Monthly Archives: March 2022

Medieval musical instruments on the cheap


Yesterday I got to teach a class at a live SCA event for the first time in years, at Nova Schola in the Shire of Hartshorndale. It was a lovely relaxed event and it was good to see people in person again.

I don’t teach very often in the SCA, more because I don’t think people would be interested in the niche subjects I am interested in. Though I taught two online classes during the pandemic in virtual events, in-person teaching is different. This class actually grew out of my second online class, in which I talked about how to convert a pineapple ukulele into a citole-like instrument. For this in-person class, I took this subject and added on information about plucked psalteries. The intent of the class is to encourage beginning musicians to play actual medieval music, on more “authentic” instruments, and not be challenged by the cost of a reproduction medieval instrument.

Why this subject? In the context of the SCA, there has been a longstanding tension between the philosophies of “the music is more important than the instrument” and playing “period” music. People raised on trad Irish music and fantasy filks (neither of which I am knocking, I love and have played both genres) come to events with their guitars hoping to be bardic entertainers. I too was hauling my guitar to events, and ran into a problem: while I could do fingerpicked, transcribed versions of late-period lute music such as Dowland, I could not replicate the “drone” sound of early medieval music on my guitar.

After acquiring my own citole, I figured out why I was so frustrated with trying to play early medieval music. It was to do with “temperament,” the difference between the way a modern guitar is tuned and the way a citole is tuned. Modern musical instruments are the product of even temperament, but medieval musical instruments use what is known as Pythagorean tuning, and medieval music is based on this tuning system. To a modern ear trained on modern music, most medieval music subsequently sounds weird. (Some of these weirdness can be found in Irish, Scandinavian, and other traditional folk music, as this video explains – and I believe that this is why people think trad folk music is actually medieval when quite a lot of it was composed in modern times.)

But back to my class. Say you’re a guitarist who has fallen in love with actual medieval music and want to be able to sing and play at the same time (so no recorders for yoy). Or you just want to play those sprightly early melodies, and you’ve discovered that your guitar is not really suited for them. DADGAD tuning helps, to a point, but that is a modern “Celtic” music convention and doesn’t really hit the sweet spot of playing, say, Spanish cantigas. My answer here is “Get a citole,” but I also realize that this can be monetarily out of reach to a lot of people. And I think I came up with a rather simple, elegant solution for less than $100.

I also talk about plucked psalteries in this class, and it’s nice to let people know a simple “kiddie instrument” can be used in medieval music. A quality reproduction hogsnose psaltery is an expensive investment, but a much cheaper child’s “toy” can still be used to play medieval music.