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Instruments of the Middle Ages. High School Music History, 2 nd Period Mr. Basom. Overview .

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instruments of the middle ages

Instruments of the Middle Ages

High School Music History, 2nd Period

Mr. Basom

  • A large amount of instrumental development occurred in the medieval and renaissance periods. During these times, music was used in various fashions, whether they be casual meetings with friends or performing before the royal court.
  • Instruments were used both indoors and outdoors , but certain instruments were preferred in specific environments due to their characteristics.
  • Instruments were separated by consorts (families). A certain instrument would be available in many different sizes and often music would be performed using an entire consort of instruments.
wind instruments

Wind Instruments

There were several types of wind instruments in the Middle ages. Some used mouthpieces similar to today’s brass instruments, and some used reeds, such as today’s woodwinds.

  • The Shawm was developed in the medieval period, but its design was improved during the renaissance.
  • The Shawm has a double reed and several finger holes. This instrument is the ancestor to both the modern oboe and bassoon.
  • During medieval times, the shawm was a static instrument that could only be controlled with airspeed. During the renaissance, instrument makers developed a shawm that the player could control with his lips, as well as with air.
  • Recorders from the middle ages were very similar to today’s instruments of the same name.
  • Recorders were played simply by blowing on the lip (or hole at the top of the instrument), and putting the proper fingers over the finger holes.
  • The crumhorn is unique because the player’s lips to not touch the reed. There is a cap with a slot in it which the player blows strongly into. This process causes the reed to vibrate, and the sound resonates through the instrument.
  • The crumhorn’s sound is very distinctive. It has a very powerful attack and a nasal buzzy tone.
  • The crumhorn has very limited range due to the lack of reed control.
  • The sackbut was the earliest ancestor of the trombone.
  • In the middle ages, the sackbut was considered the instrument the instrument of virtuosos.
  • The sackbut was of the first instruments that could actually be played in tune (because the player could adjust his slide).
  • The cornett was possibly the most versatile instrument from the middle ages.
  • The cornett had a mouthpiece like a trumpet’s, but was fingered like a recorder.
  • The cornett could either be used indoors or outdoors. The player could control the volume of the instrument with his air.
  • The different sizes of the cornett had their own names. The tenor cornett is known as the Lizard and the bass cornett is called a Serpent.


Percussion came in many forms, whether it be a drum, auxiliary percussion, or a keyboard instrument.


Drums are one of the earliest musical instruments.

Drums are usually made up of a cylindrical piece of wood or metal, and have a head made of skin of some sort.

Pipe and Tabor

These instruments were designed to be played by one performer. The musician plays the drum while putting his fingers over the holes on the pipe. Since the pipe usually only has two or three finger holes, it is possible to play both instruments at once.

  • The harpsichord is the piano’s predecessor. When the player hits a key, a quill inside the harpsichord plucks a string, which gives it a sharp, very recognizable sound.
  • Harpsichords were used both as solo instruments and accompanying instruments in ensembles.
  • Close relatives of the harpsichord are the virginal and the spinet
Positive Organs

Positive organs were large stationary instruments which required two people to operate. One person pumped the bellows while the other person played the keyboard. The positive organ was used in large amounts for sacred music.

Portative Organs

Portative organs were smaller than their relatives, but were also quite versatile. These instruments only required one player, because their size allows one person to both play and pump the bellows simultaneously. The portative organ was used in both sacred and secular music, as a solo instrument or in an ensemble.

stringed and fretted instruments

Stringed and Fretted Instruments

Some of the most popular instruments of the Middle ages were stringed instruments, and most developed to become instruments that we are familiar with today.

  • The viol was an important instrument in this period because it could be used in a variety of ways.
  • The viol itself is a bowed instrument with frets. It has a very recognizable, nasal tone, and was often used by upper class musicians who had formal training.
  • The strings of a viol could also be plucked or hammered using a plectrum, which at the time was a piece of quill, ivory or wood.
  • The violin was another instrument in the viol family.
  • The lute was a very important instrument in the middle ages. A tremendous amount of repertoire was written for the lute, both as a soloist and an accompanying instrument.
  • Lutes are commonly played on the lap by plucking the strings with a plectrum or the fingers. The left hand is positioned on the fretboard.
  • Lutes commonly have up to about 15 strings, which makes them go out of tune very easily. This is one reason that the lute did not survive the ages of music. In the baroque period it was replaced by other keyboard instruments.
  • It is a common misconception that the lute is the predecessor of the guitar, but in fact, the guitar got its roots in Spain. Its ancestor was known as a Vihuela.
  • The psaltery consisted of a hollow piece of wood with pegs on it. Strings were wound between the pegs, and could be bowed or plucked by a plectrum or the fingers. The sound would then resonate through the body and come out of a sound hole (usually under the strings, like a guitar).
  • Commonly, the psaltery was held on the player’s lap or a table, but also could be held against the chest.
  • The psaltery did not have a wide range of notes, so it stopped being used in the 1500’s when music became more ornamental and chromatic

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