What is a Hurdy-Gurdy?

Have you ever come across the word Hurdy-Gurdy?

Last week I had a student starting a new piece on the RCM Violin Level Two Repertoire Book with this name: “Hurdy-Gurdy”. My student made a funny face! What was that? He never heard of that word before. I explained what it was and we watched a couple of videos during class.

After the lesson, I kept thinking how most students know the more popular instruments, like piano, violin, violoncello, etc.  Then I wanted to mention about this very interesting ancient string (bowed) instrument.

The Hurdy-Gurdy is a mechanical string 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.

It is thought to have been originated from fiddles in either Europe or the Middle East some time before the eleventh century A.D.

A person who plays the hurdy-gurdy is called a hurdy-gurdist, or  viellist (particularly for players of French instruments).

During the Renaissance, the hurdy-gurdy was a very popular instrument (along with the bagpipe). The hurdy-gurdy tradition is well-developed particularly in Hungary, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. In Ukraine, it is known as the lira or relia. It was and still is played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their repertoire has mostly para-religious themes, most of it originated in the Baroque period.

Lirnyky were categorized as vagabonds by the Russian authorities and fell under harsh repressive measures if they were caught performing in the streets of major cities until 1902.

The instrument came into a new public consciousness when Donovan released his hit pop song, “Hurdy Gurdy Man“, in 1968. Although the song does not use a hurdy-gurdy, the repeated reference to the instrument in the song’s lyrics sparked curiosity and interest among young people, eventually resulting in an annual hurdy-gurdy music festival.

Today, the tradition has resurfaced and as the instrument has been revived, musicians have used it in a variety of styles of music, including contemporary forms not typically associated with it.

In pop music, especially in the popular neo-medieval music, electric hurdy-gurdies are used, wherein electro magnetic pickups convert the vibration of its strings into electrical signals. Similar to electric guitars, the signals are transmitted to an instrument amplifier.

Electronic hurdy-gurdies, on the other hand, manage completely without strings. The signals for the melody strings are purely generated electronically by the keys and also in combination with the rotation of the wheel. 

Had you heard about the this unique instrument before? If so, where did you learn about it? Let me know on the comments!

If you are curious to know how the Hurdy-Gurdy sounds, listen to this wonderful cover of He’s a Pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean Movie.


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