Music and musical instruments

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The aim of this writing is to offer a brief, technical guide for Viking and Anglo-Saxon re-enactors on the various musical instruments that were played in Britain and wider Northern Europe during our period of interest. It considers a timescale beginning with the establishment of the Anglo-Saxons in England, through the invasions of the Isles and other areas of Europe by Danes and the Norse, and ending in the mid to late 11th century. A combination of archaeology, carvings and illustrations provide a significant insight into the musical instruments played by these peoples. We find a wide range of instruments in terms of the materials from which they were made, the variations of similar instruments, and the possible tuning and playability of them. What we are unsure of is exactly what tunes, melodies and songs actually sounded like. My own experience is that when I allow the instruments to effectively play themselves, they naturally sound like archetypal, instantly recognisable North European folk music. I have studied this subject privately for a number of years, assisted greatly by the learned knowledge of renowned ancient instrument maker and musician, Corwen Broch. I am a member of the Viking Society, and it has been my self-imposed objective to offer as comprehensive a display of musical instruments as possible, focusing on playing and contextual knowledge; a work in progress indeed! Whilst there were some differences in culture between the Saxons and the Norsemen, there are undoubtedly a great deal of similarities; musical instruments are certainly no exception and as time progressed, instruments were shared widely in a geographical context, helped by both invasions and advancing trade routes. Thus, the instruments I shall discuss herein belong to the age of our North European ancestors. Some time ago, I asked Corwen Broch to provide a list of instruments that I would witness being played had I travelled back in time to the year 793, and wandered through England until the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was kind enough to offer the following:

• Lyre • Bowed lyre • Panpipes • Bone flutes • Blowing horns and Prillar horns (Cow and bark) • Gusli • Lur • Reed pipes • Bells • Jews Harp

Instruments that possibly, perhaps even probably, existed include: • Rebec • Harp • Drums

Illustrations of the various instruments discussed are contained in uploaded files.

Part 1- Stringed Instruments

The Lyre

Arguably the standout instrument of the age, our ‘authentic’ version is the ‘Germanic Round Lyre’. Generally oblong in shape, or occasionally oblong, it comprises six strings. The Old English phrase ‘hearpe’ (from where we have the modern word ‘harp’) was the name given and, furthermore, we know from the phrase ‘heapre nagl’ (literally, ‘harp nail’) that plectrums made of bone, horn or antler were used for strumming. Strings would have been made of sheep gut; as a re-enactor, I know all about the weather!!! I use synthetic nylgut strings tuned to G major. The most famous lyre found in archaeology is that of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. This ship burial is reputed to be the final resting place of King Raedwald of the East Angles and dates to around 625. The lyre discovered had not preserved well, but we know of its shape, six tuning pegs, and richly ornate metal decorations. Lyres of a strikingly similar shape have been discovered at Taplow, Morning Thorpe and Bergh Apton, totalling four such instruments found in England applying to our time period. In my humble opinion, the most significant find is the Trossingen Warrior Lyre found in the grave of an Alemannic warrior and dating to 575-580. The instrument was beautifully preserved, showing its six tuning pegs, sounds holes, bridge and incredible illustrations of snakes, beasts and armed men. The grave contained various artefacts, including a sword at the deceased’s right, and the lyre held by his left arm. The shape is very slightly different from those lyres found in England; still generally rectangular with curved edges, but narrower and sleeker. It is possibly the earliest Germanic Round Lyre discovered in archaeology. Whilst I appreciate that this is a very early example, it does confirm that the romantic image of the “warrior bard” truly existed. A high volume instrument, the lyre is truly beautiful. It was designed to be played in the hall where it would be passed around to compliment many stories. Professional lyre players may have composed pieces for kings and thegns. The warrior-skald, Egil Skallagrimson, is a case in point, and surely the Trossingen Warrior held a similar profession. It may also have been played as part of ‘ancestor worship’, particularly in the Pagan period. It can be argued that the lyre is an instrument of mythology, in a similar way to ‘The Dagda’s Harp’ of Celtic Lore. From Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, XII:6:

“First he [the lyre player] performed various pieces so that everyone was filled with grief and numbness. And afterwards the sound of the lyre forced them to an impudent and lively state of mind, then jesting tunes which made them eager to move their bodies and they commenced to exchange anguish for applause. Finally it enraged them to madness and rashness, so that they were seized by madness and in utter fury gave great cries. Thus the state of their minds was changed variously. Therefore when the music in the hall came to an end, they saw that the king was driven to madness and rage, so that they were unable to restrain him. Thus they were seized by excessive madness and powerfully overthrown by fury; according to their natures the men's madness increased. And so overcome by the strength of the struggle, he broke their hold and darted forward, wrenched open the door and seized a sword and killed four of his warriors, and none could come near enough to restrain him. At the end his courtiers took cushions and from every side approached, throwing them over him until at great risk they all were able to seize him. When he regained his wits, he paid the just weregild for the warriors' injuries.”

The God Bragi is depicted as a poet and harper, it is highly likely that he would have been venerated by musicians of the age.

There are two distinct playing styles. Firstly, the block and strum method whereby the player strums all of the strings in rhythm, removing the fingers of the strings one wishes to hear, thus producing chords and melodies. Secondly, by plucking whereby the player drones a high or low string from behind the playing window, and plucks other strings from in front. Corwen Broch demonstrates this here:

The Bowed Lyre

A family of bowed lyres existed comprising the Finnish Jouhikko, Estonian Talharpa, Welsh Crwth and English Crowd. Most applicable to our activities is the two-stringed Shetland Gue. Whilst none have been found in the ground (only a single carving from the Viking age exists), it is widely accepted that this instrument was taken to Shetland by Viking colonists. Such was its popularity that it continued to be played consistently until the early 19th century, after which it finally gave way to the fiddle (itself, a famous instrument in Shetland). Be this as it may, the bowed lyres named above were certainly a common instrument across Northern Europe during our time period, indeed, they have continued to be played actively ever since, allowing their existence to be confirmed. Rectangular in shape with a hollow sound box and playing window, the player bows across the horsehair strings. Notes are changed by placing the fingers between the two strings and either pulling or pushing on one string, the other string used as a drone. It is not easy to begin with, but once you discover where the notes are and practice, it becomes a really enjoyable instrument.

Corwen Broch demonstrates here:

The Rebec

A three-stringed rebec (fiddle-type instrument) was discovered in Hedeby, Denmark and dated to the late 10th century. There is little more evidence of fiddles, and this one may even have been an import from the continent. I do not have one in my collection, there is no way of telling whether it truly is a Viking or Anglo-Saxon musical instrument. An interesting discovery nonetheless, fiddles may have occurred more commonly in the early 11th century, but this is only conjecture.

The Gusli

This instrument is fascinating. A single find exists from Novgorod in Russia and dated to around 1050 which, given the time and geography, puts it on my radar as an authentic instrument. I tentatively suggest it as an example of early music technology developing. Sort of triangular in shape, long and thin, it had five strings attached to a horizontal bridge mounted onto vertical discs. The sound board is far longer than on lyres, with a small playing window at the top near the tuning pegs. This extended soundboard suggests that it could be the ‘lovechild’ of a lyre and a Finnish Kantele! We refer to this instrument as the ‘Slovisha Gusli’. The word ‘Slovisha’ was engraved onto it, a Rus word meaning ‘Nightingale’. It can be played using block and strum in the same way as a lyre, but it can also be played flat on a hard surface or across the lap whereby the player plucks and drones with the hands and fingers almost in a keyboard position!

Kate Fletcher demonstrates here:


By ‘harp’ I now allude to the probability that triangular knee harps existed, which is highly likely but there is no archaeology to refer to. The Utrecht and Anglo-Saxon Psalters contain illustrations of harps which, though helpful, do not suggest how many strings may have been used. We may allow for educated estimates of between eight and twenty-two strings. Various Pictish carvings exists which portray harps very clearly in terms of their shape, thus in the absence of archaeological discovery, are highly helpful in determining not just their existence, but their general shape.

Part 2- Woodwind

Woodwind instruments come in various forms, and give a strong indication of tunings and scales.

Bone Flutes

These instruments are great fun to play! Many have been found dating to before, during and after our time period. I have three in my collection: • A red deer bone with six holes • An eagle bone with four holes • An Icelandic sheep bone with three holes. Beeswax was commonly used for the fipple, heated and moulded, then tuned and sounded. Further notes are possible by fingering at the end of the flute as well as the given holes, and also by applying breath pressure for the highest notes.

Corwen Broch demonstrates a three-holed sheep bone flute here:

Wooden Flutes

Any native branch that could be hollowed out would make a fine musical instrument. Simple recorders made of elder wood have a beautiful, mellow tone. River cane pipes have a more funky, Kazoo type sound. Overtone flutes with no holes are also applicable; notes are changed solely through breath pressure. They can be side or end blown. An instrument resembling a short didgeridoo is attested, and is still played in Sweden today; this is the Lur. It is highly likely that it was used in battle to frighten enemies… I imagine it would have worked!

The Jorvik Panpipes

A set of well-preserved boxwood panpipes were discovered at Coppergate in York, with dating placing them at the time of the Great Heathen Army lead by Ivar the Boneless. The instrument was fragmented on one side, and could have contained more than the five holes it had. Upon inspection, the panpipes produced the Key of A though the report did not specify major or minor. Diatonic tunings are considered to be a likely option, as these are much easier to tune by ear. They are simple to play by blowing across the top like a bottle, though you will need to be a warrior with a stout set of lungs! Demonstrated by Corwen Broch here:

Reed Pipes

I refer specifically to the fragmented pipes found at Falster and Lund, and on the Roskilde ship. The wooden pieces were holed, and apparently had a cone of horn on one end. It has been speculated that they were chanters for an early bagpipe that had long since rotted away. It is, however, far more likely that they were reed pipes in their own right, probably resembling the Welsh Pibgorn that still exists today. Blowing Horns Blowing horns of varied sizes are commonly thought to have been sounded in battle. However true this is, the primary purpose was to inform a village of your arrival when travelling. Failure to do so may result in your being mistaken as an intruder, the consequence of which may have been deadly!

Prillar horns were also in use, possibly as a predominantly female instrument. These horns contain noted holes and are end blown (unlike the Gemshorn of the 15th century which had the large end blocked by wood with a fipple carved into it); the most likely use was for communication in poor weather. A four-holed instrument was found at Vasterby in Sweden. A regular blowing horn is easy to sound, the Prillar horn by contrast is extremely difficult. Played by Corwen Broch here:


Usually made of wrought iron, a common usage would be for tying around the necks of livestock. Given the fine decoration of two hand bells in the British museum, we can link them also to Christianity. A possible use was to call monks in a monastery to prayer.

The Troll Rattle A fascinating object, which we assume is musical in its nature, was discovered in Norway. It has become referred to as a troll rattle… it really does speak for itself!

Part 3- Percussion

Jews Harp

This instrument is well known even today and has nothing to do with the Jewish faith. A number have been found across Scandinavia dating to our time period. Placed near the mouth with pursed lips, the player plucks the lever to vibrate the instrument to create that unmistakeable buzzing sound.


Sadly, we have absolutely no idea what a Viking or Anglo-Saxon drum would have looked like. Understandably given the available materials, not one has been found in the ground. The Psalters contain images that suggest a bucket-drum shape but this cannot be relied upon without hard evidence. Even more frustratingly, rawhide frame drums were certainly played by the Saami peoples of Scandinavia’s most Northern reaches, but there is no sound evidence on precisely the types of drums that were available and used by the Vikings and the Anglo Saxons. In spite of this, we know from sources that rhythmic beating of weapons on shields was performed. The purpose of this may have been to frighten the enemy and/or to build up courage among their own men.

Part 4- Vocals

I must reiterate, we do not fully know what a Viking or Anglo-Saxon song would have sounded like, but we do know they made use of vocals in a musical context. The following sources are helpful in this respect: Tacitus in his Germania: “They say that Hercules, too, once visited them; and when going into battle, they sing of him first of all heroes. They have also those songs of theirs, by the recital of this "baritus," as they call it, they rouse their courage, while from the note they augur the result of the approaching conflict. For, as their line shouts, they inspire or feel alarm. It is not so much an articulate sound, as a general cry of valor. They aim chiefly at a harsh note and a confused roar, putting their shields to their mouth, so that, by reverberation, it may swell into a fuller and deeper sound.”

This is highly suggestive of ‘throat singing’, and furthermore… Ibrahim Ibn Ahmad Al-Tartushi, upon visiting Hedeby around 950 noted: “Never before I have heard uglier songs than those of the Vikings in Slesvig. The growling sound coming from their throats reminds me of dogs howling, only more untamed.” Adam of Bremen visited the temple at Uppsala, and wrote this (Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, IV:27): “By the way, it is said that the songs sung during the ceremony are numerous and obscene, so that it is better to say nothing about them.”

Authenticity for the Re-enactor

As ever, we strive to offer as authentic an experience for the public as we possibly can. Thus, there are a number of points for us to consider when portraying the music of the age. We know very well from archaeology the general sizes and shapes of instruments, those wishing to craft their own should not deviate from this for any instrument. Crafting is, of course, to be strongly encouraged, but we must avoid too much modification for any reason. That said, nylgut strings for lyres are sensible. Sheep gut is brittle, does not stay in tune very well, and is difficult to source. Nylgut is preferable to plain nylon through being synthetic gut, metal strings should be avoided entirely for lack of providence. Plectrums should be made of bone, horn or antler; they are very easy to source online so there is no need for flashy guitar picks. Bowed lyre strings should be horsehair which is very easy to source, and limited to the shapes and sizes accepted by scholars and displayed in various museums. Wooden instruments must be made from the branches of trees native to the British Isles and Northern Europe. Indian rosewood and Oriental bamboo flutes are easier to source, as are Native American flutes, but they are all distinct by design and culture, and should be avoided. Bone flutes are authentic when made from animals native to our geographical area so, please, no exotic creatures or dinosaurs!!! Fiddles have little providence, and should be limited to a replica of the Hedeby rebec (subject to Society rules). Drums, at an absolute pinch could be allowed, but should be limited to a rawhide frame drum with a simple wooden beater (subject to Society rules).

Useful Websites

- (the website of Corwen Broch and Kate Fletcher for detailed info on and the purchase of authentic ancient instruments)

- (the website of Michael J King for the purchase of lyres and bowed lyres, and self-building information)

- www.davidfriedman (the website of David Friedman for lyre making instructions: Sutton Hoo and Trossingen models)

- (for custom instruments)

To Conclude

Music comes from the heart; it has always been so, and always shall be. Music from the age of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons was not committed to writing, but when we play their instruments from the heart, we rediscover their sounds. Established musicians in the Society including myself are:

- Helena Kinrade

- Sharon McCann

- Nauala Kinrade

- Stuart Strong

Instrument makers in the Society include:

- Daniel Golbey

- Jason George (also a musician)

We are always happy to engage with anyone interested and I will personally be delighted to talk forever!

Hrafn Rikardson