Without music, a campaign can go on. But it’s always nice to have the local minstrel inviting you to hear his ballad ... (by medieval, I’m referring to the medieval european cultures, not the whole world, or any specific nation. By renaissance, italian renaissance, with arab influence a slight expansion of geography.)
Most gamers I’ve met have no clue about the actual nature of medieval music. Granted they know the lute, but that’s it. The fact is, I think we, as a fantasy roleplaying game community, should learn some detail into the history so many campaigns emulate. This article is not intended for detail, but rather as a quick tutorial to rectify our "knowledge". If my info is wrong, feel free to correct it, I’m no expert.
The lute, as with the violin when it first appeared, was an upper class instrument. The in game cliche of a lutenist in the local tavern is out of place.
There is an instrument that filled that role. It was the cittern, a flat backed plucked instrument, fretted, and varying in tuning, size, and shape.
The most common medieval bowed instrument was the Rebec, having two to three courses, (pairs of strings with one note, two octaves, like a modern twelve string guitar,)tuned either D d G g, or D d A a G g, and ocassionally having drone strings.
Various local instruments, going by the name of fiddle, usually flat backed and often tuned similar to the rebec, appeared starting in the renaissance. They,like the rebec, are accurate for taverns and street musicians.
Flutes, in one form or another, have always been around.
The fipple flute is the most common form, common examples being the penny whistle (also called tin whistle, the recorder, etc., any flute blown from the top.
In england the tabor pipe and the tabor were often paired by one musician. The tabor was a flat drum almost identical to the irish bodhran. The tabor pipe was a three holed whistle, tuned ( I think )cag.
The welsh crwth , a folk zither, is very close to medieval lyres. Lyres and harps have always been around in some form, and the harp is unchanged, excepting levers and pedals. These were baroque additions, preceded by the welsh double and triple harps, which had multiple rows of strings.
For those (like me) who are guitarists, it is interesting too know that, lack of big E aside, the guitar’s direct ancestor, the vihuela de mano, was tuned just like a 12- string guitar. (The "gittern" is an alternate spelling of cittern, not a guitar.)
That’s it for the dm’s historic luthiery crash course. When aware, act aware, when in doubt, google it!
Additional Data, beware of uselessness
For those who like cliches…
Just because it’s been done, some may say, doesn’t mean we should forget about the lute. I agree. It is the single most Recognizable medieval instrument to the average joe.
I intend to put accurate info about the lute in here, If you have some, let me know.
The "typical" Medieval lute (If there is one)
The highest note was usually a single string, though in the earliest lutes to hit europe, I’ve read it was also a course. The others were courses, sometimes referred to redundantly as a "double course." This is where two adjacent strings are tuned to the same note, but in two different octaves. I’m not sure I remember the "typical" tuning, This is all from memories four years mystified.
I think it was C F B e’ a’ d’, (Maybe that’s backwards.)
II. How common was it?
The lute was a solo instrument, played by court minstrels and nobles who played for leisure. It was most popular in northern europe, yet still not to the degree one would think from modern portrayal.
Much as a crystal, ivory, emerald, silver, or whatever else instrument looks good, it is accoustically a farce.
(The exception being fipple flutes, where hole placement is the biggest issue.)
If such instruments are played in game, it’s a good Idea to explain how or that they are enchanted to sound good.
For any stringed instrument, bowed, plucked, hammered, or of any sort, The best combination is a hardwood back, with a softwood sound board. I suppose an Ivory back would sound ok, as long as a softwood is the sound board.
Before we had mass produced wire, strings were made of silk or gut, with the occassional bass note being silverwound. Violin bows were the same shape as hunting bows in the medieval era. Frets were made of various materials, and drumheads were made of skin. I’ve read that celtic harps had hammered silver wire for strings, and were handed down bard to bard, rather than made new.
Links I found on google:
Digital image archive of medieval music
an informative glossary of medieval music terminology.
The rebec project (note: This document helped me get obsessed with medieval music a few years back. Sadly, I did not succeed in building one, though I tried.)