The nyckelharpa
The nyckelharpa is a bowed instrument featuring two extraordinary properties, resulting in a unique sound. The pitch is not determined by pressing the tip of the finger on the right spot on the string. That technique, found in the viol and violin families and many other stringed instruments, is substituted by a mechanism that presses tangents - small wooden sticks standing perpendicular to the strings - against the string on the chosen spot. The nyckelharpa player presses with his fingers  the keys (which can be seen at the side of the instrument’s neck) inward. On each key a tangent is mounted, which by the key action is pressed against the string. This mechanism is even found in the hurdy gurdy. But unlike the hurdy gurdy player, the nyckel- harpa player uses a bow to sound the string (in a hurdy gurdy a wheel inside the instrument acts as bow). A modern nyckelharpa has four strings, tuned more or less like a viola. The playing posture looks like that of the medieval fiddle.
The clear sound created by this tangent system gets an extra dimension through a second nyckelharpa characteristic. Besides the four playing strings the instrument has twelve sympathetic strings, resonance strings. They are not bowed but they respond to the sounds created by the playing strings. They are tuned according to the chromatic scale. Is a C played, then the C sympathetic string responds, is a C sharp played the C sharp resonance string sounds as well etc. Such sympathetic strings are even found on the viola d’amore, the Norwegian hardingfele and the Indian sarangi. But in combination with the tangent system they create this unsurpassed clear “spatial” sound.
A porthole view of the tangent system of the nyckelharpa
The Swedish nyckelharpa has only tangents for the three highest playing strings. The low string is only used as a drone string. This is a remnant of older Swedish nyckelharpa types, with one, two or three playing strings plus a drone (drone: a bass tone not unlike a bagpipe’s continuous bass). From around 1950 the instrument in Sweden was developed into a four string chromatic nyckelharpa, including the still present drone. This development more or less finished around 1980…. …..that is to say in Sweden. But as the instrument had begun to draw attention abroad, instrument builders in other European countries sized the opportunity to develop the instrument even further. The number of keys became larger, and often even the low string could be used with tangents. Also, violin tuned nyckelharpas (”soprano harpas”) and bass harpas (tuned as cellos) made their appearance. These developments went hand in hand with a growing interest in nyckelharpa playing outside Sweden. Presently, there are nyckelharpa-dedicated teaching centra and organisations in Germany, Belgium, France, Italy and the USA. At the same time the repertory has become much more varied, including many different genres - even though Swedish music still plays an important role.
Didier François demonstrating the nyckelharpa. This particular instrument has tangents for all four strings
Different types of nyckelharpa played by Resonans
Nyckelharpa links
Nederlands graag! Nederlands graag! in English please!
Keys and tangents
Resonating extra strings
The development accelerates
The nyckelharpa
The nyckelharpa is a bowed instrument featuring two extraordinary properties, resulting in a unique sound. The pitch is not determined by pressing the tip of the finger on the right spot on the string. That technique, found in the viol and violin families and many other stringed instruments, is substituted by a mechanism that presses tangents - small wooden sticks standing perpendicular to the strings - against the string on the chosen spot. The nyckelharpa player presses with his fingers  the keys (which can be seen at the side of the instrument’s neck) inward. On each key a tangent is mounted, which by the key action is pressed against the string. This mechanism is even found in the hurdy gurdy. But unlike the hurdy gurdy player, the nyckelharpa player uses a bow to sound the string (in a hurdy gurdy a wheel inside the instrument acts as bow). A modern nyckelharpa has four strings, tuned more or less like a viola. The playing posture looks like that of the medieval fiddle.
Didier François demonstrating the nyckelharpa. This particular instrument has tangents for all four strings
The clear sound created by this tangent system gets an extra dimension through a second nyckelharpa characteristic. Besides the four playing strings the instrument has twelve sympathetic strings, resonance strings. They are not bowed but they respond to the sounds created by the playing strings. They are tuned according to the chromatic scale. Is a C played, then the C sympathetic string responds, is a C sharp played the C sharp resonance string sounds as well etc. Such sympathetic strings are even found on the viola d’amore, the Norwegian hardingfele and the Indian sarangi. But in combination with the tangent system they create this unsurpassed clear “spatial” sound.
A porthole view of the tangent system of the nyckelharpa
The Swedish nyckelharpa has only tangents for the three highest playing strings. The low string is only used as a drone string. This is a remnant of older Swedish nyckel- harpa types, with one, two or three playing strings plus a drone (drone: a bass tone not unlike a bagpipe’s continuous bass). From around 1950 the instrument in Sweden was developed into a four string chromatic nyckelharpa, including the still present drone. This development more or less finished around 1980…. …..that is to say in Sweden. But as the instrument had begun to draw attention abroad, instrument builders in other European countries sized the opportunity to develop the instrument even further. The number of keys became larger, and often even the low string could be used with tangents. Also, violin tuned nyckelharpas (”soprano harpas”) and bass harpas (tuned as cellos) made their appearance. These developments went hand in hand with a growing interest in nyckelharpa playing outside Sweden. Presently, there are nyckelharpa-dedicated teaching centra and organisations in Germany, Belgium, France, Italy and the USA. At the same time the repertory has become much more varied, including many different genres - even though Swedish music still plays an important role.
Different types of nyckelharpa played by Resonans
Nyckelharpa links
Keys and tangents
Resonating extra strings
The development accelerates