The Psilvery Psound of the Psaltery: a brief history

Psaltery played by a cat in a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.
Psaltery played by a cat in a
Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.

There is something quite enchanting about the silvery sound of the psaltery. Its name probably originates in religious use, as an accompaniment to singing songs from the psalms, known as psalmody and sung from a psalter, thus the psaltery. The word is from the Old English psealm or salm and Old French psaume or saume, derived from Church Latin psalmus, which itself comes ultimately from the Greek psalmos, a song sung to a harp, and psallein, to pluck on a stringed instrument. Appearing in Europe from the 11th century, the psaltery’s wire strings rang out in religious and secular contexts until around 1500, with a little evidence of a pocket of survival for a few decades after that. Its regular appearance in manuscript iconography, church iconography and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are evidence of its wide use and appeal. Its influence and development is surprisingly widespread, giving rise to the hammer dulcimer, the harpsichord family and ultimately the piano.

Psaltery played by Andy Casserley, with Ian Pittaway on voice and gittern, playing together as The Night Watch. There comes a ship a sailing is a traditional German nativity carol which accumulated verses through the late mediaeval, renaissance and early baroque periods. The first two verses are from a manuscript dated 1470-80, now in the Royal Library, Berlin; the remaining verses are from Jan Suderman, Gesange (Song), 1626; and the melody is that given for it in Andernach Gesangbuch (Andernach Hymns), Köln, 1608. The English verses from the original German are by Ian Pittaway.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window.
Psaltery played by Andy Casserley, with Ian Pittaway on voice and gittern,
playing together as The Night Watch. There comes a ship a sailing is a traditional
German nativity carol which accumulated verses through the late medieval,
renaissance and early baroque periods. The first two verses are from a manuscript
dated 1470-80, now in the Royal Library, Berlin; the remaining verses are from
Jan Suderman, Gesange (Song), 1626; and the melody is that given for it in
Andernach Gesangbuch (Andernach Songbook), Köln, 1608.
The English verses from the original German are by Ian Pittaway.

Psaltery stringing and tuning

The 15th century stone-carved psaltery player
on Saintes Cathedral, France, shows both
double and triple course stringing.

The psaltery first appeared in Europe in the 11th century and consists of a wooden resonating box with a varied number of wire strings stretched across it. Historically, wire strings were made of brass, iron, silver or gold. Iconography shows a variety of psaltery stringing practices, strung singly or in double or triple courses to strengthen and embolden the sound.

It’s not possible to say whether double and triple strings were in unisons or octaves, but there is arguably a very strong indication in a later work. In his Harmonie universelle, 1635, French Jesuit priest and music theorist Marin Mersenne wrote about the psalterion. In the sometimes confusing nomenclature of early instruments, the psalterion was not a psaltery, but the name for a nearly triangular harp in classical Greece and, by the time Mersenne was writing, a hammer dulcimer (which is unrelated to the modern Appalachian or lap dulcimer). In the middle ages, the dulcimer was less common than the psaltery, reaching the height of its popularity in the 14th century. The dulcimer/psalterion and the psaltery are similar in more than name: they share such a similar structure that it would be true to call a dulcimer a modified psaltery, to be played with small hammers of “iron, or of brass, or such other material as may be preferred” rather than quills, and usually with a central bridge or bridges to divide the vibrating length of each string, thus creating two or more different notes on one course. Mersenne was clearly a fan of the psalterion, writing 1,000 words about it, including its structure, stringing, tuning, temperament, playing techniques, and tablature. Mersenne’s work is so detailed and potentially important for the psaltery that it is worth quoting him directly.

The psalterion or hammer dulcimer, as portayed in instrument portrayed in the figure has been described in recent times as bridgeless, but from the later reference to extra bridges across the body, it seems that Mersenne was simplifying his drawing for the sake of understanding, and that in reality the treble bridge did divide the strings as normal
The psalterion or hammer dulcimer, as portrayed in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, 1635.
(As with all pictures, click for larger version.)

“… this figure [above] represents that which is used now, on which are put thirteen sets of strings, of which each has two strings at the unison or at the Octave, to which one could add others at the fifth, and at the fifteenth to augment the harmony.” Could the unison, octave and double-octave psalterion stringing be a continuance of earlier medieval psaltery practice? There are three pieces of circumstantial evidence which suggest so.

The first is that Mersenne states that psalterion courses were strung double, either in unison or in octaves, and some courses with a third string at the fifth or fifteenth (double octave). He doesn’t mention which courses, but this does suggest a very different world of sound to that we’d expect in 1635. A number of courses together tuned in octaves and fifths would produce parallel octaves and parallel fifths, a medieval practice long since generally considered unmusical. An instrument that produces unisons, parallel octaves, parallel double octaves and parallel fifths is a medieval sound quite unlike anything we are used to now – nor was it the sound of the renaissance or Mersenne’s baroque period.

Secondly, referring to his illustration, Mersenne states, “Now this [lowest] string acts as a bourdon”. This is a low string tuned a fourth below the adjacent string rather than diatonic step down as with the rest of the psalterion. Having such a bourdon or drone string was a feature of the medieval harp and vielle (fiddle), harking back to earlier practice. Thirdly, there is another hark back: “the strings may also be played with the quill or the fingers, like the Harpe, Mandore & Cistre [cittern]”, in other words, as well as with hammers, the psalterion may still be played like a psaltery which, by 1635, had fallen into wide disuse for more than a century.

Italian painter Tommaso del Mazza, known as the Master of Santa Verdiana, fl. 1377-1392, illustrated a psaltery which is triple-strung throughout. The painting is now in the Musée de Petit Palais, Avignon. Thanks to Gill Page for permission to use her photograph.
Italian painter Tommaso del Mazza, known as
the Master of Santa Verdiana, fl. 1377-1392,
illustrated a psaltery which is triple-strung
throughout being played, apparently, with
fingers or nails though, as we shall see
below in Girolamo da Santacroce’s 16th
century depiction, there is almost
certainly a slim plectrum between
the fingers not visible to the viewer.

The evidence is circumstantial but, I would argue, strong. Not only did the psalterion replicate the medieval bourdon of a more-than-diatonic step down; it could have been played like its predecessor, the medieval psaltery; it was shown by Mersenne as a purely diatonic instrument when they had fallen out of favour; and it employed octave stringing which, by 1635, had fallen into disuse on any melody course of any instrument. Octave stringing produces parallel octaves, favoured in the medieval period and continued primarily on the lute during the renaissance, but gradually reduced during the 16th century and increasingly out of favour. Lutenist John Dowland, for example, wrote in 1610 that octave stringing on the melody courses of a lute was “irregular to the rules of Musicke” (in his introduction to his son Robert Dowland’s publication, A Varietie of Lute Lessons). This suggests that, since the psalterion retained medieval practices in several other ways, it retained the octave and fifth stringing of the psaltery.

We have no precise details for which courses were in octaves, double octaves, fifths and unisons, but technical necessity yields some of the information. Since there is a minimum optimal length of a string combined with its pitch beyond which it reaches breaking point, the higher courses must have been in unison if we presume that octave stringing always adds a string at the upper octave. Only the mid to low range can therefore have been in octaves. Where triple stringing is present, I suggest from experience that octaves would only work sonically with one string at the fundamental and two at the upper octave, as we find on the third triple-strung course of the renaissance cittern. If Mersenne’s psalterion stringing practice was derived from the psaltery then where there was triple stringing on lower courses it is possible that there was an octave added to an octave – “the Octave … and at the fifteenth to augment the harmony” – or possibly the fundamental, the fifth and the octave, “the Octave, to which one could add others at the fifth.”

Psaltery and dulcimer: distinctions and development

As with all pictures, click for larger view.

Top left is the psalterion as portrayed in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, 1635. It lacks one detail we would now expect to see on a hammer dulcimer: the central bridge or bridges to divide the vibrating string length into separate pitches. Mersenne’s text describes the illustration in detail, including the two long bridges on either side and the small bourdon bridge (bottom left corner), stating that “the Psalterion may be made double or triple [in the pitches each course can play], by means of three or more crossing [transverse] bridges”, though his illustration doesn’t show it. The clear suggestion is that this is optional, and contemporaneous iconography confirms the variety in bridge numbers and placement he states. Since Mersenne’s psalterion has no central bridge, it has one pitch per string, confirmed by his illustrated pitches. The bottom row above shows three other examples of dulcimers lacking a central bridge, confirming Mersenne’s undivided courses: from De mulieribus claris – On famous women – a 15th century French copy (BnF Français 599) of the work by Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio, first published in 1374; from the Psalter of Henry VIII, c. 1540-1541; and from the ‘concert tapestry’, c. 1500, now in Cluny Museum. It may be that this was the original form of the psalterion or hammer dulcimer, essentially a hammered psaltery, with central bridges added later. Top right, from a Flemish altarpiece, c. 1490, now in the Museu de Évora, Portugal, the first evidence of a major innovation: two bridges with a string arrangement that has triple courses crossing in two planes, which thereafter became a common feature, clearly distinguishing it organologically from the psaltery.

Psaltery shapes and playing practices

By the time of the beautifully illuminated Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary), an Iberian royal songbook of circa 1257-83, various shapes and sizes of psaltery were in evidence – rectangular, trapezoid, and pig snout shaped. The position of players’ hands indicates two hands working together and it is clear there was always mixed practice in plucking style: either plucked with a quill in each hand; a quill in one hand while the other played with flesh or nails; or two hands both playing apparently with flesh or nails. Was this one musical line played by two hands for extra speed and dexterity, or two polyphonic parts being played, or perhaps right hand tune and left hand drone? The latter may be explained by louder quill playing the tune and quieter flesh or nail playing the bourdon drone, and by the high left hand positions seen below on the top row, second and third images. Like so much of medieval music-making, we just don’t know, but a combination of all three techniques is just as likely.

PsalteryStylesAbove we have images of psaltery players showing various combinations of quill and hand playing. Occasionally the psaltery is shown played flat on the lap, but more usually in the upright position shown here. Top left to right: Three images of psalteries from the royally-appointed Iberian songbook, Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary), 1257-83, trapezoid, rectangular and pig-snout shaped. On the left of these three, the right hand is playing the upper part, the strings for which are situated nearest the player. On the right of these three, the right hand is again playing the upper part, but here the strings for the upper part are situated furthest away from the player. In the middle rectangular example, it is impossible to tell. The remaining images are of the predominant pig-snout shape: top right, Portugal, 13th or 14th century; bottom row from left: France, c. 1418, from the crypt vault Saint-Bonnet-du-Gard; Spain, 1480s, detail from a triptych by Hans Memling; Germany, c. 1410, detail from the anonymous painting, Garden of Eden. The sitting players are all depicted playing in a practically credible way. The standing Hans Memling player (bottom row, second from left) has the psaltery impossibly suspended in mid-air with no visible means of support, a clear case of artistic licence. The French cleric (bottom left) has the curve of the pig-snout supported by his lower arms, a more credible position, but still surely awkward. It is highly likely that standing psaltery players secured their instruments with straps, but there was an artistic convention not to show them.

Death playing a psaltery, from the Heidelberger Totentanz, 1488, a rare image of a player with a strap.
Death playing a psaltery, from the Heidelberger Totentanz, 1488, a rare image of a player with a strap.

Standing strapless psaltery players are seen again and again in iconography. It may be that if one learns to hold and balance the instrument from the beginning then the practicalities of standing and playing, supporting the psaltery only with the arms, are unproblematic, but the iconography suggests otherwise, often showing impossibly suspended instruments with no means of support. The skeletal player in the Heidelberger Totentanz, a German book of 38 woodcut prints of the dance of death, published in 1488, is one of only a handful of images to show a strap. Whether this is a rare representation of reality or a representation of a rare practice is impossible to know; but the preponderance in iconography of standing or walking harpers with harps floating freely suggests that artists didn’t like depicting straps, considering them a visual distraction.

The instrument was clearly very popular, appearing many times in iconography and literature. The Miller’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century, not only mentions the psaltery but also names two tunes, Angelus Ad Virginem and The King’s Note, that were played on it. (Angelus Ad Virginem we have, The King’s Note is sadly lost.)

From the early 15th century, just a little after The Canterbury Tales, we have an extraordinary and striking example of musical iconography in the roof angels of Saint Nicholas’ Church, King’s Lynn, including a psaltery player and a gittern player. These angels are four and half feet tall, almost life-size figures, looking down impressively on the congregation. See Michael Rimmer’s book for more on roof angels.

A psaltery-playing roof angel in Saint Nicholas’ Church, King’s Lynn.
Pictures used with the kind permission of author Michael Rimmer.

The development of the psaltery 1: Berkeley, Memling, Albani and Girolamo 

There is no written evidence of the way the psaltery was tuned until the 14th century Berkeley manuscript (see below), but since its nearest neighbour, the harp, was diatonic, and that was in keeping with the music theory of the day, we can be fairly sure the psaltery was also diatonic until the 14th century, that is to say, it had only the natural notes of a scale (the white notes on a piano), no accidentals (sharps or flats, the black notes), with the exception of Bb, which was part of the medieval gamut or range of notes.

In the early 14th century, general rules developed among church singers to make some interval movements between voices sound smoother by sharpening or flattening some notes, adding what today we call accidentals, what then was called musica ficta or false music, since those changed notes were not part of the gamut. (For more on musica ficta and its role in the modes, see Performing medieval music. Part 2: Turning monophony into polyphony.) 

The Berkeley theory manuscript, probably written by 14th century Parisian music teacher Johannes Vaillant, who died in 1361, is a compendium of music theory, including drawings and tunings for the vielle (medieval fiddle), gittern, harp and psaltery. It provides evidence that the practice of increasingly adding musica ficta affected the design of the psaltery, becoming neither purely diatonic nor fully chromatic, but diatonic plus those notes most needed for musica ficta.

The psaltery illustration in the Berkeley theory
manuscript shows a stringing arrangement
distinguishing between natural notes and
musica ficta (accidentals).
(As with all pictures, click for larger view.)

The Berkeley psaltery illustration (right) and its commentary gives a range of an octave and a major third, A to c#‘, as labelled on the left of the drawing. The longer courses are all double-strung, with no indication of either unison or octave stringing, and the shorter courses are single-strung. The longer courses are arranged in twos, so we have pitches A B then a gap, c d then a gap, and so on. Within each gap is drawn a shorter single string coming from the right. The pitches the Berkeley author gives for shorter strings are usually accidentals. The pitches for the first octave are as follows, with the shorter strings in square brackets:

A Bb [B] c d [eb] e f [f#] g

The next octave is similar, but not identical:

a [bb] b c’ [c#‘]

We can see that, in order to retain the unbroken sequence of double course, double course, followed by shorter single course accidental, the two octaves follow a different sequence: the lower Bb is a long string but the higher bb is a short string. Due to the different relationships in the sequence in the different octaves, only the upper octave has a c#.

The Berkeley author was intending to illustrate common practice. It is impossible to know for sure whether the psaltery the author had in mind really was strung in this exact fashion, with large gaps between each pair of courses within which there was a shorter single course for accidentals. Such an arrangement would certainly have been a sensory aid for the player, to give placement. That it appears nowhere else in iconography suggests the idea was either short-lived, localised, or both.

There is a detail on the double-strung psaltery painted by Italian artist Sano di Pietro in his Assumption of the Virgin, 1448-52, which shows irregular spacing between courses in an apparently deliberate scheme. Since the gaps within courses are largely consistent, this is theoretically less likely to be a result of inaccurate painting. After a single string at the top, possibly a bourdon, the double courses are in a group of two, then two, then three, then beyond this all double courses are more widely spaced. What this intimates, if anything, can only be speculative.

Sano di Pietro, Assumption of the Virgin, 1448-52. The psaltery he painted is double-strung throughout,
except for a single bottom course, possibly a bourdon. There is greater spacing between some of the
lower-pitched courses, perhaps indicative of some accidentals, as in the Berkeley manuscript.
Extreme caution should be exercised with this particular painter, though, as the details on the
other instruments are not true to life. The fingerholes on the shawms on our right, for example,
are in places that would render them unplayable. It is nevertheless notable that this psaltery appears
to have a comb arrangement for affixing strings on the side: there is no reason in principle why the
Memling psaltery, discussed above, should not have this arrangement on the back.
Hans Memling’s triptych altarpiece for the Santa María la Real monastery, painted in the 1480s.

Hans Memling (or Memlinc) was a 15th century German painter who worked in Flanders and bequeathed to us fine representations of musical instruments. In most cases there are no existing examples of the actual instruments from the period, so detailed iconography yields invaluable information.

Perhaps the most important of Memling’s paintings for musicians and luthiers is his triptych altarpiece for the Santa María la Real monastery in Nájera, Spain (now in the Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium), showing six angel singers and ten angel musicians. Painted in the 1480s, its three large extant panels each measure 170 x 230 cm, thereby giving detailed and life-size depictions (left to right in the two panels shown above) of a psaltery, tromba marina, lute, folded trumpet, shawm, six singers flanking Christ, straight trumpet, folded trumpet, portative organ, bray harp and vielle (medieval fiddle).

The psaltery is painted in great detail, but it has features which appear at first to be odd. Again we see a psaltery without a strap, unsupported and levitating away from the player’s body. For the strings to be held in place, traversing the bridges on both sides, a psaltery needs tuning pins on one side and hitch pins on the other. This psaltery has tuning pins on our right and hitch pins on our left, as we would expect. This psaltery has 61 strings, counting from the left bridge (more from the right bridge – see below), positioned so closely together and so evenly that, if these were double or triple courses, it would be impossible to tell visually where one course ends and the next begins, but this cannot represent 61 independent diatonic pitches, as that would make a technically impossible range of 8 octaves and a sixth, so another tuning solution is necessary.

An artist who is so careful to paint details such as the psaltery’s four finely decorated roses is, I suggest, to be trusted unless there are good grounds for not doing so, so let’s work on the basis that Memling was faithful to reality. The levitating instrument is an artistic convention, since we see it in paintings from the middle ages right through to the baroque period.

If we allow for double-stringing of courses, this gives 30 pitches plus 1 single string, a diatonic range of 4 octaves and a third or less if, as happened on some diatonic harps, there was both a B and a Bb string in each octave. In the 15th century, English composer John Dunstaple (or Dunstable) pitched his polyphonic voices wide apart, a new practice which was hugely influential, known in Europe as “the English countenance”, marking the beginning of what was to be a post-medieval, renaissance style of music. Could it be that Memling painted a new style of psaltery, modified with a hugely expanded pitch range to play in “the English countenance”?

Perhaps. Certainty is impossible. It may even be that this was a radical, new, fully chromatic psaltery. If so, this would still give a single-strung range of 5 chromatic octaves exactly, which would be impossible, given the string lengths; or a double-strung range of 2 octaves and an augmented fourth, which is possible, but is an odd range. Perhaps, as a result of the creation of the fully chromatic harpsichord family some time between c. 1350s and 1397 – a new keyboard family derived from the psaltery (more of which below) – some inventive psaltery makers were trying to keep pace, resulting in this hugely expanded number of strings. Due to the gaps in the evidence, we can only make educated guesses.

There is another feature, unique to this psaltery in iconography, about which we can only make educated guesses. Not only are there 61 strings counting from the left bridge, there is an arc of 22 points from left to right across the longer strings, attached to each of which is another string coming from the right hand bridge (from our perspective, left hand for the player), giving a shorter vibrating length and therefore a higher pitch than each adjacent string. If we assume the shorter strings are the same diameter as each adjacent string and at the same tension, just as a thought experiment, then they cannot be octave courses, since to raise the pitch of a string by an octave we halve the vibrating length, and each string length is reduced by less than half here.

It is therefore logical to be reminded of Mersenne’s statement that on psalterion/dulcimer courses, “each has two strings at the unison or at the Octave, to which one could add others at the fifth, and at the fifteenth to augment the harmony.” We may be seeing an example of the psaltery’s courses tuned in fifths, as Mersenne’s psalterion was. If so, it seems an awkward way to do it when different gauge strings of the same vibrating length could more easily achieve fifths. Perhaps the practical reasoning is in the soundboard string-holders for these shorter strings, giving the facility to play each of these courses with or without the fifth, depending on where along the string length the course is plucked. This would add versatility to the instrument, as fifths could then be added only when appropriate to the music or to gain a particular effect, and avoided at other times. It raises the intriguing question of whether psaltery courses were always, often or sometimes tuned in fifths on lower strings, but without the facility for omitting the extra fifths, possibly present on this instrument. Since we cannot know the comparative gauges of the strings, it may be that the shorter strings were tuned in octaves to the longer adjacent strings, so the same principle could apply to playing or avoiding octaves.

To summarise. The psaltery painted by Memling is shown in such careful detail that it is arguably credible, giving us information not otherwise available. If strung in 31 double courses, it would have a diatonic range of 4 octaves and a third, or less if there were both B and Bb strings, but this would be impossible with these string lengths; or a fully chromatic range of 2 octaves and an augmented fourth, which is possible but a very strange range for an instrument. So this leads us to the possibility of believing Memling’s literal representation of the stringing: the reason it is not possible to tell where one putative double or triple course ends and the next begins is because it is strung singly, until we reach the lowest 22 courses. This gives a single-strung range (counting from the left bridge) of 5 chromatic octaves exactly, and leaves the bottom 22 courses, doubled with shorter strings probably tuned a fifth or an octave above the fundamentals, selectively played or avoided according to where the player plucks along the string length. 5 chromatic octaves is a far more sensible range than 2 octaves and an augmented fourth, but it is technically impossible.

In the 15th century, when medieval modes in practice made increasingly complex use of musica ficta, used only in some parts of the music, the diatonic psaltery would have been too limited an instrument. So it seems that, in the 13th and 14th centuries, some psalteries had uneven string spacing for placement; and others had shorter single strings, but not always for the same purpose: shorter either for accidentals, as Berkeley shows, or for tuning courses an octave or a fifth apart with the option of playing only the fundamental, as Memling implies. We’re in the realm of the possible, with insufficient written evidence to corroborate conclusively.

This may not have been the only solution. Purely diatonic psaltery players may have used the same method as diatonic harpers, which was to retune the changed note in one octave but not the other, to allow both to be used in the same piece of music, though this would have meant swapping octaves for some phrases or part-phrases and could not have been a long-term solution to enable the psaltery to keep pace with changing musical styles.

Due to changing fashions and the limitations of a diatonic instrument in a new increasingly chromatic milieu, there is no renaissance music written specifically for the psaltery, and scant evidence of it being played after c. 1500. There are, however, two intriguing late depictions indicating renaissance development of the psaltery in its final days.

Psaltery from the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri or Albani Hours, Bologna, c. 1500
(British Library Yates Thompson MS 29, f. 104v).
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Above is an image from the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri or Albani Hours, Bologna, c. 1500. Unlike the closely-spaced stringing of the Memling psaltery, here we see a regular pattern of 3 widely-spaced strings followed by a gap. The units of 3 strings appear to be internally evenly spaced. There are earlier Italian depictions of psalteries with strings in groups of 3 with much closer spacing, indicating courses of 3 strings, and this image may likewise indicate a triple course strung in 3 unisons or, as indicated by Mersenne, fundamental and 2 at the octave, or fundamental and fifth (1+2 or 2+1), or fundamental-fifth-octave.

However, if we take the wider string spacing here as representative of reality – and if is the key word here – it may indicate groups of 3 single diatonic courses followed by gaps to aid the player’s placement, akin to the gaps shown on the Berkeley psaltery. If we add to a diatonic octave the 2 most often used medieval accidentals, bb and f#, being the 2 accidentals added to otherwise diatonic medieval organs, then 9 strings, 3 groups of 3, makes an octave group: c-d-e / f-f#-g / a-bb-b. This is speculation, but what is clear is that the instrument has 2 internal bridges as on the dulcimer/psalterion, allowing the possibility of 2 pitches per course, assuming the vibrating string length between outer and inner bridges on both sides is the same. Another possibility is that the psaltery is only played between the two internal bridges, in which case the effect of vibrations through the internal bridges would be to drive the soundboard, creating a more resonant instrument.

The lower part of the instrument with the shortest strings has an additional central bridge. My supposition is that the maker wanted pitches at this point in the sequence which were too high for wire string technology, so the work-around was a central internal bridge to raise the pitch: the effect of halving the vibrating string length on each course with a central bridge is to create pitches an octave higher than the full vibrating string length. It is also notable that this musician is playing hands free, not needing to support his instrument since it is tied on over his shoulders, which must have been practical common practice for standing players, regardless of whether iconography typically shows straps or ties.

A painting by Venetian artist Girolamo da Santacroce in the first half of the 16th century suggests a further technical development. Girolamo has King David playing a large psaltery with a plectrum in the right hand and with fingertips or nails on the left. The instrument has clearly evolved to suit renaissance music, but precisely what it represents is open to interpretation.

King David playing the psaltery, painted in the first half of the 16th century by Venetian artist Girolamo da Santacroce.
King David playing the psaltery, painted in the first half of the
16th century by Venetian artist Girolamo da Santacroce.

The instrument is apparently strung in courses of 2 strings. Looking at the inset bottom right, we see that the pair of strings on the left reach as far as the edge of the psaltery, which acts as the nut, and the pair on the right are attached to dowels on the soundboard which have the effect of shortening the string length. My supposition is therefore that one of these string pairs are accidentals a semitone apart from the adjacent pair. The logical choice, for reasons that will soon become clear, would be that the shorter strings are natural and the longer strings flats, so that the group of 4 strings together are (working from our left to right), for example, 2 x e flat / 2 x e natural, 2 x d flat / 2 x d natural, and so on. This would have an effect on playing technique: thinking of each group of 4 strings as a unit, a downstroke gives the natural note, an upstroke gives the flat. A fully chromatic instrument in a meantone temperament where the string length cannot be changed has potential tuning problems when playing a range of pieces, since an f sharp and a g flat in unequal temperament are not the same note. I suspect the short blocks of wood are for fretting notes sharp, for pressing onto the strings to give all the correct notes for sharps. These two devices together would provide for flat keys when courses are played open, and for sharp keys when courses are fretted. It’s an intriguing instrument, and appears to show an attempt to chromaticise the instrument before it died out altogether, but its precise function is speculation and there are clearly other interpretations.

The Sforza Hours (BL Add. MS 34294), c. 1490 and 1517-20, is richly illustrated by
Italian miniaturist Giovan Pietro Birago and Flemish illuminator Gerard Horenbout.
This unusually shaped psaltery in Sforza is too large to be played in the usual
forward-facing position, and is clearly shown plucked by fingers rather than a quill.

The modified psalteries shown by the Berkeley manuscript before 1361, Memling in the 1480s, the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri in c. 1500 and Girolamo in the first half of the 16th century, suggest different solutions to the same problem: how can the diatonic psaltery become increasingly chromatic to keep pace with changing musical styles? Contemporaneous with all four of these solutions was a fifth, far more radical solution, which proved to be a significant influence on music-making until the present day.

The development of the psaltery 2: the keyboard psaltery/psalterion 

Above, perhaps the oldest image of a member of the harpsichord family in the Berkeley Theory Manuscript, before 1361. It appears to be a psaltery with a keyboard, incompletely-drawn. The order of notes is certainly the correct way round for a keyboard. Below, the earliest complete image, a clavicembalum, shown next to a psaltery which was half its inspiration, the other half being the organ. From a circle of angel musicians on an altar piece from Minden, Lower Saxony, Germany, now in the Bodemuseum at Berlin, dated to 1425. This image has not been reversed: the clavicembalum really is represented with notes low to high from right to left. With thanks to Arnold den Teuling of Assen, Netherlands, for permission to use his photograph, and to the Bodemuseum, Berlin, for their unrestricted photography policy.
Above, perhaps the oldest image of a member of the harpsichord family in the Berkeley Theory Manuscript, before 1361. It appears to be a psaltery with a keyboard, incompletely-drawn. The order of notes is certainly the correct way round for a keyboard. Below, the earliest complete image, a clavicembalum, shown next to a psaltery which was half its inspiration, the other half being the organ. From a circle of angel musicians on an altarpiece from Minden, Lower Saxony, Germany, now in the Bodemuseum at Berlin, dated to 1425. This image has not been reversed: the clavicembalum really is represented with notes low to high from right to left.

If you search the internet for ‘psaltery’ it is almost impossible to fight your way past the plethora of words and videos for the bowed psaltery. This is a simple modern instrument, first patented in 1925 as the violin zither by the Clemens Neuber Company in Germany. The simpler and now familiar triangular form was popularised as a simple musical learning aid for children by Walter Mittman, a primary school teacher in Westphalia, after World War II. Apart from the borrowed name, it is unrelated to the medieval psaltery.

One genuine development of the psaltery is, as we have seen, the hammer dulcimer. Another is the harpsichord. The earliest reference may be a drawing in the aforementioned Berkeley manuscript, before 1361. The author drew an instrument which strongly suggests a psaltery with a keyboard (see right), though the keyboard is only partially drawn. On a copy of the manuscript made in 1503-04 at the Abbey of Saint Bavo in Ghent, Belgium, the keyboard is clearly shown.

The first indisputable reference to the development of the psaltery into the harpsichord family is the clavicembalum in a letter of 1397. In that year, Hermann Poll travelled from his home country of Germany to the University of Pavia, Italy, to study medicine. On his way he met Lodovico Lambertacci, who wrote to his son-in-law that Poll was “a very ingenious man and inventor of an instrument that he calls the clavicembalum.” It is essentially a mechanical psaltery: take the idea of a quill plucking a wire, then add a jack action and wooden keys as on an organ to activate the jacks, and you have the family of clavicembalum, harpsichord, virginal and spinet, essentially the same instrument in different shapes and sizes. It is no coincidence, then, that since the maker was German, the earliest extant image is, too. An altarpiece from Minden, Lower Saxony, dated 1425, shows a psaltery player and a clavicembalum player next to each other within a circle of angels (see right).

We have seen the diatonic psaltery play accidentals by adding courses, or by fretting, or by fully chromatic stringing probably shown by Memling, making it essentially a plucked harpsichord. All these devices were attempts to keep pace with the creation of the first keyboard psaltery, the clavicembalum, which led ultimately to one of the most important instruments of the 19th and 20th centuries. Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy, was an expert maker of harpsichords, employed as Keeper of the Instruments for Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany. In 1700, Cristofori invented what he called “un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte”, a keyboard of cypress with soft and loud. By attaching hammers instead of quills to the keys – a return to the principle of the psalterion/dulcimer, but now mechanised – he had invented an instrument with a wide gradation of dynamic range, giving the player control over volume not possible in the harpsichord family. By 1850 steel string technology was available instead of iron wire, and over time the name of his instrument was abbreviated to pianoforte, fortepiano, and eventually piano.


With thanks to Paul Baker for being a sounding board and prodding my thinking on the Memling psaltery; to Arnold den Teuling of Assen, Netherlands, for permission to use his photograph of the Minden altarpiece – for more on this image, see Arnold den Teuling’s website – and to the Bodemuseum, Berlin, for their unrestricted photography policy.


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

28 thoughts on “The Psilvery Psound of the Psaltery: a brief history

  • 6th March 2016 at 7:24 pm

    I wonder if the psaltery is in any way related to the (far, far later) autoharp. They certainly are similarly shaped and held in a similar manner.

  • 6th March 2016 at 7:45 pm

    Hello, Panth. That’s an interesting question. I don’t really know about the history of the autoharp, but the same principle of strings across a frame played on the lap facing forward does suggest an organological link.

  • 1st June 2016 at 8:13 pm

    The autoharp is a development of the zither, it’s origins are German from the mid 19th century. The zither is essentially a psaltery, sometimes with strings in courses of two. The original autoharps were table top instruments, we know this as old ones have have metal feet on the underside of the soundbox. In modern times, C + W players hold them against the chest.

  • 8th July 2016 at 9:32 am

    I presume that the Finnish ‘Kantele’ is also related to the psaltery.

  • 8th July 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Indeed, Tony. The kantele is a beautiful instrument, played in Finland (kantele or kannel), Karelia (kantele or kandele), Lithuania (kankle), Estonia (kannel), and Latvia (kokle or kuokle). Like most instruments, the modern kantele has more strings than its predecessors and, like many instruments, there are many claims for its ancient origins that rely more on conjecture than hard evidence. The oldest extant kanteles are dated to between the 12th and 14th century, and it doesn’t get a mention in writing until the 16th century. I don’t know the exact lineage and relationship to its musical relatives in central and southern Europe – such issues are rarely simple and involve best guesses from incomplete data – but the principle is just the same as the psaltery and clearly they’re from the same family.

  • 3rd March 2018 at 9:24 pm

    Hi, I know you made this post a while ago, but i was wondering where you’d found evidence for string material? Trying to find something specific, but everyone seems to give ‘by medieval times metal was used’ :’)

    • 4th March 2018 at 10:06 pm

      Hello, Siarlot. That’s a good question (and I don’t mind when the post was written – I’m always happy to receive comments and questions). The following sources say that psaltery strings are made of brass or of silver: Bartholomaeus Anglicus, ‘De Proprietatibus Rerum’, c. 1250; Jean Corbechon, ‘La Proprietaire des Choses’, 1372; John of Trevisa, ‘De Propietatibis Rerum’, 1398; and anonymous, ‘Van den Proprieteyten der dinghen’, 1485; and the following states brass: Vinçente de Burgos, ‘El libro de las propriedades der las cosas’, before 1425, but from the Toulouse edition, 1494. (My source: Christopher Page, ‘Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages’, London: J. M. Dent and Sons, p.235-237.) I hope this helps. All the best. Ian

  • 17th December 2020 at 5:45 pm

    You have done an excellent job of assembling these illustrations. I wrote a book, _The Hammered Dulcimer: A History_ (Scarecrpw Press, 2001), in which I argued that the French/Burgundian/English dulcimer developed from the pig’s-head psaltery, and I’m glad to see that you came to a similar conclusion. The Germanic Hackbrett, though, developed from the string drum. I think you might have distinguished between the canon and micanon (half canon) and the psaltery — this instrument was a borrowing from the Arabic qanun and appears in lists with psalteries, meaning that it was regarded as a distinct instrument. The canon was used by troubadours in Spain, France, and Italy. The first two illustrations that you show in the Cantigas de Santa Maria are of the canon and half canon; the Del Mazza painting is that of a half canon, and resembles the qalun played by Uighurs today. The 16th-century Italian illustration was new to me, but it is similar to one in another Italian illustration of the same period. One question is whether the Italian salterio, in use in the 17th and 18th centuries developed from that.

    • 17th December 2020 at 10:04 pm

      Hello, Paul, and thank you for your interesting response. I’d be very interested to know the historical basis on which you make a specifically medieval organological distinction between the canon, micanon and psaltery, and the basis for identifying the Cantigas instruments as such. The historical evidence of troubadour instruments (and the international counterparts of troubadours) I’ve seen in iconography and historical writing is the vielle, harp, gittern, pipe and tabor, bagpipe and portative organ. If you have references for other instruments, I’d love to know the references.

      Best wishes.


      • 17th December 2020 at 11:56 pm

        My notes say that Juan GIl of Zamora (fl. c.1265) Ars musicae mentions the cano entero and the medio cano. An article by Friedrich Dick, “Bezeichnungen fuer Saiten- und Schlaginstrumente in der altfranzoesichen Literatur,” Giessner Beitraege zur romanischen Philologie 25 (1932): 102 cites a 13th-century French poem, Cleomades: “vieles et salterions / Harpes et rotes et canons” and “Vieles et sauterions / Harpes, et gigues, et canons.” In 1327 one of the King of Castile’s minstrels played the meo canon. One of the Duke of Normandy’s minstrels in 1347 played a demi canon. It seems to me that most illustrations show the “half” canon, although there are some illustrations of the full-size canon, as in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The kanun that was used at the height of the Timurid Empire (c.1400) evolved into the qalun that I mentioned, and also the Indian sarmandal (the modern qanun is also a descendant, but gut strings and a skin head were added in the 18th century in Egypt and the others retain metal strings). When I wrote “troubadours,” I meant minstrels (professional musicians). A poem by Francesco da Barberino, Reggimento e costumi di donna (1318-1320) mentions a noblewoman dancing to a mezzo canone at an inn. So if you look at the half-trapezoidal psalteries with 2-4 strings per course, I think those are half-canons.

        • 18th December 2020 at 10:37 pm

          Hello, Paul.

          I want to tread really cautiously here. As I explain in this article and this article, the name of an instrument is not always a good guide to its identity: the same name was used for several instruments, and the same instrument could go by several names, so for any reference to a cano entero or medio cano (or anything else), I’d first want to know: what did the author mean by that name? I’d also want to know the word the original manuscript uses, as often this is covered with a patina of modern (mis)understanding, such as the so-called Moorish guitar, a term never used in medieval texts, which isn’t a guitar at all but a gittern. None of the instruments in the Cantigas are labelled so, with a range of names for similar or same instruments, we can’t know what the players in the cantigas called their instrument (and some remain nameless to this day).

          So let’s assume the references you’ve given – for which thank you – are to the canon/qanun as we would understand it now (which they may be and I have no evidence either way), then we have the question: what is the evidence for the organology of the medieval canon/qanun? The Cantigas instrument here certainly looks like a good candidate for a medieval canon (and is therefore not included in my article). I’d need to be convinced that the first psaltery in the article from the Cantigas is instead a canon – and I am open to being convinced by having the historical organological data for making such a judgement.

          With best wishes.


  • 19th February 2021 at 5:36 pm

    Great article and I love the illustrations! One thing you might have missed though is that the word psaltery isn’t mediaeval in origin and doesn’t come from the psalms specifically: the word ‘psalterion/psalterium’ goes back to classical Greece and thence Rome, and was used in the Latin translation of the Bible (for example in Psalm 32 in the Vulgate=33 in English Bibles to refer to a ten-stringed instrument used to accompany sacred singing in the Old Testament). The word ‘psalm’ is of course related; they both derive from the Greek word ‘psallein’ meaning originally to pluck, and later to sing to a plucked instrument. In Ancient Greek a ‘psalma’ was a song sung accompanied by such an instrument, and the word was later applied to the biblical psalms.

    • 19th February 2021 at 6:40 pm

      Thank you, Henry. I think we’re on the same page here. In the introduction, as I understand it, I state what you’re stating but in a different order: I trace the word backwards from Old English and Old French, back to its derivation in Church Latin, then back to the Greek psalmos and psallein.

      All the best.


      • 19th February 2021 at 6:54 pm

        I think I was probably splitting hairs! I came upon this while chasing a description I found in a mediaeval antiphon, of the Virgin Mary accompanying herself on a psaltery of ten strings while singing the Magnificat. It seemed far-fetched – but why not? I was looking to see if the internet had any pictures showing her so engaged, though I couldn’t find one.

  • 1st October 2021 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for this detailed work. It must have taken a lot of effort. None of the instruments seems to have a fretted string or strings at the base, in the way that some 19thC and later instruments do. Is this correct?

    • 1st October 2021 at 7:10 pm

      That’s right, Julian. All the strings on a psaltery are played open, as on a harp or on the inside of a harpsichord or piano, so there are no frets. I’m not sure what you mean by strings at the base. Could you clarify, please?

      • 2nd October 2021 at 9:23 am

        I expressed myself poorly. I meant to say “do they have fretted strings next to the longest strings?” and the answer is ‘no”.

        • 2nd October 2021 at 10:58 pm

          In all iconography, psaltery strings are played open, as on a harp, with the one possible exception that I discuss in the article. Just as diatonic harp strings can be ‘fretted’ up a semitone on the top bar, the painting of King David playing the psaltery by Venetian artist Girolamo da Santacroce suggests not dissimilar semitone fretting on this one particular psaltery, though that is a very late development and appears to be a one-off.

          All the best.


        • 22nd August 2023 at 6:50 am

          The original autoharps were chord zithers with bars across the top. For example, you press the one labeled C, and felt pads mute all the strings not in the C chord. The strings are laid out exactly like a chord or guitar zither. I know because I have both. The Indian swarmandalas sold today are the same as chord zithers, only with beads on the strings to create semitones. Chord zithers retain the late Medieval stringing of B and Bb, otherwise diatonic. All of these instruments are in the psaltery family. Chord zithers and their offspring were developed in the late 19th—and early 20th. Centuries by German Americans and sold door-to-door. Now they are only made in Germany. Nordic American farmers made simple plank psalteries out of scraps of wood and nails, with no soundbox in the same period.

        • 22nd August 2023 at 6:59 am

          You seem to be describing the modern concert zither, which has a fretboard next to the courses.

  • 16th February 2023 at 3:50 am

    Here’s a link to a modern psaltery I’m building:
    It’s fully chromatic with a single string per note, strung with Nylgut and has a 62-note range (C2-C#7). The accidentals use black strings. Each side if the bridge is a whole-tone scale, with the left side pitched a semi-tone higher than the right.
    It’s a solid-body instrument (though surprising resonant for a sheet of 3/4″ plywood) with pickups for each string. I’m working on electronics to make this a MIDI controller as well as an instrument in it’s own right. There are enough differences from a traditional psaltery that I’m referring to it as a Zhaltar (the Slovak word for psaltery). It’s intended to play contemporary (Philip Glass, et al) as well as early music.

    • 16th February 2023 at 9:57 am

      Hello, John, and thanks for posting.

      A fully chromatic psaltery is one way of interpreting the Memling instrument in the article above, which has 61 strings, possibly 5 chromatic octaves exactly, rather than your 62 strings, with an extra semitone. I wonder why you went for gut or gut substitute rather than wire, which psalteries were historically strung with. Will there be a video or sound recording of the Zhaltar? I’d be interested to hear.

      All the best.


  • 22nd August 2023 at 7:17 am

    Regarding the Memling psaltery, it seems to me that the strings on the left side do not wrap around the back. Instead, they seem to go into little holes like modern lyres The strings would need something like the ball ends on modern steel guitar or lyre strings.

    This is a wonderful, well-researched article I will return to often. Thank you!

    • 22nd August 2023 at 8:49 am

      Thank you, Leigh. When I had a less high-definition reproduction of the Memling painting, I wrote “This psaltery has tuning pins on our right but no hitch pins on our left, the strings disappearing behind the instrument on the left side.” That is what I thought I saw, but I was clearly wrong. I have since replaced the Memling pictures with much higher quality renderings, but you have spotted that I didn’t go back and revise the text in terms of what is now visible: hitch pins are clear in higher definition. I am now in the process of correcting that in the main text. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, and for adding information above on the autoharp, which is beyond my knowledge base.


  • 26th September 2023 at 9:51 am

    Ian, let me add my thanks to the other commentators’ for your fascinating insights!
    What led me to your article was the fact that I had just taken part in an evening’s entertainment on a mediaeval theme, using my Autoharp to accompany some appropriate songs. Feeling the need to justify such a modern instrument (invented around 1880) in this context, it occurred to me that I could pass it off as a sort of latter-day version of the psaltery. After all, most of the Autoharp is very psaltery-like: the flat box with parallel wire stings of gradually increasing length stretched across it from hitch-pins over two bridges to tuning-pins.
    The defining characteristic of the Autoharp is, of course, its chord-bar assembly. As an Autoharper of long standing, I had always regarded this “negative-chord damping” mechanism as a stroke of genius. However, the first time I saw a Russian acquaintance play her gusli, I realized that the Autoharp chord-bar is merely a mechanised application of the “block-and-strum” technique used on the classical and Germanic lyres – and also on the Russian gusli, which also has the characteristics of the psaltery “family.” The gusli-player’s left-hand finger-tips damp selected strings, while the right hand wields a plectrum. The damping of the “wrong” notes allows a correct chord to be strummed, or correct melody notes to be plucked without the risk of sounding an adjacent “wrong” string by accident. A competent Autoharper uses the chord-bars for the same purposes.
    In short, I glimpsed my Autoharp as just one step away from an authentic psaltery!
    But only for a moment. Because the 15 strings of the gusli are fanned out, being closer together at the player’s right hand, to limit plectrum movement, and farther apart at his right, to prevent inadvertent damping of adjacent strings. In this, the gusli more resembles the Baltic kanteles than the Mediaeval psaltery.
    So my Autoharp did not inherit its parallel strings directly from the psaltery – it merely had the fanned strings of the kantele/gusli branch of the family laid parallel to make it easier to fit the chord-bar unit!
    One question does remain, however: Is there any evidence of the Mediaeval psaltery being played with a block-and-strum technique like the earlier lyres? Could psaltery – gusli – Autoharp be a direct line of descent after all?
    Thanks again for the valuable information,
    John Dallas

    • 26th September 2023 at 8:06 pm

      Hello, John, and thank you for your interesting contribution.

      To answer your questions.

      There is no evidence of the medieval psaltery being played with a block-and-strum technique, and what we know for certain about medieval music militates against it. The block-and-strum technique requires chordal thinking, which is anachronistic: medieval music was not chordal, but polyphonic. For more on this distinction, see under the heading, ‘Modern harmony and medieval polyphony’.

      It is for the same reason that I am unconvinced by those who interpret iconography of Greek and Roman lyres as showing block-and-strum: it is anachronistic, importing the sensibility of western music from the 16th century on into the ancient polyphonic world where modern chordal thinking was unknown. When we see fingers fanned out across several strings, we don’t see block-and-strum, but what any player of a lyre or harp would do: have the whole hand in readiness for a series of notes.

      All the best.


    • 26th September 2023 at 8:37 pm

      I agree with you. The earlier form of the gusli was that of a wooden one-piece lyre. The Glinka Museum in Moscow has a very early (12th century?) one. At some point it became a box zither, but retained the “block and strum” technique, with the various names kantele, kankles, kannel, and gusli, in the Baltic Sea region (and northern Russia).

      • 26th September 2023 at 8:44 pm

        Paul, see my reply to John above: musical instrument techniques must necessarily reflect the music theory of the era. It therefore follows that block and strum chordal playing is conceptually impossible before the modern chordal harmonies of the 16th century – that is, unless we imagine that enough strings could be blocked to create 2, 3 or 4 voice polyphony, but this seems a very tall order and I know of no evidence that suggests this.


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