A Bowed Psaltery Makes Uniquely Beautiful Music

By Sally Delacruz

The stringed instruments heard in modern music have ancient origins. Although they assumed a modern appearance during the 18th century, most were the offspring of many cultures and eras. The oldest versions produced sounds by hammering or plucking on strings, and the addition of bowing increased that capability. The bowed psaltery emerged recently, and possesses an ethereal, unique tonality.

The sounds they produce often remind listeners of harp music, with the added tonality of a dulcimer and violin. Some Biblical passages mention the instrument by name, but that was a result of translators seeking to popularize ancient texts, not a verbatim description. It is true that psalteries originated partially in the Middle East, but they are now grouped with other members of he chordophone family.

This includes nearly any musical device that has strings amplified by a resonator. They have become part of modern culture as expressed through composition, and define the sound that modern orchestras produce. Many are electronically amplified today, and all possess chromatic capabilities. The psaltery-like instruments favored by Renaissance-era musicians did not, and their popularity waned.

Fortunately, they did not vanish, but merely changed. If musical instruments had DNA, it could be discovered today in the genetic makeup of hammered dulcimers and their cousins. The harpsichord is primarily a hammered dulcimer with a keyboard, which later evolved into the familiar piano. Keyboards allowed greater personal expression, but could not reproduce the same ethereal, mystical sounds.

The current shapes, sizes, and playing techniques emerged fairly recently. Popular history places the birth of the modern version in Germany over a century ago, but the true beginnings probably have no specific date. The addition of a horsehair bow separates ancient instruments from modern, and their design makes playing one comparatively uncomplicated. The sounds are medieval, but the mechanisms are modern.

Today there are two common forms. They both resemble a long, narrow isosceles triangle, or a pointed science-fiction space cruiser. The soprano version boasts a two-octave range, with a bright sound that carries well. The alto model makes somewhat lower tones, and extends chromatically on the lower notes. Most are shorter than two feet, and at 2.4 pounds can be easily carried for personal performance.

Learning to play a violin or cello well can take years of training and practice, unlike a psaltery. Pegs and strings on the left side represent black piano keys, while the right side corresponds to the white. There are well-defined spaces for bowing, each one representing a particular note. For those with limited musical reading ability, knowledge of standard notation is not necessary.

When the bow is placed between pegs and slowly drawn across tuned strings, the results can be lovely. Musicians can play from either side, not just from the highest point of the strings. There is not a specifically wrong way to hold one, and many players simply lay them on a table, or cradle them in their laps. There is a growing body of sheet music and psaltery sound-bites on line for those interested in honing their skills.

About the Author: