[Pt.V- Proj. 1] ~ Research point – early instruments

Research point – early instruments

Research and make notes on some early instruments, for example the shawm, viol, crumhorn, sackbut, dulcian, clavichord, lute. How were sounds produced on these instruments? What did they look like? How are they related to modern instruments? Who played them? What was played on them? You can watch clips of most of these instruments being played on YouTube.

Renaissance Instruments


various shawms 2shawmvarious shawmsThe Shawm comes from a family of woodwind instruments dating probably as far back as Ancient Greece and various ‘relatives’ of the instruments existed all throughout Europe and the Middle East. The Aulos, The Duduk and the Sorna are all double reed instruments with conical bores and are used for similar outdoor purposes. The use of a Piruette (see figure above) which minimises the players contact with the reed, increases the shrillness of the sound and contributes to it’s piercing nature. The ability of the Shawm to cut through made it extremely useful outdoors for military purposes and also for dancing. In Western Art Music the Shawm eventually evolved into and was replaced by the Oboe. The Oboe having a much more rounded and agile sound is far more suited to indoors orchestral music.


The Crumhorn is another double reed instrument, originally made from a curved animal horn and later from wood. The reed is wind capped (like a bagpipe chanter) and entirely controlled by breath pressure. The sound is very nasal and raspy. It has a limited range, generally confined to the fundamental series. They came in different sizes and were sometimes performed in consorts for dance music and at Court.

The Dulcian is also a double reed instrument and the forerunner of the bassoon but unlike the bassoon has a flared bell. The instrument comes in several sizes corresponding to the different vocal ranges. It is in fact used in poly choral music and in chamber music as well as being loud enough to be capable of being played outdoors too.


The Lute

1624, Hendrick ter Brugghen

The lute was perhaps the most popular instruments of the Renaissance era, used in a variety of settings, as accompaniment to vocal music, during theatre plays and in ensembles. It was heard both at courts and widely played by common people.

The lute is a pear shaped string instrument, similar to and probably a descendent of the Oud. It was original plucked, but relatively quickly this playing technique was superseded by a finger picking style which facilitated it’s use as a solo instrument. It has double strings, usually referred to as courses and a wooden resonator body. The resonator’s sound hole is referred to as the Rose. The lute is often notated using tablature. The sound of the medieval lute was more nasal and harsher than some of todays instrument, such as guitars. Although no medieval instruments have survived Luthiers have created replicas based on drawings from the era.

The anatomy of a Lute.jpg
EnWarner Iversen, DMA (Cand) Michael M. Grant, PhD. June 2016. A Beginner’s Guide to the Renaissance Lute


Baroque Instruments




Viola De Gamba

Is a fretted, stringed, bowed instrument. They originated from Spain and was popular throughout Renaissance and the Baroque. The viol has flat rather than curved backs and five to seven strings; It is played upright and held between the legs, hence the Italian name viola da gamba.  Originally it used gut strings and is fretted like a lute. It is tuned in fifths, rather than fourths like a violin. It has a C-hole rather than an f-hole.  The Baroque viols have a soun post and bass bar, unlike the Renaissance viol.

Much viol music predates the adoption of equal temperament tuning by musicians. The movable nature of the tied-on frets permits the viol player to make adjustments to the tempering of the instrument, and some players and consorts adopt meantone temperaments, which are more suited to Renaissance music. Several fretting schemes involve frets that are spaced unevenly to produce better-sounding chords in a limited number of “keys.” In some of these schemes, the two strands of gut that form the fret are separated so that the player can finger a slightly sharper or flatter version of a note (for example G versus A) to suit different circumstances


Viola d’amore

Is played under the chin, just like a violin but it has sympathetic strings resonating alongside the bowed strings, adding a mysterious shimmering sound generally percieved as warmer and sweeter than the violin. It shares this feature with certain Easter stringed instruments and it is perhaps where the association with the East comes from and hence naming it’s dagger shaped sound hole ‘the Flaming Sword of Islam’.

The viola d’amore has a distinct carved head in the form of a blindfolded Cupid. It was very popular in the 17th Century but was eventually surpassed by the sheer power and volume of the violin section.  It has had a little bit of a revival amongst modern composers such as Paul Hindemith and Bernard Herrmann like using it in his film scores.