Playing the Lyre

Rediscovering the art of playing the north European lyre is an ideal field of exploration for living history.  The original techniques and repertoire of the lyre have been long been lost, but by experimenting with the possibilities these instruments offer, it is possible to rediscover how music could have been made with them.

Sounding the notes

Historical records tell us that the lyre was played with a pick with the right hand, using either a plectrum  or a small baton.  The left hand held the instrument, using a leather strap attached to the arms of the lyre.  In this position, the left hand could have been used to pick additional notes, or to mute unwanted strings when strumming with the pick (as seen in some African lyre techniques).

Tuning

We have very little information on the tuning of the lyre.  Only a single document survives which deals with the lyre in detail, an early 9th century manuscript called De Harmonica Institutione by a clergyman named Hucbald of St Amand, in which he attempts to reconcile the Frankish ideas about music that were common in his time with classical Greek music theory.  He discusses the six-stringed lyre being tuned to a hexachord, a medieval scale consisting of the first six notes of what we now call the major scale.  It is, however, unknown to what extent Hucbald’s ideas reflected generally accepted practice amongst early medieval lyre players, or were shaped by his own theories and the concepts found in church music.

Medieval music was modal, mainly using the Dorian and Mixolydian modes, and to a lesser extent, the Phrygian and Lydian.

Some modern players favour a pentatonic scale rather than a diatonic one, and this tuning certainly works well, but in the absence of any evidence, it is sheer speculation to assume that the lyre was tuned to anything resembling a modern scale – it might have used different intervals to those we know today, and there could have been gaps in the scale, rather than having the strings tuned to consecutive notes.  This opens up a world of possibilities for any musician seeking to rediscover how to make music with the lyre – there are no rules, since nobody can say that anything is “wrong”.

The frequencies of the notes would not have been the same as the modern system, which uses the “equal temperament” concept, allowing transposition between keys while keeping the intervals between notes identical, and derives all the notes from the reference pitch of A4 at 440hz.  In the Middle Ages, it is unlikely that there was any universally accepted reference pitch on which a scale could be based, and the exact frequencies of the notes probably varied widely between different places, performances and individuals.

The most likely systems to have been used are forms of Just Intonation, calculated by dividing the octave into ratios of small whole numbers , such as the Pythagorean system.  Just intonation results in a scale that sounds perfect in a single key, but goes out of tune in any other key.  The Pythagorean system was favoured by the church, and produces some intervals which sound quite dissonant to the modern ear, and which consequently shaped the way medieval music developed.  This is important to any attempts to reconstruct the music that might have been played on the lyre, since it affects the composers choice of notes and how they are used in the melody.

Harmony

Early medieval music was monophonic, the only harmonic accompaniment that might have been used is a drone.  When playing vocal music, the instrument would have played the melody that was being sung, not a harmony accompaniment, nor any form of chord.

The accepted theory amongst scholars of music today is that harmony did not develop until the late Middle Ages.  There are some who argue with this, and it does seem a little odd that a player of an instrument such as a lyre, with the whole scale laid out in front of him, would not have tried plucking more than one string at once to see what it sounded like.

Whether you want to incorporate harmony into your lyre playing is a matter for you to decide – as mentioned above, nobody can say for certain what is right or wrong.

Stringing

Celtic lyres, like the later harps, were wire strung, but the Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian and continental European lyres were strung with gut (and possibly horse-hair).

The concept of equal-tension stringing is a modern one, only appearing in the late 19th century, hence it is not used on lyres. The correct tension for the strings is largely a matter of personal preference, within the parameters of the desired key and placement of the bridge.  A guide to the maximum frequency for the strings used on our lyres (the highest note possible without breaking the string, relative to the bridge position) is provided with each instrument.  Our standard size will usually play well in the keys of C to G (highest note G4).  Lower keys will require slack strings which will adversely affect the tone.

Dark Age Crafts instruments use Aquila Nylgut strings, and the booklet provided with each instrument includes a chart showing the highest notes they can be safely tuned to, relative to the position of the bridge.  It is also possible to use natural gut, fluorocarbon or nylon strings on our lyres, but they have not been extensively tested with these string materials, and although damage to the lyre is unlikely, the breaking tension of the strings and hence the pitch ranges possible are not known.

Some tunings you can use on the standard model Dark Age Crafts seven string lyres with the bridge in the centre of the soundboard are:

D4 – C3 – Bb3 – A3 – G3 – F3 – D3

F4 – D4 – C3 – A3 – G3 – F3 – D3 (a pentatonic minor scale)

C3 – B3 – A3 – G3 – F3 – E3 – D3 (the Dorian mode)

C#3 –  B3 –  A3 – G3 – F#3 –  E3 – D3

C3 –  B3 –  A3 – G3 – F#3 –  E3 – D3 (the Mixolydian mode)

With the bridge in the centre of the soundboard, you can adjust these tunings up or down by a note (two semitones).

If your lyre is not our standard model, and is significantly larger or smaller, please refer to the bookelt that came with it for tuning information, or contact us if in doubt.

Note: Our lyres are strung with the lowest note furthest away from the body, like a harp (i.e.: on the right hand side as you look at the front of the instrument).  You can reverse this if you prefer a more guitar-like feel.

Please see our “Videos” page for some demonstrations of the different techniques used in played in the lyre.