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Glossary of Medieval, Renaissance & Baroque Musical Instruments
Contributed by Suzanne Levinson.  


Archlute: A lute with two pegboxes, one of which has unfretted bass strings; it usually had 13 or 14 courses (single or double sets of strings).  Invented by Alessandro Piccinini in 1623, it was used in Italy for solo and continuo playing from 1595 – 1730.  In England it became an alternative to the theorbo.


Bagpipe: A wind instrument in which one or more of the reedpipes are attached to a windbag made of animal skins.  One or two pipes, called chanters, have finger holes and play melodies.  The other pipes, called drones, have no finger holes and sound a single pitch.  The Scottish Highland pipe has been in existence since the 16th century.  The English type is the bellows-blown Northumbrian pipe.  In France, the bellows-blown musette was fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries.


Bandora: A wire-strung, plucked instrument with a festooned outline, invented by John Rose of London in 1562.  A bass instrument originally with six courses but a seventh was added in the 17th century.  It was used to accompany the first printed English solo songs (1596) and was one of the continuo instruments in a mixed consort.


Ceterone: A large cittern with extra bass strings like the theorbo, used during the late 16th and throughout the 17th century.


Chamber Organ: An organ of modest size (usually four to seven stops) with a single keyboard, no pedals, and blown from a single wedge-shaped bellows, operated by the player’s foot.  Popular in the 17th to early 19th centuries, it was intended for domestic use.


Chittarone: A large bass lute developed in Italy during the 16th century.  Larger than the theorbo, it was designed as an accompanying instrument; however, a solo repertory exists.


Citole, cet(e)ra: A wire-strung, plucked string instrument; the medieval form of the Renaissance cittern.


Cittern: A small, wire-strung, quill plucked string instrument, second in popularity to the lure.  It was designed in the late 15th century Italy from the “citole, cetra” to fill the role of the ancient “kithara.” The body is pear shaped with a flat back and a top bearing an ornate rosette of Gothic style.


Consort: An instrumental ensemble of two to eight players in 16th and 17th century England.


Continuo, thoroughbass: An independent bass line continuing throughout a piece, in which harmonies are improvised on keyboard or other chord-playing instruments.  It was used during the Baroque period (1600 – 1750).


Course: A set of one to three strings tuned and played as one; the term is used for 16th to 18th century plucked instruments.


Courtaut, courtaud:  A 17th century double-reed woodwind instrument of cylindrical bore.


Crumhorn; Krumhorn: A wind-cap, double reed woodwind instrument of the 16th and 17th centuries.  It has a narrow cylindrical bore and is shaped like the letter J.  Among the most common of its several sizes were the alto, tenor, and extended bass.  Developed in 15th century Italy, it was played by court musicians and in larger town bands.


Curtal, dulcian:  A double-reed wind instrument, ancestor of the bassoon, developed in the mid-16th century.  It has a single U-tube and conical bore.  There were 5 sizes; soprano, alto, tenor, bass and great bass.


Duct Flute:  A woodwind instrument blown at one end into a mouthpiece through a narrow passage and across the edge of a hole in the pipe.  The upper end of the pipe is plugged by a block or a fipple.


Fiddle: Any bowed instrument from the Middle Ages, beginning in the 11th century through the early Renaissance.  The shapes included oval, elliptical, rectangular and spade-like.  The normal playing position was on the shoulder or arm, but it was also played upright in the lap, like the viol.


Harp: A plucked instrument in which the plane of the strings is perpendicular to the soundboard. Normally triangular in shape, all harps have a resonator, neck, and strings.  Renaissance harps had buzzing mechanisms (brays) attached near one end of the string. 16th century harps had two rows of strings producing four octaves, as the Italian arpa doppia.  The single action pedal harp was developed in the 18th century.


Harpsichord: A stringed keyboard instrument, distinguished from the clavichord and piano by its strings being plucked by a quill.  It had two keyboards and three sets of strings.  Used from the 16th to 18th centuries and revived since, it was the chief chord playing instrument of the continuo parts and enjoyed substantial solo literature.  The oldest surviving one is Italian, dating 1515.


Hurdy-Gurdy: A viol-shaped string instrument containing a set of melody and drone strings, a wooden wheel which acts as a bow, and a keyboard.  It can also be called a barrel organ or barrel piano.


Jew’s Harp; Jaw’s Harp: A mouth-resonating percussion instrument composed of a single tongue of wood or metal fastened at one end to a U-shaped or keyhole frame.  The player places the free end of the tongue in the front of the mouth and plucks it. 


Kamanja, kamanche: A Persian bowed spike fiddle, dating from the end of 1 A.D., with a round or heart shaped body, long neck and spike, and two to four strings (originally silk) tuned a perfect 4th apart.  It has also been called a rabab.


Kithara: The most important plucked string instrument of Greco-Roman antiquity, larger and heavier than the lyre, which it resembles.  The player held the instrument vertically resting upon the left side of the body.   The classic kithara had seven strings and was used as a solo instrument and as accompaniment to song.


Lira da braccio:  A bowed string instrument shaped like a violin, used by courtly Italian poet-musicians of the 15th and 16th centuries.


Lute: A plucked string instrument with an oblong, rounded body, a short, fretted neck, and a flat soundboard featuring a rosette.  Its predecessors are the Pandora and the ud.  During the Renaissance, it was the dominant musical instrument for song accompaniment, dance music, consort music, and continuo parts.  John Dowland, the leading lute virtuoso, composed many solo pieces; all lute music was written in tablature.


Lyre, lira: A string instrument whose strings are parallel to the soundboard and attached to a crossbar between two arms, extending beyond the soundboard.  Along with the kithara, it was one of the most popular string instruments of Greco-Roman times. It had three strings, a pear-shaped body, and a broad neck without fingerboard.


Mandolin: A small pear-shaped string instrument with a round back and a short neck developed from the 16th century mandora (an early lute).  Originally having gut strings which were changed to metal, it had a playing style of using a tremelo to produce sustained tones.


Natural horn; slide trumpet: A brass instrument that lacks valves or keys and produces tones only in the harmonic series.  A slide mechanism (additional tubing) is employed to increase the length and expand the variety of pitches produced.


Oboe: A conical-bode, double-reed woodwind instrument with a flared bell, descended from the Renaissance shawm.  It originated c1660 at the French court by the elder Jean Hottreterre.  The oboe da caccia is a mid 18th century tenor oboe with a large, open bell, predecessor of the cor anglais (English horn).


Pandora, pandoura: A Greco-Roman lute with a long, thick neck and small soundbox. 


Pipa: A fretted, pear-shaped, short-necked lute of China.  It has four silk strings and is held upright resting on the player’s lap.  The strings are plucked with the fingernails of the right hand. 


Pipe and Tabor: A duck flute with three finger holes an a small snare from, both played by a single player, holding the pipe in the left hand and beating the tabor with a stick held in the left hand and beating the tabor with a stick held in the right.


Psaltry: A plucked zither of medieval Europe with a flat, wooden soundbox and a variable number of strings.  Made in several shapes: trapezoidal, square, triangular, or pig’s snout (a trapezoidal with inward curving sides), it was popular from the 12th to 15th century.  The psaltry descended from the ganun of the 11th and 12th centuries.


Qanun: A plucked zither of the Middle East.  It has 50 – 100 strings of metal, gut or nylon strung in three courses over a trapezoidal or half trapezoidal box.  It was held in the lap horizontally and plucked or strummed. 


Rebec: A bowed string instrument derived from the ancient rabab and documented in Europe in the 13th century.  Used during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it had a pear-shaped body, short, narrow neck, and three gut strings.  It was played either vertically on the lap or on the shoulder with an outcurved bow.


Recorder:  A woodwind instrument with seven finger holes, a thumb hole, and end-blown through a whistle or fipple mouthpiece.  It was also known as a fipple flute, blockflote, or English flute.  Originating in Italy in the 14th century, the recorder family includes sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, great bass, and contrabass.  During the Renaissance, it was used primarily as a consort instrument but was given solo work in the Baroque period.


Sackbut: A long, narrow brass instrument with tube ends folded to overlap the center.  Derived from the medieval trumped (the buisine), this early trombone appeared in Southern France and Northern Italy in the 15th century.  Popular during the 16th and 17th centuries, it was traditionally played in groups of three (alto, tenor, and bass) in town and court bands with cornets for church services.


Shawn: A conical-bore, double-reed woodwind instrument, used extensively in European music from late 13th –17th century; ancestor to the oboe.  It was made in seven sizes and performed in court ceremonial music and town bands.  Its difference from the oboe is a pirouette (lip rest) below the reed to support the player’s lip.


Sordun; sourdine: The early form of bassoon, also known as a courtaut.  This wind instrument first appeared in the late 16th century and was made in several sizes.  Sounding similar to the crumhorn, it had 12 finger holes, sometimes controlled by keys.


Tablature: Musical notation using letters, numbers, or diagrams to specify pitch, rather than the conventional Western staff notation.


Theorbo: A large, six course bass lute with an additional set of seven or eight contrabass strings.  In total there are 13 or 14 sets of strings.  Developed in the late 16th century to provide accompaniment for a new style of singing (musica recitativa), it was quickly adopted throughout Europe and used as a continuo instrument in larger ensembles.


Transverse Flute, cross flute: A German term denoting a side-blown flute as opposed to the end-blown recorder.  During the mid-17th century woodwind instruments were redesigned, so the transverse flute acquired an additional key and a reverse conical bor.  In 1850, Theobold Boehm invented the modern flute, which has additional keys, separate tone holes for each note, and an embochure hole (lip palate).


Ud:  A Middle Eastern, short necked, fretless lute with a bulging, pear-shaped body, and strings in double courses.  Known since the 7th century, it has a shorter neck than the European lute and is played with a plectrum (a piece horn, tortise shell, plastic, quill or ivory) in monophonic style.


Vielle:  A term used for any variety of bowed string instruments of the Middle Ages, including the viol, fiddle, and vielle a roué, the hurdy gurdy.


Vihuela: A large, waisted string instrument of Medieval and Renaissance Spain.  Three varieties include vihuela de arco (bowed), vihuela de penola (plucked with quill) and vihuela la man (plucked with fingers).  The latter became the most popular term. Similar to the lute in tuning, it was used for dances, accompaniment, and solo pieces.


Viol: Family of bowed string instruments popular in the 16th to 18th centuries.  They have a fretted fingerboard, variable number of strings (usually six), and a body with sloping shoulders, broad ribs, and a flat back.  It was made in different sizes and played upright, the larger ones resting between the knees.  The bass viol, also known as the viola da gamba, was the precursor to the cello.


Viola bastardo: An Italian 16th and early 17th century small bass viol.


Viola d’amore: A bowed string instrument of the late 17th and 18th centuries, approximately the size of a viola and played on the shoulder, but having the body of a viol and provided with sympathetic strings (seven gut strings and seven metal sympathetic strings).


Viola da braccio: A 16th and 17th century bowed string instrument played played on the arm; later the term came to apply mainly to the viola.


Viola da gamba: A 16th and 17th century bowed string instrument played on or between the legs; any members of the viol family.  It became a term closely associated to the bass viol, ancesto and cello.  The modern cello has four strings, an end pin, and is bowed palm downward, as opposed to the gamba, which has six or seven strings, was held between the legs, and played in an underhand position.


Viola di fagotto:  A bowed string instrument with the tuning and range of the cello but played on the arm like a viola.  Some of its strings were overspun in copper, producing a buzzing sound like a bassoon.


Viola pomposa: A bowed string instrument with five strings, played on the arm, between 1725 and 1770.  Larger than a viola, it was used in Baroque works for high violoncello passages.


Violetta: A term used in 1553 to describe an early form of violin; a three-string instrument without frets. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it refers to the viola.


Violone: In the 16th century it referred to any viol.  After 1600, it was used to denote any bass or contrabass viol. In the early 18th century, it was sometimes designated the violoncello.


Violino piccolo: A small violin of the 17th and 18th centuries; its strings tuned higher than the violin.


Violoncello piccolo: A small cello used in the early 18th century, called for in several of Bach’s cantatas.


Whistle: A small, end-blown pipe, usually a duct flute, made of wood, cane, metal, or plastic.


Zither:  Any class of string instruments in which the strings are stretched over and run the length of the body that resonates.  They may be plucked, bowed, struck, or set into vibration by the wind as Aeolian harps. 


The R&B wishes to thank Suzanne Levinson for her contribution of time and expertise in compiling this comprehensive list.


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