The bray harp: getting a buzz from early music

A donkey plays bray harp while a goat sings, from the Hunterian or York Psalter, 1170.
Donkey harpist, goat singer: Hunterian/York Psalter.

The bray harp is not a sound modern ears are used to, and even most early music groups with harps don’t use the period instrument, yet it was the standard European harp of the late medieval, renaissance and early baroque periods, from the 15th century to the 1630s, and still used until the late 18th century in some places. The bray harp gets its name from the L shaped wooden pins at the base of the strings, positioned so the strings buzz against them as they vibrate: the effect was said to sound like a donkey’s bray. It’s an older idea than the bray harp, one shared by the oldest surviving stringed instruments, made four and a half thousand years ago.

This article traces the earliest evidence for the European harp, leading to the origins and popular rise of the bray harp specifically. We ask why there is so little surviving early harp music and try to come to a feasible historical answer; and along the way take in Pictish stones, illuminated Psalters, Geoffrey Chaucer, harp-playing angels and an ape playing a rota, with a video of the harp being brayed.

Click picture to play video – opens in new window. A song to demonstrate the bray harp, including the practice of ‘fretting’ a note, described in the article below, where the note of a string is needed both natural and sharp, or flat and natural, in the same piece of music. Quhat mightie motione by Captain Alexander Montgomery (1540?-1610?), a distant cousin of King James VI of Scotland, was set to music anonymously in the partbooks of Thomas Wode, written c. 1562-1590, and arranged for bray harp by Ian Pittaway.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window.
A song to demonstrate the bray harp, including the practice of ‘fretting’ a note,
described in the article below, where the note of a string is needed both natural
and sharp, or flat and natural, in the same piece of music. Quhat mightie motione
is by Captain Alexander Montgomery (1540?-1610?), a distant cousin of King
James VI of Scotland. It was set to music anonymously in the partbooks of Thomas Wode,
written c. 1562-1590, and arranged here for bray harp by the player, Ian Pittaway.

Harp and bray origins

A depiction of a Greek musician with a lyre, 480 BC.
Greek musician with a lyre, 480 BC.

The harp is descended from a family of musical instruments with unfretted strings stretched across a frame, including the lyre of classical Greece, evidenced from the 9th or 8th century BCE. The earliest known surviving stringed instruments were even earlier than the Greek lyres. In 1929, British archaeologist Leonard Woolley excavated instruments from royal tombs in Ur, southern Iraq, which have a direct relationship to the bray harp in their concept and execution of sound. Amongst the artefacts made of gold, silver and alabaster, Woolley found three lyres. They look like harps but are classed as lyres on the distinction that harp strings rise directly from the soundboard, whereas lyre strings pass over a bridge, as do the strings of the Ur lyres. They are dated 2600–2400 BCE, decorated with golden bull’s heads and not coincidentally described in contemporaneous texts as sounding like a “softly lowing bull”. This sound is created by the strings vibrating against the top edge of the bridge. This is the same principle as bray pins and essentially the same sound as the bray harp. A lyre or a harp with some kind of buzzing device, be it a bridge or a wooden bray pin for the strings to vibrate against, resembles a “softly lowing bull” with a large instrument at a low pitch, or a braying donkey with a smaller instrument at a higher pitch.

Left: Leonard Woolley, with one of the excavated lyres. Middle: One bull lyre of Ur, dated 2600–2400 BC. Right, the same as depicted being played on a panel of the standard of Ur, a hollow wooden box with inlaid mosaics.
Left: Leonard Woolley, with one of the excavated lyres.
Centre: One bull lyre of Ur, dated 2600–2400 BCE.
Right: The same as depicted being played on a panel of the
standard of Ur, a hollow wooden box with inlaid mosaics.

The same principle applies on the begena or bèguèna (seen in three photographs below), an Ethiopian 10 string lyre used exclusively for sacred functions in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The begena has pieces of leather lodged between each string and the bridge to create buzzing, which audibly imitates the sound of Ur’s “softly lowing bull”. According to Ethiopian tradition, this was the Biblical King David’s instrument, which he played to calm Saul: “So it came about whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp [some translations have lyre] and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him” (1 Samuel 16:23). Tradition has it that Menelik I, son of King Solomon of Israel and of Makeda, Queen of Sheba (in modern Ethiopia), the first Emperor of Ethiopia ruling from 950 BC, brought the begena from Israel to Ethiopia. King David’s life is usually dated from 1040 to 970 BC so, if this story is true, it takes the origin of the buzzing string principle back considerably less far than the lyres of Ur. There is, however, no firm evidence of the begena in Ethiopia before the 15th century.

Begenas, the lyres of Ethiopia, used only in sacred music.
You can see and hear a begena being played by clicking here.

The rise of the European harp and the addition of bray pins

One of the Pictish stone harpers
from Monifeith, c. 8th century.
(As with all pictures, click to see
larger in a new window, click in
the new window to further enlarge.)

The first unambiguous illustration of a European triangular harp comes from the culture of the Picts, the Scots of the late iron age through to early middle ages. Twelve decorated Pictish stones have survived, dating from the 8th or 9th century, all with Christian symbols, all depicting harps, some harps with players, some freely floating. These stone carvings (onew of which is shown on the right) are not detailed enough to give us any clues about construction, but their shape certainly indicates they are harps rather than lyres.

We have a more detailed view in the 10th century in the Caedmon or Junius manuscript of 930 (below left), one of the earliest examples of a harp shape more rounded than the previously triangular form. The harp illustrations in the Hunterian or York Psalter of 1170 (below centre) show a curvier shape with a protruding sweep at the head, as we also see in the Peterborough Psalter of 1310–20 (below right).

Left: Harp in the Caedmon or Junius manuscript, 930.
Centre: The Hunterian or York Psalter of 1170, with string holders, the same source as the
harp-playing donkey at the top of this article: donkeys (and other animals) were alliteratively
associated with harps before the introduction of brays: the asinus plays the arpa.
Right: The Peterborough Psalter of 1310–20, showing round string holders.

In the latter part of the 14th century, the round string-holders which keep the strings in place in the soundboard began to be replaced by pins made in an upside down L shape, turned so that the strings vibrate against them. This creates a frisson or buzzing distortion of sound which made the harps not only louder, but gave the impression of a donkey’s bray, hence the terms bray pins and bray harp. The earliest evidence of bray pins is on a harp painted in 1367–85 in Cathédrale Saint Julien du Mans, France (above left), two to four decades before bray pins on harps became ubiquitous at the turn of the 15th century.

In western Europe from the early 15th century (with the exception of Spain, which developed the double harp), changes were made in the shape and the sound of the gut-strung harp. The forepillar became straighter, with a horn-like curve on the neck, sweeping it upward. This made the harp taller, enabling longer bass strings and thus a deeper pitch. This form is described today as the Gothic harp (shown below).

Bray harps are usually Gothic harps and Gothic harps are usually bray harps, but since the change in shape and the addition of bray pins didn’t happen simultaneously, the two don’t always coincide. We see this with the Cathédrale Saint Julien du Mans bray harp above left, and again above right: a bray harp in the pre-Gothic shape, painted by Jaume Cabrer from an altarpiece of unknown provenance, c. 1400, now in the Museu Episcopal de Vic, Catalonia.

Iconography and written sources in the 15th century show the bray harp to be the standard harp (except in the above mentioned regions of the clarsach and in Spain), remaining so until the 17th century, as we see from the representative examples below.

Two 15th century depictions of Gothic bray harps.  
Left: Gherardo Starnina, Two Musician Angels, 1387-1413.
Right: Han Memling, Madonna and Child with angels, after 1479.
Three contemporaneous depictions of Gothic bray harps.
Left: portrait of Johannes Zimmermann by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1497-1498
Centre: copper engraving by Israhel van Meckenem, c. 1490.
Right: The Garden of Earthly Delights, triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, painted between 1490 and 1510.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

The popularity of the bray harp

Harps were popular as symbolic as well as musical objects, as this article about harp symbolism illustrates. Harps are mentioned several times in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, around the time of the introduction of brays, as an instrument to sing with, associated with the gittern, lute and psaltery, and with taverns. It was often painted on its own, with other instruments, or duetting with a lute in the 14th and 15th centuries, often in a religious setting and played by an angel.

Left is the whole of Flemish painter Gerard David’s Virgin and Child with four angels, c. 1510-15;
middle and right are details of the bray harper and quill lutenist (towards the end of quill lute
playing). Other paintings of David’s show the same musical pairing, including his triptych
of the Sedano family, c. 1495. (Click for larger image in a new window.)

The sound of the bray harp from c. 1385, popular from c. 1400, evidently had a wider influence.

The first evidence of the vielle à rue with its buzzing chien (dog), painted 1490–1510 in The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych by Hieronymus Bosch.

The beautifully decorated Capirola lute book, written in Venice 1515-20, states that a player should “make it so that the first fret almost touches the strings, and so on to the end, because as the frets are nearer to the string, the strings sound like a harp, and the lute appears better.” In other words, lute strings should buzz against the frets. The lute began to be fretted circa 1400, soon after brays first began to appear on harps. The first known depiction of a fretted lute has triple frets, the purpose of which can only have been to bray (for which, see this article under the subheading, The sound of the lute). The evidence therefore suggests that the timing of added bray pins on harps and added frets on lutes was not coincidental, that the sound of brays on harps was the same as frets on lutes, that they shared the same braying frisson for at least the first century or so of the fretted lute, perhaps for much longer.

In The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1495 and 1505 by Dutch artist Jheronimus Bosch, we see the first visual evidence of the development of the simfony into the vielle à rue or wheel fiddle, known now as the hurdy gurdy. The key change was simple but revolutionary. A drone string, called the trompette (trumpet), was given its own little bridge, the chien (dog), which produces a rhythmic percussive buzz, the persistence and rhythm of which depends on the speed and pressure with which the player turns the crank. The vielle à rue was later to develop further but, at this point in time, the rhythmic buzz was the feature which distinguished it from its simfony forebear, putting it in the same soundworld as the bray harp.

German composer and music theorist Sebastian Virdung, in his Musica getutscht, 1511, describes a new keyboard, “just like the virginals, except that it has different strings [made with gut rather than the usual wire] and nails which make it harp” or buzz. This is likely to be the arpichordo mentioned by Italian writers of the 16th and early 17th century, a cross between a harpsichord and a bray harp. The Flemish and northern European renaissance keyboard, the muselar or muselaar, was often equipped with a moveable baton, called a harpichordium or arpichordium, which had the same effect. The baton was fitted with brass hooks which made contact with the bass strings. You can hear the effect in the video below, and judge for yourself whether Dutch music theorist Quirinus van Blankenburg was right when he commented in 1739 that muselars “grunt in the bass like young pigs”.

Click the picture to play the video.
Mathieu Boutineau plays a muselaar with harpichordium.

The bray harp continued to be played through the renaissance and, when Michael Praetorius’ second and third volumes of Syntagma Musicum were published in 1618-1619, in the early baroque period, he wrote that “the strings of the harp rattle and crackle” and still described the bray harp as “the ordinary harp”.

The puzzle of harp music

We have a great deal of iconography testifying to the place of the harp in European culture, and yet we have little surviving harp music. In the medieval period, this is to be expected, as music was written either for the voice or for an instrument generally rather than one instrument specifically. This indicates the freedom of musicians to arrange their own instrumental parts and, if they could read music, they used the notation only as a starting point and improvised the rest. From relatively near the beginning of the renaissance onwards, different systems of tablature notation were developed for different specific instruments. Staff notation only shows the notes and the rhythm, and the instrumentalist works out the mechanics of producing those pitches; whereas tablature is tied directly to the instrument, showing the player the rhythm and the exact placement of both hands for all notes.

Harp tablature as used by Hernando de Cabezón in Spain, 1578 (above) and Antoine Parran in France, 1639 (below).
Harp tablature as used by Hernando de Cabezón
in Spain, 1578 (above) and Antoine Parran
in France, 1639 (below).

From the renaissance to the baroque period there is a wealth of tablature for the lute, cittern, and viola da gamba, and enough to keep us fairly happy for the bandora and 4 course guitar (for the latter there was ample but much of it is lost). For the harp, we have very little and it is all from the late renaissance onwards. We know there was a harp tablature system in Spain, for example, in Hernando de Cabezón’s Obras para tecla, arpa y vihuela (Works for keyboard, harp and vihuela), 1578, well within the heyday of the bray harp; then 60 years later in France, for example, in Antoine Parran’s Traité de la musique théorique et pratique contenant les préceptes de la composition (Treaty of theoretical and practical music containing the precepts of composition), 1639.

In Britain, only three sources of early harp repertoire survive, one English and two Welsh.

The first source is the George Cely Papers. In the early 1470s, George Cely joined his father’s trade to become a merchant dealing in raw wool. In the large volume of documents he left behind, dated 1475-1488, we discover that he had both bray harp lessons and dance lessons from Thomas Rede in Calais, where he spent a great deal of time on business. The bray harp is specifically mentioned, as is help in a lesson with setting the brays. There is no harp music in his papers; but his references to the music he learned is a valuable insight into the English harp repertoire back to the 1440s and ‘50s, since neither Rede nor Cely felt the need to keep up with the very latest music. George was learning unspecified dance tunes and, amongst his songs, Myn hertis lust and O Rosa bella by John Bedyngham, whose work also appears in continental manuscripts, Tos juirs and Go heart hurt with adversity, both anonymous, and O freshest flower, now lost. The work of English composers predominates: this was their heyday at home and on the continent, as John Dunstaple had effectively created the new sound of the renaissance, known as the English countenance, and thus paved the way for other English composers to be heard. (You’ll find a little more about this in Music of the renaissance: a whistle-stop tour.)

One of the Welsh sources is too corrupt to be of value. BM Add MS 14970 is an inaccurate early 19th century copy of an earlier manuscript, probably from the turn of the 17th century and now lost.

The second Welsh source is the Robert ap Huw manuscript, named after its writer, a harper from Anglesey, who calls for the bray harp to be played with fingernails. Though it was compiled in c. 1613, it is very much a retrospective: all the compositions noted date from 1340–1500, a remarkable stretch backwards in time. The reason for the book’s anachronism may also be why so little harp music appears to have been written down: harping was an expressly aural tradition, certainly in Wales, and probably as a feature of harping generally. The ordinances for the annual Welsh festival of literature, music and performance, the eisteddfodau, were drawn up in 1523 in the Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan. This sets out the repertoire that harpists and crwth (bowed lyre) players were required to memorise for their bardic degrees, examinations in the Welsh traditional aural arts. Memory and improvisation were key: there is no reference to written music. It appears, then, that the medieval aural and improvising musical tradition, which became a written tradition during the renaissance, continued to be predominantly aural for the harp.

This aural and improvising tradition would explain three things: the ap Huw manuscript contents, its unique system of tablature, and the musical forms it contains.

A page of harp tablature from the Robert ap Huw manuscript.
A page of harp tablature from the Robert ap Huw
manuscript. (Click on the picture to see larger in a
new window, click on the picture in the new
window to enlarge again.)

The contents of the Robert ap Huw manuscript, stretching back 270 years or more, seem to be born of a fear that the old traditions would die out if they were not written down. Its harp tablature combines elements of lute, harp and keyboard tablatures of the 15th and 16th centuries from Germany, Spain and Italy, arriving at a unique system. The most plausible explanation is that there simply wasn’t a Welsh system of writing harp music, nor was there one over the borders in England, Scotland or Ireland to borrow, nor one overseas that could easily be adopted for the Welsh style of playing, so one had to be invented. As such, the tablature remained a cryptic puzzle to harpists for many years until it was finally decoded. The contents are based around 24 musical patterns, chord progressions or grounds known as “the 24 measures of string music”. The ground or ground bass, a repeating pattern upon which a melody is fashioned, is the basis for this improvising tradition. An intriguing feature of the names given these measures is that many of them don’t make any sense in Welsh, but appear to be transliterations of Irish names, suggesting a cultural link between the bardic traditions of Wales and Ireland.

Tuning: scordatura and fretting

Sempronia the Averted, depicted playing a bray harp in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) MS Français 599, folio 68, 15th century.
Sempronia the Averted playing a bray harp in
Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF)
MS Français 599, folio 68r, 15th century.

The late medieval and renaissance bray harp was tuned and strung diatonically, that is, with only natural notes, not sharps or flats (like having only the white notes on a piano), though there are records of harps having both a B natural and a B flat string, as both were often needed for medieval and renaissance modes. Being diatonic, this meant sometimes employing scordatura, alternative ways of tuning the harp to suit the pitch of a voice or to employ musica ficta, adding sharps or flats to modify a mode.

If an individual note was needed both natural and sharpened or both flattened and natural in the same piece, the player would ‘fret’ the string. This involves reaching up with one hand to the part of the string that lies vertically across the wood below the tuning pin, and pressing the string against the wood, thus effectively shortening the vibrating string length and raising the note by a semi-tone. This is a harp technique documented independently by the Spanish vihuela composer Alonso Mudarra in his Tres libros de música en cifras para vihuela, 1546, and Spanish music lexicographer Juan Bermudo in his Declaración de instrumentos musicales, 1555. Bermudo also documents a different solution to needing the same note natural and sharp or natural and flat in the same piece: tune it sharp or flat in one octave but not the other. The effect of this technique can be heard in practice in Mudarra’s wonderful imitative piece for vihuela, Fantasía X que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico, ‘Fantasía 10 that imitates the harp in the style of Ludovico’ (Ludovico being the royal harper to King Ferdinand II) where, in the final passage, we have lower f played against higher f#’. (This piece can be heard on vihuela by clicking on this text).

The slow eclipse of the bray harp

Developments in European music in the 15th century and beyond, just on the cusp of the renaissance, were to mark the end of the diatonic simfony and psaltery: the increased use of notes sharpened or flattened in some parts of the music but natural in others, together with the rise of chord sequences and chordal playing, made those instruments obsolete. The diatonic bray harp, though, remained popular, perhaps because it had the option of both retuning and fretting. Still, being diatonic was increasingly seen as a problem for which a solution had to be found. Chromaticism was achieved by adding an extra row or two rows of strings. This was not a new idea, but it was applied in a new way.

Arpa doble from the Monasterio de Piedra triptych, Spain, c. 1390.
Arpa doble from the Monasterio de Piedra triptych, Spain, c. 1390.

In the late 14th century, the arpa doble or two row harp had been developed in Spain, as seen in the triptych in the Monasterio de Piedra, c. 1390 (right). The distance between doubled strings indicates that they are two distinct rows rather than doubled courses, but this does not represent an early attempt at chromaticism since there are an equal number of strings on each side, indicating unison stringing rather than a diatonic row and a row of accidentals. The artist has made a very odd mistake, with the tuners apparently sitting on top of the harp arm rather than fixed into the side. While a fundamental mistake like this may call into question the accuracy of the depiction of equal stringing on both sides, in c. 1390 the necessity of available sharps and flats was not the issue it was later to become, so it seems sensible to conclude that the arpa doble was unconnected with the later search for a chromatic harp.

The idea of double stringing a plucked, unfretted instrument was in any case not new in the late 14th century. The triangular instrument known as the rota, rote, rothe, or rotta is evidenced from the late 11th century. Strung with gut, it had two parallel rows of strings, as seen on the stone carving of an ape playing a rota on the outside of the 12th century church, Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, in Surgères, France (below). Petrus de Abano, in his Expositio problematum Aristotelis, written in Paris and Padua and completed in 1310, stated that the rota had 44 strings in all, 22 on each side, and that this arrangement of double strings was archaic. As with the arpa doble, the rota had two rows of unison strings. In this period, when polyphonic voices were close in pitch, sometimes crossing over each other or singing/playing unison notes, the double string band of the rota and the later arpa doble would have provided the perfect instrument on which one person could play polyphony with voices sometimes crossing or in unison.

An ape playing a rota, carved on the outside of the 12th century church,
Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Surgères, France.

The later use of double or triple rows of strings to create a chromatic instrument would both change the status of the diatonic bray harp and change the harp itself.

Juan Bermudo, in his Declaración de Instrumentos musicales, Spain, 1555, proposed an additional 8 strings on the same plane as the diatonic row for the most needed accidentals, differentiated by colour, further stating that some players were adding between 15 and 19 extra strings for accidentals. The idea was short-lived and appears not to have spread.

A surviving original Davidsharfe, a German double-strung harp with brays, made by Johann Volckmann Rabe in 1741.
A surviving original Davidsharfe,
a German chromatic 2 row harp
with brays, made by Johann
Volckmann Rabe in 1741.

According to Tetrachordum musices by the German writer Johann Dobneck, known as Johannes Cochlaeus, some kind of triple harp, with 3 rows of strings, was in use in England when he wrote in 1511, presumably with brays, at this point. Chromaticism was achieved by having two outer rows of diatonic notes, with the player reaching inwards to the middle row of accidentals.

There are competing claims for the precise origin of the chromatic triple harp. Despite Johannes Cochlaeus’ writing in 1511, the invention of the (brayless) triple harp is often attributed to Italy just before 1600; and yet the triple harp was soon known as the Welsh harp, and is to this day. The truth is probably that musicians at different times and in several places were looking for a way to make the harp meet the new demands of evolving music, and therefore the triple harp was an idea whose time had come.

The change from diatonic bray to chromatic brayless harp came slowly and in patches. It took until the 1630s for the triple to become the new standard harp. The change was not universal and this was by no means the end for brays. In Harmonie universelle, 1636, Marin Mersenne claimed that brays were out of fashion in France, but in c. 1680-1700, when opera houses were gaining popularity in the German-speaking world, a two row chromatic Davidsharffe or David’s harp was developed, with brays on all strings. Brays have the effect of increasing volume, so the large Davidsharffe can be heard even as part of a full baroque orchestra. German maker Johann Volckmann Rabe (c. 1700–1750) made such instruments, six of which have survived. The Davidsharffe was probably the intended instrument for German-born English composer George Frideric Handel’s (1685–1759) harp solos in opera and oratorio, since early baroque German operas, cantatas and dance pieces were played on it; and it was the instrument played by Francesco Petrini (1744-1819), harpist to the Prussian court of Frederick the Great (ruled 1740-1786). This means that into the late 18th century a form of bray harp was played in Germany, was very likely played in England, and was part of Prussian life, which included parts of present-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

Buzzing brays yesterday and today

Today the buzzing sound of the bray harp is little heard. Now it is sometimes viewed as an unwelcome abberation even by some early music performers and players of early harps, but the musical aesthetic that eschews brays is clearly out of step with their historical use. Buzzing brays were no abberation: they were an integral part of late medieval, renaissance and baroque music. The audible frisson was present in west Asian lyres from the 26th century BCE; in Ethiopian sacred music from at least the 15th century CE; in European harps from 1400, still described as “the ordinary harp” in 1618, and common until the 18th century in some quarters; on the vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy), with its rhythmically buzzing bridge from c. 1500; and in some keyboards from the early 16th century. If early musicians are to attempt to recreate the sounds of early instruments as faithfully as possible, then we need to include these good vibrations.


With thanks to Peter Wilson for information on the muselar, harpichordium and bray harps beyond 1660.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

16 thoughts on “The bray harp: getting a buzz from early music

  • 12th August 2015 at 3:52 am

    I know of the Psaltery. They bray harp is new to me. Crazy sounds.

  • 5th August 2016 at 6:23 pm

    In 1187, Giraldus Cambrensis says that,
    “ … … both Scotland and Wales, the latter by virtue of extension, the former by affinity and intercourse, depend on teaching to imitate and rival Ireland in musical practice. … ”
    in which the Irish “ … play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sound of the thicker string … ”.
    In 1613, Robert ap Huw uses Irish-based names for the 24 grounds of Welsh harp-playing.
    That’s what I call confirmation!

  • 5th August 2016 at 8:11 pm

    Hello, Norman. Certainly, Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) confirms the link between Welsh and Irish harp traditions in the 12th century, and the names of pieces in the Robert ap Huw ms. confirm it in the early 17th century. (It doesn’t confirm that they used the same kind of harp, though, as the Robert ap Huw ms. advocates bray harp with nails rather than the Irish wire-strung harp.)

  • 6th August 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Sure. I also wonder if the “sustained sound of the thicker string” to provide a drone or ground was of more importance in Irish music at that time. Giraldus notes that harp was accompanied by a crwth/chorus in Wales and Scotland, but not in Ireland. With a repeated chord from the crwth, the harp in Britain would have been relieved of providing bourdon or ground.

  • 6th August 2016 at 7:53 pm

    Perhaps. Since our evidence is sporadic, it is tempting to over-interpret. I am extremely wary of such speculation about playing styles from such a thin basis of evidence without corroboration when several other conclusions could just as easily be drawn. Giraldus’ words could simply mean that the crwth was played in Wales and Scotland but not in Ireland.

  • 11th July 2020 at 11:51 pm

    This is similar to the “jawari” effect used on many Indian stringed instruments, in particular tamboura and sitar, where an extremely wide bridge (approx. 2.5 cm) slopes very gradually away from the witness point, creating a very strong buzz. On the tamboura, as an additional fillip, a piece of thread inserted between string and bridge allows the buzz to be “tuned” for maximum sustain. This has the further effect of eliminating node cancellation, so the full harmonic spectrum is available regardless of the plucking point.

    • 12th July 2020 at 11:19 am

      Thanks for your comment, Warren. The buzzing sound of a string has a really long history and wide geographical usage, from the Ur lyres of the 3rd century BC, to the Ethiopian begena from the 15th century, and the European bray harp, then the bray lute, bray keyboard and the bray of the hurdy gurdy from 1400 on. I’d therefore be really interested to know the evidence for the longevity of the jawari effect on Indian strings, and where it fits on the timeline. All the best. Ian

  • 18th July 2020 at 2:19 am

    I’m quite interested in the bray harp . Glad to find this site . I did considerable research on the UR lyre going so far as reproducing 5he Gilgamesh inlays and drafting plans . Time for me to revisit both projects.

    • 19th July 2020 at 11:41 am

      Hello, Dave. I see you have one harp in production, the Mary Kate, based on the Queen Mary harp. Are those gut (or modern equivalent) strings I see on it? The Queen Mary is a clarsach (‘celtic harp’ is a bit of modern myth-making) and should therefore have brass strings. When putting strings on a bray harp, large lyre, or any instrument with buzzing strings, have in mind that string tension is very different to a non-braying instrument, and that for the buzz to be effective the string tension needs to be considerably lower. All the best. Ian

  • 21st July 2020 at 4:37 pm

    Hello, Ian,
    and thank you for an excellent article, which I discovered while researching early harps. I wonder if the use of brays might not date from around the 11th or 12th century in Wales. The Welsh word for a harp, telyn, is presumed to derive from the Irish Gaelic teilinn, ‘the buzzing of bees.’ Gruffydd ap Cynan is supposed to have brought a group of Irish musicians over to Wales in the early 12th century and it is possible the name came from them. It certainly suggests the sound of bray pins. Speculative, I know, but an intriguing possibility, suggesting that the bray harp may have originated in Wales.
    The Irish crot, or cruitt of the period, although often translated as ‘harp,’ seems actually to have been a rectangular lyre-harp hybrid like that depicted on the 10th century Durrow Cross and elsewhere. Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird suggest that the triangular form of harp didn’t really catch on in Ireland until the 15th century.
    I hope you’re keeping well in these strange times,

    • 21st July 2020 at 9:34 pm

      Hello, Philip, and thanks for your very interesting response.

      I’m very sceptical of the existence of bray harps before c. 1400, as I’ve seen no iconographical or textual evidence for it, whereas after c. 1400 they became ubiquitous in western Europe. I’d want to see an evidence base linguistically or in art which supports the idea that telyn, the Welsh word for harp, is derived from the Irish Gaelic teilinn for buzzing bees. As far as I know, that’s lacking. It is easy to make links between similar-sounding but unrelated words in different languages, as we see for example with the fanciful theories about the song, Calen o Custure me.

      The only possible indication of a bray effect in the medieval period before c. 1400 is on the Simone Martini gittern of 1312–1325 – which I write about here – but there are explanations for those pulled-apart frets other than to bray which seem more likely, as there is no other contemporaneous evidence for another 80–90 years of braying/buzzing instruments in this period.

      The instrument on the Durrow cross, similar to that seen on the Clonmacnoise West cross and in many manuscripts around the 9th-11th century, is a lyre known across time and place as the crot, cruitt, crwth, crowd, etc., the difference between lyres and harps being simply that lyres have bridges and harps don’t, regardless of size or shape (which is what makes the Ur instrument and the begena both lyres, though they’re more the size we might otherwise associate with harps if we take classical Graeco-Roman lyres as the benchmark).

      All the best.


      • 2nd September 2022 at 11:04 am

        Hello Ian,
        Thank you for your excellent, detailed response and links. As said, I put forward the telyn/teilinn link as an intriguing possibility rather than an established fact, established facts being thin on the ground! The linguistic link seems to be accepted by Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird in their ‘Tree of Strings’ (Routledge, 2016, page 23), based on the story of Gruffudd ap Cynan bringing over harpers from Ireland who dubbed Welsh harps telyn, ‘buzzing,’ because of the difference in sound between the Welsh horse-hair strings and the Irish metal ones. Sanger and Kinnaird suggest the sound difference was entirely due to the difference in strings. The idea that bray pins might have been involved is idle speculation on my part. Like you, I don’t know of any firm evidence for their existence at the time.
        There is the much later poem by Andrew Borde (c. 1490-1549), in his The First Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, 1547-8, where he writes:
        “The strings be of Horsehair, it maketh a good din.
        My song, and my voice, and my Harp doth agree,
        Much like the buzzing of a humble Bee.”
        By then, of course, bray pins were certainly in use, although he may still be referring simply to the sound of horse-hair strings rather than brays.
        I’m currently stretching my craft skills by trying to make a telyn rawn from a block of oak and have been tempted to add brays just to see how they work with horse-hair strings. Then again, given the extra work involved and the lack of firm evidence, maybe not!
        Thanks again,

  • 2nd September 2022 at 11:32 am

    Another thought: Since there does seem to be some literary evidence that medieval Welsh horse-hair harps were noted for producing a buzzing sound, I wonder if, rather than bray pins inserted into the soundboard, as on later bray harps, they might have had some arrangement on the neck that produced a bray effect?
    Certainly Rhodri Davies’ recreation of a telyn rawn sans brays doesn’t sound particularly ‘buzzy’ to my ears:

    • 2nd September 2022 at 10:22 pm

      Hello, Philip, and thanks so much for the information, especially for the Andrew Borde reference, which I’ve not come across before.

      This raises some intriguing questions. I’m trying hard to hear the buzzing sound of the horsehair strings and it is so barely perceptible that I don’t think the idea would occur to me without your suggestion. Like you, I can’t really hear it. But then there’s Andrew Borde, which poses these questions.

      Did this harp also have bray pins? Would that work with horsehair strings?
      If not, did it have leather brays, like the begena referenced in the article above, to make it sound like a buzzing bee?
      Do we have evidence for the manufacture of horsehair strings that could help determine whether they would buzz? The issue of strings and the sound they produce is always tricky, as medieval and renaissance string makers kept their secrets. A gut string, for example, can be treated in various ways – twisted, untwisted, polished, unpolished, weighted, unweighted – that can radically alter the sound. What historical string makers did we can only surmise. There’s also the question of string tension, which could theoretically affect whether a string buzzes.

      Thank you for posting the information.

      All the best.


  • 7th September 2022 at 11:50 am

    There’s a good video of Rhodri Davies’ telyn rawn being strung at:
    Pausing it and counting, each string seems to consist of nine horse hairs twisted together. I’ve tried plaiting nine hairs and fitting them to a small lyre. Plaiting produces a ‘knotty’ string that tends to catch on the fingernails when plucked and may also adversely affect the sound. I’m going to try twisting for comparison. The twisted strings Rhodri uses certainly sound OK. I’ll also try varying the number of hairs per string to see what difference that makes. Without textual sources, a little bit of experimental archaeology seems like the only way to go!
    Yours harpily,

    • 7th September 2022 at 9:04 pm

      That is *such* a different sound to gut – but not at all buzzy, which leads me to wonder if there were leather brays, as on the begena. I wonder if hairs are all equal, e.g. are mane hairs and tail hairs, inner or outer hairs alike, or do they vary in strength or thickness. Perhaps they’re all the same – I don’t know. Please do post the results!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CAPTCHA ImageChange Image