“The world by day is like European music; a flowing concourse of vast harmony, composed of concord and discord and many disconnected fragments.”
Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali poet, writer, composer
Nothing speaks to the soul like music – and nothing to the soul of European inventiveness like its orchestra of musical instruments. Whether you’re listening to a classical symphony or a Magyar marriage, on a Slovakian hillside or a Hawaiian beach, whether you want to pluck or blow, you can bet there’s a European instrument that can provide the perfect accompaniment. What links an Icelandic warrior, a Copenhagen virgin and a slab of butter? What do you do with music that can no longer be played? Where in Europe would you beat out a rhythm with a devilish do-it-yourself pole? What’s the best way to drown out a yodeller? Find out below with our guide to the musical instruments from across all Europe.
Portugal’s most famous musical invention took root almost on the other side of the world: 12,000 kilometers away, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In the late 19th century, Joao Fernandez went to Hawaii, clutching a small lute-like instrument known variously as the cavaquinho, the branguinha or the machete de braga. The locals were thrilled with this compact means of accompaniment – and renamed the four-stringed instrument the ukulele, “jumping flea”. The instrument, originally from the Portuguese island of Madeira off the coast of Africa, is now more associated with tropical Hawaiian ballads. The banjolele, a hybrid which incorporates features of the banjo, was made famous by the films of 1940s British comedian George Formby.
Spain’s claim to musical fame is one that has virtually taken over modern music. The acoustic guitar as we know it probably came from Spain in the early 16th century, a straightforward way to pluck chords to accompany the human voice or set out a rhythm for dancing. Once relying on its own hollow resonant body to amplify sound, the modern electric instrument merely has a flat panel with magnetic pickups and a cable socket. Easy to play, transport and amplify, they have become the quintessential staple of modern pop music for the last sixty years or more.
The oboe, one of the four woodwind instruments of the classical orchestra, gets its name from the French “hautbois,” or “high wood,” and seems to have originated in mid-17th century France; Louis XIV was said to be a major fan. Unlike the clarinet, it uses a double reed to generate a sound from the player’s breath; its bright, strong sound can produce a full and lovely timbre (though it can also sound not unlike the quack of a duck). So piercing is it, that it traditionally plays the A to which all other instruments listen and tune at the beginning of a concert; but the method of producing sound makes it one of the most difficult orchestral instruments to master. (Only the French horn — which, by the way, isn’t really French — is said to be harder). Few can play the instrument with the virtuosity or straightforwardness of a clarinet or saxophone: probably why it has little taken off as an instrument in jazz or pop music.
Belonging to the zither family, the langspil was brought from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. Relatives such as the mountain dulcimer are found in Pennsylvania, USA, brought by German settlers. There is no single way of constructing a langspil, but a typical one will have two “drone” strings, which play a single continuous note, while a third often fretted higher string allows a melody to be plucked, bowed or hammered, while the instrument itself sits across the seated player’s lap.
The bodhrán (bow-ron) is a kind of round drum, related to the tambourine, which provides the rhythm for a traditional Irish jig or reel, alongside other instruments such as the flute, concertina and fiddle. Traditionally, it is made from a ring of willow or rosewood, with a membrane of goatskin or sheepskin – though these days artificial alternatives are often used. The instrument is laid on the seated player’s knee and struck with a small double-sided stick, known as a beater or tipper, that allows the player the freedom to make a wide variety of sounds. The player’s other hand sits inside the head of the drum, and by brushing across different areas of the skin can create a wide variety of tone, pitch and resonance.
This versatile and compact means of accompaniment was invented in London by Charles Wheatstone around 1829 (though similar designs were being developed in parallel in Germany). Another reed instrument, this one generates air not by breath, but by pulling the central section in and out like a bellows. In the original English concertina, the pitch is changed by a four rows of buttons at each end, allowing the player to play all 12 notes of the conventional chromatic scale with facility. Scientist Michael Faraday used the instrument to demonstrate the physics of sound; Lord Balfour, briefly Prime Minister in the early twentieth century, was a keen player. Though the instrument had some limited take-up in classical music, it is now most used in English and Irish folk music.
Norwegians are well known for wanting to do things differently! For them, the traditional four-stringed violin just wasn’t good enough to do justice to traditional dances like the gangar, halling or springar – so they had to add four or five more. Even more confusingly, the extra strings on the Hardanger fiddle – named after a region of western Norway – are not touched by the player’s bow, but sit below, “sympathetically” resonating when they hear a sound they like. That – combined with a flat bridge enabling two strings to be bowed at once – makes it easy for even the solo player to be heard over the sound of festivities and clomping feet. Traditionally the Hardanger fiddle is made from local materials like cowhorn, spruce, maple and applewood, with decorative patterns like rose designs painted onto the body, and mother of pearl used to adorn its edges. A wave of Nordic migration to the USA in the mid-19th century means many of the instruments are still found and played across the pond.
The Swedes wanted to outdo their Nordic neighbours and added, not just extra strings – but also a whole keyboard. The instrument appears to have arrived via Germany, and it is related to the hurdy-gurdy. Though the sound of the nyckelharpa (“key fiddle”) is still made from a traditional horsehair bow, different notes are made not by stopping the string with the left hand, but by pressing keys found alongside the neck. As well as bowed and sympathetic strings, there is also often a drone string, which can produce a continuous low pitch to accompany the flightier melody. Unlike the violin, it is often played horizontally, with a strap passing round the player’s shoulders, rather like a guitar.
The Finnish kantele appears to be descended from the Arabic qānūn, which reached Europe in the 12th century. Related to the zither, the strings – as many as 35! – are stretched across a frame which has no neck, and plucked. While mainly associated with local folk music, you can also hear a Finnish kantele accompanying the lullaby All Is Found in the Disney film Frozen 2.
Archaeologists first found these curious cast-iron horn instruments at the end of the eighteenth century, and many more have been found since, principally in Denmark but also elsewhere in Scandinavia; most remarkably of all, despite being over 3000 years old, some of them can still be played. The specimens were originally identified with the lur, referred to in Icelandic myths as summoning warriors to battle, though they may also have been used to put people into a trance for religious ceremonies. Musically the instrument is fairly simple, with harmonics enabling a player to produce between 8 and 12 rich and sonorous notes; they often also have an ornamental plate, decorated with a dozen or so depressions. Danes have been keen to identify with this token of their proud warrior past; two entwined lurs decorate the logo of the country’s leading brand of butter – known, of course, as Lurpak. In Copenhagen’s central square opposite the city hall sits a bronze statue of two lur-blowers who, legend has it, will sound their instruments should a virgin ever happen to walk past.
This mainstay of 17th century baroque music was not invented in the Netherlands, but the country has a decent claim to one of the instrument’s most famous proponents. Instrument maker Hans Ruckers the Elder was born in 1555 in Mechelen, and later lived in Antwerp, both in modern-day Belgium. He built many of the best and most beautiful harpsichords, many of which lasted for centuries, undergoing multiple refurbishments and overhauls. The harpsichord is a versatile harmonic instrument, heard accompanying virtually all seventeenth century ensemble works such as those by Purcell, Bach or Handel; though, because the strings are plucked rather than hammered, the instrument does not have the dynamic and emotional range of the piano which eventually supplanted it. Ruckers’ most famous innovation was to add a second keyboard, often tuned a perfect fourth apart from the first, allowing the player to rapidly transpose into a different key.
Belgium lays claim to one of the few instruments not just invented by a single individual, but named after him. Adolphe Sax was born in the French-speaking city of Dinant in 1814, before the country of Belgium even existed. A player of the clarinet and other woodwind instruments, he studied at the Brussels Conservatoire. After experimenting with numerous inventions including an organ and a sound reflection screen he finally presented his masterwork, the saxophone, intended to combine the powerful sound of brass instruments like the trumpet with the versatility of woodwind. Saxophones exist in multiple types, including higher-pitched sopranos and altos, and deeper tenors and baritones, but the orchestra consisting solely of different kinds of saxophone never really took off. Classical composers including Britten and Glazunov wrote for the saxophone as an orchestral or solo instrument, but it took off in the jazz bands of 20th century America, reaching a zenith in the virtuosity of players like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
The chunkiest member of the brass family was patented by Johann Moritz and Wilhemlm Wieprecht in Berlin in 1835. While frequently used in the classical orchestra, they are also associated with marching and military bands (the latter of which Wieprecht directed): largely as they are portable, at least relative to instruments of comparable pitch such as the double bass. Another German instrument, the Wagner tuba, was invented by the composer some twenty years later, as he looked for an instrument to bridge the wide variety in the brass section and do justice to the arrival of the Gods at Valhalla in his opera Das Rheingold.
On your tour of Europe, spare a thought for the musical might-have-beens: the instrumental innovations that nearly made it, the bright ideas that just couldn’t bridge the gap. Such is the fate of the arpeggione, invented in 1823 by Johann Stauffer in Vienna. While tuned and fretted like a guitar, the hybrid instrument was placed between the knees to be bowed like a cello, with strings set so as to make it easier to play two notes at once. Alas, this arrangement proved too unwieldy for the good folk of Vienna to manage and the sound was nothing special, so after a brief flash of trendiness the arpeggione found itself on Queer Street. The only reason people still mention the instrument is that, during its brief heyday, Franz Schubert composed a work with piano accompaniment. Unfortunately he didn’t circulate the sonata right away: by the 1870s, when it was published after his death, few people could even get their hands on something to play it on. Today, although still known as the Arpeggione Sonata, the work is usually played on the cello or viola.
What is a lonely Alpine shepherd to do, with only his flock and the tall pine trees of the forest for company? Why, build an alphorn, of course! Originally referred to in writing in the 16th century, this enormous instrument has long been bellowed across the valleys to summon creatures of all kinds – the cows in for milking, and the faithful to prayer. Unlike the woodwind instruments made out of metal, this one is made out of wood – its length and pitch traditionally depending on the height of the tree used to make it – but is generally considered a brass instrument due to its sonorous tone quality. Now cheerfully reinvented for tourists as perhaps the most effective way to drown out the sound of yodelling, the alphorn is now often made out of ash wood or even carbon fibre.
The Boot can lay claim to several extremely important instruments. The two earliest recorded violin makers, the 16th century Andre Amati and Gasparo di Bertolotti, worked in Cremona and Brescia, setting the model for the modern instrument. But Italy’s crown must surely go to classical music’s versatile, if heaviest, instrument. Though the piano contains many innovative features, it was invented by a single person, Bartolomeo Cristofori, in Florence around 1700. He was bored of making harpsichords which, though a nearly universal means of accompaniment, could not sustain sound, nor play at different volumes. Cristofori ingeniously set about fixing those problems one by one, replacing plucking plectrums with striking hammers, introducing an escapement allowing the hammer to fall away and not dull the sound, a check to stop hammers bouncing back against the string, and a set of dampers to stop strings not in use from resonating. With Germanic rigour, Cristofori named his instrument the clavicembalo col piano e forte – a “harpsichord with soft and loud”. The astonishing invention found little take-up in his home country or during his lifetime, but news of it spread to Germany where it eventually caught on. Around 1830, a number of technological innovations were made allowing strings to be set at higher tension, with iron frames and hammers tipped with felt, not leather. Instruments before that date are now normally called fortepianos, and more modern ones pianofortes.
In Czechia, when it comes to musical instruments, they believe in do-it-yourself. The vozembouch (“stamp on the ground”) does what it says on the tin: but apart from this consistent manner of playing, each instrument is as unique as its owner. Originally it was a single-string fiddle, bowed with horsehair and with an animal’s bladder operating to aid resonance. Nowadays it functions as a percussion instrument, consisting of a vertical stick about 1 metre high, often of beechwood, to which a variety of objects are stuck: small snare drums, cymbals, bells, rattles, ribbons, tin cans, tambourines, bottlecaps, washboards, you name it. All this is topped off by a decorative wooden head, often depicting the devil. Neither standardized nor mass-produced, as long as it looks impressive and sounds OK, there are few rules to constructing your own vozembouch.
In Slovakia, bigger is better. This mammoth “bass flute” is as tall as a man: sometimes even over 2 metres long. So long, in fact, that the player cannot usually stretch from the fingerholes while blowing into the top: so must use a extension pipe which allows them to blow into an opening closer to the middle of the instrument. A traditional fujara is made out of elder wood aged for 3 years, and decorated with designs particular to the maker. As it only has three fingerholes, the player must also change the pitch by contorting the mouth to make harmonics, just like a trumpeter. Originally an instrument of shepherds, the fujara has now become a symbol of national pride: declared an element of humanity’s intangible heritage by UNESCO in 2008, it is the perfect accompaniment to a song celebrating the derring-do of the 18th-centry outlaw hero Juraj Jánošík – or just a lament to the travails of being a lonely shepherd.
Poland’s most famous instrument is a kind of bagpipe, in which air held in a sack is squeezed to make a sound while the player changes the pitch by moving fingers on a recorder-like chanter; a separate drone pipe makes a continuously pitched sound to accompany the melody. They are popular in countries that formerly associated with the Austro-Hungarian empire, including modern-day Hungary, Poland, Belarus and the Balkans. In Polish, Koza means “goat,” the animal skinned to make the bag. The goat’s fur is often still attached and a small carving of the animal displayed; those made from black goats are known as kozioł weselny and traditionally played at weddings.
Estonia – Latvia – Lithuania
Kokle (LV) Kannel (EE) Kanklės (LT)
These instruments, known collectively as the Baltic psaltery, are similar to the Finnish kantele; in the case of the Estonian kannel, it is s bowed rather than plucked. For the Lithuanians, the kanklės has a morbid association: they believe a true instrument can only gain its sonorous soul if the wood is cut on the day of death of a loved one; playing it is a spiritual act akin to meditation. In Latvia, the strings of the kokle do not sit on a bridge, making the sound quieter but richer.
The Surna, also known as the Belarusian trumpet, is a wind mouthpiece musical instrument, first pictures of which can be found in Belarusian documents of the 13th c. Alongside with straight trumpets they were curved ones too, sometimes they were covered with birch bark. The trumpet was mostly used during warfare as a signal instrument. Everyday life of the medieval knights in the times of a war can’t be imagined without this instrument.
All the ladies want to know — who has the longest? And the Ukrainians are willing to tell you. The trembita, a kind of mountain horn, is said to be the longest musical instrument in the world, extending to as much as eight metres. And it’s long in terms of time too: the ideal instrument is hewn from a fir tree aged over 120 years — ideally one that has been struck by lightening to assure you the right trumpet-like tone. Invented by the Hutsul people of the Carpathian mountains, the trembita is a means of communicating across the wide valleys, letting those on neighbouring hillsides know of a death, births, weddings or wars, or simply the forthcoming arrival of a flock of sheep.
Romania – Moldova
The traditional Romanian folk troupe has a violin, the lute-like cobza, and the nai panpipes, sometimes with a drum or double bass added for good measure. A modern nai consists of over 20 notes spanning three octaves, made out of bamboo. Unlike the South American panpipe, the tubes of the nai are arranged not in a straight line, but in a curve, allowing players to reach each of the pipes just by turning their heads. The different pipes also vary in diameter as well as length, allowing a more consistent tone as the player travels up and down in pitch.
In Hungary, they are resourceful when it comes to making music, and a principle tool of Romany folk musicians is… the water jug. Traditionally coming from the town of Cegléd, just to the south-east of Budapest, the Ceglédi kanna designed in the twentieth century is a metal container originally intended to hold a good few litres of water. Thanks to its distinctive shape, including an angled handle, cylindrical spout, and narrow rim, the player can create a variety of percussive, rhythmic sounds by striking it with either hand, as it lies balanced between the seated legs. We cannot confirm rumours that the hard-working and thirsty musician might fill it up with something stronger than water.
Slovenia – Croatia – Serbia – Montenegro
The Tamburica is a lutelike instrument with a long neck found across the Balkan region and in Hungary, plucked in traditional folk music. It appears related to the Persian tambour, arriving in the region via the Ottoman occupation or via Greece. Frets can be moved allowing the instrument to be played in multiple different kinds of scale; the exact tuning differs, but often are tuned in pairs allowing the player to rapidly repeat the same note like a mandolin.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The diple, also known as the mih, started life as a bagpipe; but they got rid of the bag, and just left the pipe, leaving an instrument somewhat like a recorder. While there is no drone note, the chanter features two bores drilled into a single piece of wood, one of which has six holes and the other two, and each of which has a clarinet-style reed at the end. This allows the player to produce two notes at once: Shepherds or wedding entertainers can thus get two for the price of one. The instrument is often made out of maplewood, with elements in cowhorn or tin.
Kosovo – Albania
One of the oldest instruments in Europe, older even than the Danish lur, belongs to one of its youngest countries. Half a century ago, in the village of Runik in the Drenica Valley, was found an ocarina estimated to be between five and eight millennia old. Just eight centimetres tall with finger holes and a mouthpiece, this instrument could have been delighting a local shepherd or his flock long before recorded history or the building of the Egyptian pyramids.
Bulgaria – North Macedonia
The local variety of bagpipe is the pride of the Bulgars! And particularly the low-pitched kaba Gaida, which features a chanter which is both hexagonal, and curved at the end. The reed is made of elder wood, gathered in the coldest pet of winter and aged for several years.
This member of the lute family shows Greece as a cultural crossroads: it is an import from Turkey adapted using Italian techniques. Like the mandolin, the instrument has strings in consistently pitched pairs allowing the player to rapidly repeat notes. Traditionally there were three pairs of strings, while more recent bouzoukis have four, plucked with a plectrum. The instrument is ubiquitous in Greek pop and folk music, often accompanied by its little brother the baglamas, the kithara (guitar), a violin, an accordion, or a piano.
Unlike the oud and other short-necked lutes, the laouto has a higher string tension due to its longer neck and hence is brighter in tone than the oud. It is a long-neck fretted instrument of the lute family, found in Greece and Cyprus. The role of the laouto in traditional music is primarily that of accompaniment. The laouto is often played in a duo (the one laouto tuned more bass than the other) with the Cretan lyra or with the violin (in Cyprus).
The phenomenal instrument and almost symbolic icon of the Black Sea region is a three-string traditional folk instrument played with the help of a bow. In order not to be confused with the classical violin in western music, the instrument in question is called the Black Sea fiddle. The style of work differs from other cultures by being played very actively and accompanied by a dance.
With many thanks to Jack Schickler for orchestrating this article!
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