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Music Guide: Medieval and Renaissance Instruments

Medieval and Renaissance Music Instruments

From the 14th to 17th centuries, a cultural Renaissance was occurring in Europe. Advancements in politics, science, art and music contributed to the development of a more cultural society. Music, in particular, was an important part of life during the medieval and renaissance periods; it served as a form of entertainment as well as communication amongst towns people.

Musical instruments were an integral part of medieval music; musicians called troubadours travelled from village to village with their instruments to spread the latest news and play songs. Troubadours played for both noble people and common people alike. Minstrels, on the other hand, were servants of the court tasked with only playing music for the monarchy and their guests.

There were several instruments to choose from, including those appropriate for travel and playing amongst large audiences. Instruments across all the major categories were available including wind, string, keyboard, and percussion instruments.


The Lute

The lute was one of the most popular solo instruments. A guitar-like string instrument with an angled neck and pear shaped body, the lute was a fretted instrument. With 6 strings tuned in fourths, and a third in the middle, the lute was versatile and often the instrument of choice for solos, ensembles and  dance music.

The Viol

The viol was a bowed instrument with frets usually played downward on the lap or between the legs. They were popular in the 11th century, and then disappeared until they re-emerged again in the 13th century as one of the most popular instruments. Viols were used frequently by court musicians; violins were often used to accompany dances or lead wedding processions.

  • The Viol: Images and Information about the viol including viol sizes and tuning

The Fiddle

The fiddle or vielle is an early version of the 4-string violin. It was played with a bow or plucked, and was usually held under the chin or the crook of the arm. Medieval fiddles used from the 11th to 16th century were much different from the Renaissance fiddles played in the second half of the 15th century. Differences in the construction of the instrument account for changes in volume and pitch. Medievil fiddles lacked sandpost and bass bars, and consequently produced much less volume than the Renaissance fiddle and later the violin. This was appropriate for the time, as loud volume was not necessary  because the instrument was not played in large groups.

  • The Fiddle: Brief description explaining how the fiddle developed
  • Fiddle Overview: A general overview of the development of the fiddle
  • Fiddle Evolution: A brief description explaining the relation between the fiddle, violin and rebec

The Rebec

The rebec was a bowed 3-string pear-shaped instrument most popular during the 14th century.  It competed with the fiddle in popularity, but was easier to play because it required less accurate fingering. By the 15th century, the rebec’s popularity was diminishing among the court; however, it was briefly revived for use as a dance instrument. By the mid-15th century the 4-string violin had surpassed all other bowed string instruments in popularity; the rebec had become a plebian or common instrument fit for public streets and taverns.

The Harp

The harp was a string instrument about 30 inches in length, and was a  favorite of troubadours. Its strings were made from animal gut, horse hair and sometimes silk. Eventually a pillar was added to support the tension of the strings, along with stiffer strings made from copper and brass to produce louder sound.

The Dulcimer

The dulcimer was a string instrument played by striking the strings with a hammer. In the 16th century, the dulcimer had 6 to 9 strings and was played on the lap or on a table. Bridges were added later, which gave the instrument additional pitches.

The Bag Pipe

A bag pipe is a wind instrument composed of reed pipes attached to a windbag made of animal skins. During medieval times the instrument was appreciated and heard by all society levels.

The Recorder

The recorder, which was available in several sizes to produce varying tones.

The recorder was one of the most important wind instruments of the Renaissance era. The instrument had seven finger holes and was played held straight out in front of the player, unlike the flute, which is played held to the side of the mouth.

  • The Popularity of the Recorder: The recorder gained popularity even appearing on the English court. It was mentioned in writing by the authors Shakespeare and Milton on several occasions.
  • The Recorder:  Images and additional Information About Its Evolution

The Archlute

A derivative of the lute, the archlute had two pegboxes - one pegbox with unfretted bass strings, while the other had 13 or 14 single or double sets of strings. In Italy, it was frequently used for solo and continuo music.


The bandora was a long-neck pluck-string bass instrument with 6 or 7 courses. It was built like a cittern, but with a lute-like form. It was a common instrument to accompany solo English songs.


The ceterone was an enlarged cittern with extra bass strings. The instrument was built on a teardrop shape back with a rose and fixed metal strings. It was most commonly played during the 16th and 17th century.

Chamber Organ

Popular during the 17th and 18th century, the chamber organ was of modest size, usually 4 to 7 stops with a single keyboard without pedals. Air was blown from a single wedge-shaped bellow that was operated by the player’s foot. The chamber organ was mostly intended for domestic use.


Also a derivative of the lute, the chittarone was a large bass lute developed during the 16th century. It was designed to be an accompanying instrument.


The citole was the medieval form of the wire-strung plucked Renaissance cittern.

  • The Citole: Provides general information about the instrument


The cittern descended from the citole to fill the role of the small instrument, the “kithara.” It was a quill-plucked string instrument. Shaped like a pear, it had 4 courses, a flat back and an ornate rosette.The bandora is an English version of the cittern.


A stringed instrument with a keyboard, the harpisicord often had two manuals; the strings were plucked by leather or quill when the keys were pressed, producing short abrupt tones. Keyboard instruments were mainly used during the Renaissance period as solo instruments. It was rare for vocals to accompany the instrument.


The hurdy-gurdy was a stringed-instrument shaped like a lute or viol, but played by turning a crank attached to a roisened wheel that caused the strings to vibrate. The crank replaced the bow that would have normally been used to play a string instrument.


A cross between a harp and a guitar, the psaltery was a stringed instrument of the zither family. It had a trapezoidal shape and contained a variable number of strings which were plucked with the fingers of both hands or with a pair of quills.

The Crumhorn

The crumhorn was introduced as a 15th century double-reed wind instrument. It had a curve at the end of the tube.  Pitches are made by opening and closing the finger holes along the pipe.

The Lizard

The lizard, also known as the tenor cornet, was a flattened s-shaped horn.  The s –shape helped the player with finger positioning since the finger holes were closer the player. The instrument had a foggy sound.