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also: sawtry, psaltérion, saltere, sauterie, Pslaterium, Psalter

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Contextual Associations

The psaltery is a box zither chordophone of Medieval Europe. It appears in numerous Medieval bas-reliefs and illuminations and is mentioned in a number of texts, suggesting that it was a widespread and common instrument during that period. Although no music exists exclusively composed for the psaltery, performers of medieval music today regularly arrange period music for it. Early music ensembles, both professional and amateur, such as those found at colleges and universities in Europe and America, are the most likely places to encounter the psaltery today. Instruments for such groups are made by craftsmen (in the case of the instrument pictured here, a craftswoman, Lynne Lewandowski) whose designs are inspired by Medieval era iconographic sources.


The resonator box of this psaltery is trapezoid-shaped and constructed from wood. Soundboard and backboard are made from thin boards of a straight -grained wood, perhaps spruce. The trapezoidal frame (the sides of the box) is made from four pieces of hardwood joined together. In the middle of the soundboard a rosette two inches in diameter has been cut to serve as the resonator soundhole. Two fixed bridges made of lengths of wood with a rectangular profile are glued to the soundboard, matching the angle of the two slanted sides of the resonator. Between each bridge and its nearest slanted side is located a row of nineteen metal pins; the pins on the right side are hitch pins, the ones on the left rotatable tuning pins. The bottom ends of all these pins are imbedded in the hardwood sides of the resonator. Nineteen metal wire strings in single courses are stretched from the hitch pins, over the edge of one bridge, over the soundboard in a single parallel plain, and over the edge of the other bridge before being threaded through and wound around the tuning pins. Each string has a unique vibrational length (the distance between the two bridges), from 24.6 inches for the longest to 8 inches for the shortest.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Iconographic sources often portray the psaltery being played with the resonator backboard against the player’s chest, the soundboard and strings facing forward, often, but not always, with the strings running horizontally. Psalteries are also laid flat on the players lap or on a tabletop with the strings facing upwards. The fingertips of both hands, two quills, or a quill in one hand and the fingertips of the other hand can be used to pluck the strings, which are not otherwise manipulated (i.e., one note per string). Single line melodies, possibly with a drone, are most often performed on this instrument. The diatonic tuning of the strings is accomplished by adjusting their tension with the aid of the tuning pins visible along the left side of the instrument. The tuning of the instrument pictured here is a C major scale from C3 to G5, a range of one-and-a-half octaves. Even with its box resonator and metal strings, the psaltery is a quiet instrument.


There are no extant psalteries from the medieval period, so our knowledge of it relies on written and iconographic sources. These sources are themselves at times contradictory and confusing. Today it is generally accepted that the European psaltery was inspired by the Arabic qanun, which entered Europe via Moorish Spain. The most believable visual representations of the psaltery from the 12th through the 15th centuries suggest it took on different shapes (triangular, triangular with two incurving sides, trapezoidal, wing-shaped) and coursing (sometimes single, other times double, triple or quadruple) in different parts of Europe. Though by the end of the medieval period most psalteries were strung with wire strings, earlier ones might have had gut strings. As music became more chromatic in nature during the Renaissance, the psaltery, a diatonic instrument, appears to have fallen out of favor. It is nonetheless seen as the precursor to several later instruments, some of which are still in use as part of living folk music traditions in Europe.

Bibliographic Citations

McKinnon, James W., and Mary Remnant. 1984. "Psaltery [sawtry]," NGDMI v.3: 151-155.

Myers, Herbert W. 2000. “Psaltery and Dulcimer,” in Ross W. Duffin, ed., The Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 440-441.