busy mole music

Makers of small harps, lyres and psalteries

TEL: 01283 730602 

The story of musical instruments is almost as old as mankind: from the earliest Stone Age flutes to a modern symphony orchestra it has been a process of evolution, increasing complexity and amalgamation of cultures.

The lyres and early harps of the Mediterranean evolved into the modern Concert Harp and Knee Harp, with a stretch of the imagination via Psalteries and Dulcimers into modern keyboard instruments. The Gitterns, Vihuela, Lutes and Citterns have evolved into the Baroque Mandolin, the 19th century Ukulele, and the modern Accoustic Guitar. Bone whistles turned into Flageolets, Flutes and Recorders, while a buzzing reed or a child blowing a blade of grass through their thumbs has become a modern Saxophone via the Crumhorn, Shawm and Curtal.

Travel and migration disseminated styles of music and different instruments between cultures: the Lute from the Oud, the Rebec from the Rabab, the Shawm from the Bombarde and the Psaltery – all legacies of the Crusades. Even today, although bagpipes evolved independently around the world, the Indian Army plays Scottish style pipes and a western Bugle.

Examples of extant instruments before 1600 are rare but do exist. A visit to the MusicalInstrumentsMuseum (Musee des Instruments de Musique), is well worth the trouble. More examples occur from later periods.




The Harp

According to the 12th century Laws of Wales, the three things indispensable to a gentleman were his harp, his cloak and his chess board, whilst the three things for any man to have in his house were a virtuous wife, his cushion on his chair and his harp in tune. According to Guillaume de Machaut (14th century) the harp was the best of all soft instruments. The survival of Harper as a common English surname is an indication of the popularity of this instrument. Sadly, unlike lutenists and organists, harpers did not develop their own system of notation so little pure harp music survives.

Illustrations of triangular harps exist in carvings from the 9th century, and non-pillar harps are found on Egyptian wall paintings. Some illustrations show as few a 6 or 7 strings but 12th century troubadour Guiraut de Calanson recommends 17 strings, and in the 14th century Guillaume de Machaut compares the 25 virtues of his lady to the 25 strings of his harp.



 The Lyre differs from the harp in having strings stretched over a sound board rather than plunging into it as in the harp.

Usually associated with ancient Rome and Greece, the Lyre has a far wider heritage. Lyres are recorded in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and survived in Europe into the 12th Century in Byzantium.

Rome and Greece.

The Lyre was a more domestic instrument, for home use, while its larger version the Kithyra was used for performance; with string numbers varying from 5 to a maximum of 11 it was a high status instrument throughout the Classical era.

Some were made from a wooden frame while others were constructed from a shell of a tortoise or turtle, they were fitted with either wooden or metal tuning pins and either wire or gut strings.



Saxon Lyre

Rectangular in construction with a large but shallow soundbox, the saxon lyre was also known as hearpa, or harpa.


Psaltery and Dulcimer

Both these instruments consist of strings stretched over a soundbox across 2 bridges: the psaltery being plucked and the dulcimer hammered. The shapes vary considerably but the pigsnout and trapezoidal shapes seem favourite. Other related instruments include the Zither, and the Finnish Cantale.


Fretted Instruments.

The Lute developed from the Oud, as a result of the Crusades and the Moorish occupation of Spain, and is first recorded in Europe in 1260. These are typified by a rounded back and a swept back peg box. The number of courses can vary.  The Lute arguably reached its zenith in the works of John Dowland.

Other fretted instruments appeared in the Middle Ages, notably the Gittern, Cittole and the Mandora, however it was in the Renaissance when they flowered, with the emergence of the Vihuela, Theorbo, Cittern, the Mandolin and Mandola, with Vivaldi writing concertos for the Mandolin in the early 18th Century. 

The Ukelele began to appear in the 1870s in Hawaii and soon gained popularity in the USA and UK. It was extremely popular through the 2 World Wars, made so partly by George Formby, and is now enjoying a revival in schools.

Bowed Instruments.

From the profusion of European fiddle type instruments in the late Middle Ages, there emerged two distinct forms: the slender pear-shaped type known as a rebec, and the waisted figure of eight shape known as a fiddle. These developed into the violin and viol of the Renaissance.



Early ancestors of modern brass instruments were ironically not always made of brass, but frequently made of other metals, horn or ivory, the common feature being a cup shaped mouthpiece.

Early Trumpets without slides, valves or finger holes, were restricted to the natural notes (the harmonic series). The pitch of these notes is dependent on the length of the tube, but the intervals between the notes is always the same.

The exact nature of medieval trumpet calls is unknown as virtually nothing was written down before the sixteenth century. However, an idea of what early fanfares may have sounded like is glimpsed in Guillaume Dufay’s work of 1420 ‘Ad Modum Tubae’ (The Manner of the Trumpet).

Pictorial evidence shows a range of sizes up to 6 feet in length, made in sections, usually with a flared bell, and commonly known as a Busine (from the Roman Buccina).

Shorter trumpets known as Claro or Clarion were in wider use and were typically 2 to 3 feet in length. The Claro was particularly suited to military use being easier to transport.

As early as 1087, William II is recorded as taking possession of the town of Rochester with a royal blaze of trumpets.

The instrument’s popularity was encouraged by the crusades: the pomp and splendour of the Saracen bands of shawms, trumpets and drums so impressed the crusaders that they formed their own.

Ref: Guillaume Dufay: Ad Modum Tubae (1420)

Guillaume de Machaut: La Pris d’Alexandre (d. 1380)

David Munro: Instruments of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1976)





The earliest portrayal of this instrument is thought to be in a 12th Century psalter in the library of GlasgowUniversity. The first noted use of the word ‘recorder’ in Britain is in 1388 in the household accounts of Henry, Earl of Derby, later Henry IV. Up to and beyond this point the matter is confused by them being referred to both in England and Europe under the generic name ‘flute’.

The earliest surviving example of what could be termed a recorder, having 7 holes on the front and 1 on the back, is thought to be the Dordecht recorder, found in a moat in Belgium, dated between 1300 and 1350.

Different sizes of recorder developed early on: by the mid-14th century a range of different sizes was recorded. By the second half of the 16th Century, all sizes from Great Bass to Sopranino were described and illustrated by Praetorius in his Syntagma Musicum.



The name ‘Gemshorn’ comes from the German name, meaning Chamois horn. Similar instruments have been found from the Bronze Age, but the first clear illustration in Verdung’s Musica Getutscht, is not found until 1511, at which point it was clearly an established instrument. These were made of cow or ox horn

The number of holes varied between 4 and 7, their distinctive tone is somewhere between an ocarina and a recorder.



The origins of panpipes and transverse flutes are linked, but quickly diverged, both fundamentally being a hollow pipe stopped at one end, and the method of sound production being to blow over an aperture.

There are many illustrations of Greco-Roman panpipes, often associated with the god Pan. Similar representations in Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

They were made of either solid wooden bloces with holes of different lengths drilled in them, eg: Jorvik pipes; Cane, eg: Roman Syrinx; Ceramic or wooden tubes bound together.

Panpipes reached their medieval heyday in the 11th – 13th Centuries with the Troubadours.

There is an illustration on a 12th Century MS in St. John’sCollege, Cambridge.

Canon Galpin also mentions trustworthy examples in semi-circular or curved shapes as far back as the 11th Century.


Pipe and Tabor

The pipe and tabor were common throughout the medieval period. The tabor was a small snare drum, however during the Renaissance larger drums were used.

Typically the tabor pipe was played with the right hand with the drum slung on the left side of the body. The pipe is a long, slender, cylindrical pipe with 2 holes at the front and 1 at the back, and the narrow bore of the instrument allows the player to overblow easily to gain the further harmonics.

A Polish pipe survives from the 2nd half of the 11th Century. It remained popular throughout the Renaissance and in 1599 William Kemp danced from London to Norwich accompanied by the pipe and tabor.

After this time they were considered rustic instruments, but survived into the early 20th Century where they underwent a revival, and it not uncommon to see them in Morris troupes.


6 Hole Pipe

More examples of whistles survive from the Middle Ages and earlier than any other instrument. The primary features of these instruments are a lip, a fipple and a wind way. The number of holes varied but there was no thumb or little finger hole as on a recorder. They were often made in reed, bone or wood. The remains of a metal pipe was found in Ireland.


Transverse Flute

Also known as the German Flute, a cylindrical 6 hole instrument. This was found in antiquity, used by the Etruscans, Egyptians and Greeks. It found its way into Europe in the 12th Century where it was known as a Swegel, used in Germany in both military and courtly music. It became more common throughout Europe in the 14th century. It has a greater range and the ability to play chromatically which probably accounts for its rise in popularity and its superceding of panpipes.



There are many illustrations and literary references to percussion instruments throughout the middle ages and renaissance, varying from castanets, bells and tambourines to large drums.The Romans and Greeks used Timpanum, a basic, shallow, open backed frame drum, often gaudily decorated with ribbon, as well as a variety of beaters and bones. Instruments such as the Sistrum and other rattles were possibly restricted to ritual usage. Skins for drums were provided by a range of animal: pig, goat, the occasional instance of wolf, but mainly calf and sheep skin.


Methods of fixing the skin to the frame vary, very simple ones being tied or nailed on. The addition of a rope ring sewn around the edge of the skin would allow rope tensioning to be used and reduces the risk of tearing the skin.


Rings or flesh hoops as fixings are most likely to have developed in the late 14th century, but there is evidence of long drums with flesh hoops from around 1450.  Methods of tensioning varied from metal hoops, leather ties to strips of leather known as buffs or ‘tug-ears’.


The shapes of drums were many and varied:




Brought to Europe at the time of the Crusades, the name comes from the Arabic ‘Naqqara’. Typically these are a pair of small drums hung from the waist, with metal or ceramic bodies, played with a pair of beaters.



A small rope tensioned drum, played with a beater in one hand, often with a snare. This often accompanied the 3 hole pipe.


Side Drums

There was a variety of sizes, the long thin drums often being used as signal drums because of the sound’s ability to carry across the field of battle.


Kettle Drums

These were metal framed, screw tensioned, horse born drums, much favoured by the aristocracy who wished to make an impression.

Ref: Illustration of The Triumph of Maximilian I, 1526.



A familiar, single-headed frame drum, fitted with metal jingles, and introduced into Europe during the time of the Crusades. This was played with the flat of the hand, never the fist, and often seen as a woman’s instrument.


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