Early Times – Strings
The harp is one of the most ancient types of stringed instruments. It was important in pre-Christian cultures and still survives today in many forms all over the world. Harps use open strings exclusively, thus the range of each is determined by the number of strings. In the Middle Ages, strings were made from twisted animal gut (usually from sheep), although horse hair and even silk were used as well. Each string of the harp is attached to a wooden peg or metal pin. Strings are tuned by adjusting these pegs or pins.
A hurdy gurdy (also known as a "wheel fiddle") is a stringed musical instrument in which the strings are sounded by means of a rosined wheel which the strings of the instrument pass over. This wheel, turned with a crank, functions much like a violin bow, making the instrument essentially a mechanical violin.
One of the earliest forms of the hurdy gurdy was the organistrum. Another instrument used in the church, it was a large instrument with a guitar-shaped body and a long neck in which the keys were set (covering one diatonic octave). The organistrum had a single melody string and two drone strings which ran over a common bridge and a relatively small wheel. Due to its size, the organistrum was played by two people, one of whom turned the crank while the other pulled the keys upward.
The psaltery was described by the Church Fathers and by Cassiodorus as a triangular-shaped instrument whose resonator (an opening that allows the sound to naturally amplify) was on top. As time progressed, the psaltery moved from its triangular shape into other forms. Regardless of shape, the instrument was played by plucking or bowing the strings.
The lute was the first of many guitar-like instruments that were being developed during this time period. The lute was introduced into Europe by the Moors during their occupation and conquest of Spain (around 711). The history of the lute is ancient, going back far beyond written history. Through the crusades and trade, the lute was spread throughout Europe, and it was adopted as an instrument by the Europeans. Frets were added and eventually the strings were doubled. It was a much respected musical instrument, and probably the most popular string instrument of its time.
The vihuela is considered by some to be the more ancient precursor to the modern classical guitar. The two names - vihuela and guitar - are functionally synonymous and interchangeable. In its most developed form, the vihuela was a guitar-like instrument with six double-strings (paired courses) made of gut.
The vielle is a European bowed, stringed instrument used in the Medieval period, similar to a modern violin but with a somewhat longer and deeper body, five (rather than four) gut strings, and a leaf-shaped pegbox with frontal tuning pegs. It was one of the most popular instruments of the Medieval period, and was used by troubadours and jongleurs from the 13th through the 15th centuries.
The viol (also called viola da gamba) is any one of a family of bowed, fretted, stringed musical instruments developed in the 1400s. The family is related to and descends primarily from the Spanish vihuela. The instrument flourished in court ensembles up until around 1750. The viol is characterized by a wide neck, sloping shoulders, and deep ribs. Seven gut frets gird the neck and fingerboard in half-step intervals. The viol bow stick is convex and is gripped underhand, with the palm upward.
Before we move on to the wind and percussion instruments, it is important to understand why string and keyboard instruments were so popular during this time period. Unlike the grand majority of wind-blown instruments during this time, string and keyboard instruments were the only instruments able to play every note that the voice could sing. This ability aided the vocalists immensely, thus leading to their popularity.