The rebec is a medieval gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Like so many medieval musical instruments, the origins of the rebec are in Arabia and north Africa, the region of so much cultural exchange, trade and crusading in the middle ages. Perhaps surprisingly, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment. In south-east Europe, the rebec continues to be played to this day, playing vigorous and exciting traditional music.
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 evolution is surprisingly widespread, giving rise to the hammer dulcimer, the harpsichord family and ultimately the piano.
The Arabian oud, or al ‘ud, is probably best known in the west for being the predecessor of the European lute; but it does have an independent life of its own in the history of early music, rooted in medieval cultural exchange between east and west. We know, for example, that ouds played an important part in the musical life of the royal court of Castile (in modern Spain) in the 13th century and, by extension, almost certainly Iberian musical life in general. But was the oud fretted, unfretted, or both? How did western musicians come to play an eastern instrument? And did the oud really originate in desiccated human remains?
The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonise?