What Is A Hurdy Gurdy?
Hurdy Gurdy: The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument that produces sound by a hand crank-turned, rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow, and single notes played on the instrument sound similar to those of a violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents—small wedges, typically made of wood—against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic stringed instruments, it has a sound board and hollow cavity to make the vibration of the strings audible.
Most hurdy-gurdies have multiple drone strings, which give a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy-gurdy is often used interchangeably or along with bagpipes, particularly in Occitan, Catalan, Cajun French and contemporary Asturian, Cantabric, Galician, Hungarian and Slavic folk music.
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Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” may be the creepiest song ever written about an obscure medieval instrument (made all the more so by its use in David Fincher’s Zodiac), but the Hurdy Gurdy did not give his recording its ominous sound. Those droning notes come from an Indian tanpura. Yet they evoke the title instrument, an ingenious musical invention “set up primarily for the purpose of making drones,” Case Western Reserve’s College of Art and Sciences explains. “In the Middle Ages, it was known in Latin as the organistrum and the symphonia, and in French as the vielle à roue (the vielle with the wheel).”
With a sound produced by a “rosined wooden wheel, turned by a crank” that set “a number of strings in continuous droning vibration,” the hurdy gurdy can, it’s true, give off a bit of a folk horror vibe. From its very early, maybe 10th or 11th century origins in liturgical music, hurdy gurdy expert Jim Kendros tells us in the video above, the instrument became associated with European folk music, shrinking from a beast played by two people to more portable dimensions, about the size of a large guitar and resembling a hand-cranked violin with keys for playing melodies on certain strings.
Hurdy-gurdy, squat, pear-shaped fiddle having strings that are sounded not by a bow but by the rosined rim of a wooden wheel turned by a handle at the instrument’s end. Notes are made on the one or two melody strings by stopping them with short wooden keys pressed by the left-hand fingers. Up to four unstopped strings, called bourdons, sound drones.
The hurdy-gurdy was first mentioned in the 10th century as the organistrum. It was then a church instrument played by two men, one fingering the keys, one turning the wheel. Secular, one-man forms, called symphonia, appeared in the 13th century. It was fashionable during the reign of Louis XIV as the vielle à roue (“wheel fiddle”) and was played into the 20th century by folk and street musicians, notably in France and eastern Europe. The Swedish nyckelharpa is a similar fiddle with keys, but it is played with a bow.
Joseph Haydn composed a group of concerti and nocturnes for the lira organizatta, a variety of hurdy-gurdy having several small organ pipes attached to it. The name hurdy-gurdy sometimes mistakenly refers to other handle-operated street instruments, such as the barrel organ and barrel piano.
We’re starting our “Featured Instrument” blog with the Hurdy Gurdy. For years, the Hurdy Gurdy has been one of the most popular search terms on our website. Given the fascination in the instrument and its varied use across a range of musical styles and genres, it’s not surprising!
The hurdy-gurdy, also known as the vielle, is a musical instrument whose sound is produced by the friction of a wheel against taut strings. Hurdies have varying number of strings, with 6 being the most common:
- 2 Melody strings – Chanterelles
- 4 Drone strings – Mouche, Trompette, Petit and Gross Bourdons
Our Featured Hurdy Gurdy
We’re delighted to have for sale this second-hand Hurdy Gurdy after Saunier by Christopher Eaton. This is a rare opportunity to purchase a left-handed instrument by this maker, who is no longer taking commissions. Click here for more info!
Hurdy Gurdy Music
It didn’t take too long before street musicians used hurdy-gurdies in folk music. Over time, the frame of the instrument became smaller and smaller, until just one musician could play it alone. During the late Renaissance period, two characteristic shapes of hurdy-gurdies developed. One was a guitar-shaped type and the other had a rounded lute-type body made of staves. During this time, it was very popular (along with the bagpipe) and played almost everywhere in Europe. It is important to mention that the hurdy-gurdy was the first stringed instrument to which the keyboard principle was applied.
The hurdy-gurdy, known in France as the vielle a roue or just vielle, has a long history and has been played by everyone from blind beggars to the nobility. The origin of the hurdy-gurdy remains unclear. Some believe that the origins of the instrument go back to the 10th century with the invention of the organistrum, a lute-shaped mechanically-bowed chordophone operated by two players; one turned the crank while another pulled the keys upward to change the musical pitch of the strings. This instrument, much bigger in comparison to modern hurdy gurdies, was only capable of playing slow melodies and simple harmony because of the hard key action and was primarily used in monastic and church settings to accompany choral music.
The various types of musicians of the medieval times, including waits, minstrels, and troubadours, used this instrument. It was one of the most popular in Europe. When the instrument was introduced to England in the 12th century, the bow was replaced by strings attached to a wheel, which was cranked by a handle. During that time, the English used the term “hurley burley” as a derogatory reference to the instrument’s music.
Hurdy Gurdy Instrument
Chopper, the bass player in our band, is suffering with tennis elbow, which means that whenever we reach the incendiary climax of our set and he swings his instrument through the front of his speaker cabinet, it hurts.
So I spent the last 24 hours working on a design for an instrument he can play simply by turning a handle. When I finished, I realised I had reinvented the hurdy-gurdy.
If you thought hurdy-gurdy was the catchphrase of the Muppets’ chef, you might be better off leaving it that way. As instruments go, we’re talking about one of the more diabolical contraptions. Imagine a mangle mounted on a cow’s udders and you’re pretty much there. Then imagine the sound you’d get if you fed a cow’s udders through a mangle and you’re pretty much there again.
The hurdy-gurdy was invented for lazy violin players, who couldn’t be bothered to keep dragging a bow across the strings. Instead, it has a wheel, turned by a handle, which is made sticky with rosin and rubs across the strings, effectively doing the work of the fiddler’s bow. But unlike the violin, which, in the right hands, can be a very pleasant sounding instrument, the hurdy-gurdy has what are known as drone strings. The clue’s in the name.
No, we’re not talking security devices at Gatwick. While you manipulate the udders to play the tune, the drone strings sound the same note continuously, creating the impression that someone is trying to disrupt your musical enjoyment by playing a speech by Boris Johnson at the same time. Noyng-annoyng-yoyng-annoyng-noyng-yoyng-annoyng. You notice how close the sound is to the word ‘annoying’. Bagpipes make their ‘music’ on the same principle – unless you’re alert enough to step in and take an axe to them first.
The peculiar name is said to have derived from the sound the thing makes (surely annoying-noyng would have been a better name), although other guessers think it might have been inspired by the admittedly similar word ‘hurlyburly’, which was popularised by Shakespeare. “When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won,” says the second witch in Macbeth.
For over a thousand years, the hurdy-gurdy fed the common appetite for misery and provided a meagre livelihood for poor, sadistic street musicians. But then it died out, partly due to Stalin’s purges on poor, sadistic street musicians, partly due to a popular awakening to the fact that it sounded dismal.
By the 1960s the hurdy-gurdy had become the dodo of the stringed instrument race. You couldn’t find one for love nor money. But then along came Donovan, counterculture icon and mind expanding hippy pal of The Beatles. In 1968 he released Hurdy Gurdy Man (warning: you may find this link upsetting), a groundbreakingly ridiculous piece of trippy psychedelic rock weirdness that featured future members of Led Zeppelin rocking out while Donovan recounted recollections from his latest trip in a voice that sounded like he was being vigorously shaken while trying to order pastries.