generally stigmatized. Nonetheless, it has survived over the centuries in a variety of more lute-like designs and used at various times and places in the music making of peasants and nobility, signifying something different to each of its constituencies. As a result of the mid-20th century early music movement, the hurdy-gurdy has been resurrected in its 13th century form for use by musicians specializing in the performance of Medieval music. Even though there is no specific repertoire for the instrument, surviving music from the era is arranged for the instrument (audio #1).


This instrument has two resonating chambers: a primary one between a soundboard and back made of thinly-shaven cedar or pine enclosed by thicker sidewalls of cherry; and a secondary one above the soundboard and beneath a hinged lid (which is shown in its open position in the photo but which would be closed when the instrument is being played) and the same sidewalls as the primary resonator. The primary resonator has one soundhole on the keyboard side of the resonator box, the secondary chamber has three soundholes in its lid. The shaft of the metal crank that is used to rotate the disc-shaped bow runs through the end board of the resonator and is supported at its other end by an internal wooden rod the ends of which are imbedded in the front- and rear-side walls of the case. Three strings, two of which are used to produce a drone while the third is used for melodic play, are stretched across the length of the instrument. All three are gut stings, but the lower drone string and the melody string are wound with fine steel wire. One end of each string is knotted against the outside of the resonator wall just above the crank, passes through a hole in the end wall and over one of two bridges (a short one for the bass drone string and a higher one shared by the high drone and the melody strings) before making contact with the rosined edge of the bow-disc, which protrudes through a slot in the soundboard. Each string then runs over the soundboard until it passes through a tight hole in the endboard (functioning as a nut) before being threaded through and wound around the capstan of a metal machine head mounted on the bottom side of the pegblock, which is tightly joined to the outside of the endboard.  The tangents used to stop the melody string are housed in a box that rests on the soundboard and beneath the lid. It has twelve channels each one accepting a wooden slide with a head at one end (outside the box, forming the instrument’s keyboard) and a tangent mounted at its other end. Each tangent can be pivoted to set the precise spot at which it will contact the string, making it possible to alter the sequence of whole step and half step intervals that will be sounded on the melody string.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The instrument is positioned horizontally across the lap of a seated player or suspended by a shoulder strap about waist high for a standing player. In both positions the lid is facing upwards and the tangent slide heads away from the performer (in the image the performer would be at the back side of the instrument facing the camera, and the lid would be down). Since the tangents have no spring mechanism, the keyboard is tilted slightly down so that gravity will return the slides to their neutral position when not being pressed. The performer rotates the crank handle with his or her right hand to sound all three strings simultaneously while pressing the tangent buttons one at a time with the fingertips of the left hand to produce melodic notes. A tangent is brought into action by pressing its button, which slides the tangent against the side of the melody string to shorten its vibrational length. The twelve tangents are positioned in the image to produce on the melody string a diatonic scale plus one chromatic option covering the range of an octave and a fifth (major scale from Sol below the central octave to Re above it, with both Fa and Fi). Absolute pitches cannot be given because the manufacturer can outfit the instrument with one of three different sets of strings each of which can be tuned to a couple of major scale options. But, if the instrument were tuned to C major, its low drone string would be tuned to C3, the high drone to C5, and the melody string to G3. Each successive tangent would then produce on the melody string: A3, B3, C4, D4, E4, F4, F-sharp4, G4, A4, B4, C5, and D5. Only monophonic melodies with two continuous drone notes can be played on the instrument. The hurdy-gurdy is dynamically a fairly soft instrument.


No Medieval hurdy-gurdies survive. Iconographic and written sources suggest that the small, portable, box-like hurdy-gurdy in roughly the design of the instrument pictured here evolved in 13th century Europe from the larger organistrum, a lute-shaped mechanically-bowed chordophone operated by two players (one cranking the rosined wheel, the other operating the tangents) used primarily in monastic settings. How long the box-shaped form of the hurdy-gurdy remained in use is unclear; most later representations and descriptions of the instrument that we have encountered, even from the late Medieval period, illustrate an instrument consisting of a viol- or guitar-like resonator with a tangent-box built on the resonator soundboard. In this latter form the hurdy-gurdy survived for centuries as a folk instrument in many parts of Europe (see detail #1, in which is shown a regional variety of French hurdy-gurdy still in use at the turn of the 20th century).

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Francis, Edmund A. Bowles, and Robert A. Green. n.d. “Hurdy-gurdy [organistrum],” in Grove Music Online, accessed November 5, 2014:

Green, Robert. 2000. “Symphonia,” in Ross W. Duffin, ed., The Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 325-329.