Musical Instruments Used in Medieval Times

Written by james dryden
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Musical Instruments Used in Medieval Times
Medieval instruments are categorised as "low" or "soft." (music instrument image by peter Hires Images from

Musical instruments used in medieval times were primarily divided into two categories: Bas and Haut. Bas, which translates to "low" or "soft," instruments were typically used indoors (chambers, in this case) and includes the vielle, rebec, lute, recorders and other bowed and plucked instruments. Haut, which translates to "high" or "loud, instruments were used mostly outdoors and includes the shawm, sackbut, pipe and tabor. These two categories can be divided into three additional categories: woodwind, string and percussion. All of these instruments were used by the waits, minstrels and troubadours of the time and are the direct precursors of the musical instruments used in making the music of today.

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Woodwind instruments of medieval times were those blown like trumpets or bagpipes. These instruments rely on a column of vibrating air to create sound such as blowing across a mouth hole into a mouthpiece with a single or a double reed. Many of the woodwind instruments of the time featured exotic shapes and unusual names. Most of these instruments haven't changed much from what is used today, such as flute, trumpet and the recorder. One of the more unusual medieval woodwind instruments is the krummhorn (curved horn), a double-reed instrument that is similar to a bagpipe and can create a powerful buzzing sound, though with limited musical range. Another is the sackbut, which is the ancestor of the trombone and is used extensively to re-create renaissance and baroque music. Additional woodwinds used in medieval times are the pipe, shawm, flageolet, bagpipe, gemshorm (which is typically made from an ox horn), cornett, the lizard (an S-shaped horn) and the tuba.


Bowed, struck and plucked medieval instruments fall into the string category. These instruments, just like percussion and woodwind, are the ancestors of the violin, piano and the cello. One of the most popular stringed instruments still in use today---even in hip-hop and trance---is the harpsichord, which is basically a harp laid on its side and played like a piano by using keyed hammers to strike the strings. The lute is popular at medieval and renaissance festivals and also can be heard in folk music. The lute is the guitar of medieval times, a stringed instrument with a large bulbous body, bent neck and a fretted fingerboard. It is typically played with a long ivory pick. The harp is also a medieval instrument, which is used to re-create classical and romantic music. The harp was a popular instrument with the troubadours and minstrels of the time. Other medieval stringed instruments include the rebec (ancestor to the violin), the psaltery, chittarone, cittern (closer to the modern guitar than the lute), fiddle and the hurdy-gurdy, which makes a bagpipe-like drone when friction is applied to its strings.


Drums and bells to create sound were just as popular in medieval times as they are now. Most of the instruments in this category have changed very little over the centuries and make sound either by striking it with hands, sticks or mallets or shaking them. Drums, also called tambours, were typically cylinders made from clay, wood or metals with goat or lamb skin stretched over the top, such as the doumbek. Cymbals made from small metal plates were used as percussion instruments, along with triangles and tambourines, though these were mostly played by women. The tabor, another medieval percussion instrument, is a small snare drum used as an accompaniment to a pipe or fife. Usually, both instruments are played by the same person. Other percussion instruments used in medieval times included bells and the timbrel (which is similar to a tambourine).

Medieval Sounds of Today

The sounds of ethnic instruments haven't gone out of style. Sampling software, such as that featured in the Ethnic Music Chopz Collection and World & Ethnic Samples (see "Resources"), along with the actual period instrument itself are commonly used in ambient, world, folk and even rock 'n' roll music. A renaissance faire is the ideal place to hear the gentle, sweet sounds of this old world music played live by the musicians who don't want to let these traditions fade into obscurity.

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