For other uses, see Hurdy-gurdy (disambiguation).
Other names Wheel fiddle, wheel vielle

String instrument (bowed)
Playing range

Related instruments

The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument that produces sound by a crank-turned, rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow, and single notes played on the instrument sound similar to those of a violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangentssmall wedges, typically made of woodagainst one or more of the strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic stringed instruments, it has a sound board to make the vibration of the strings audible.

Most hurdy-gurdies have multiple drone strings, which give a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy-gurdy is often used interchangeably or along with bagpipes, particularly in Occitan, Catalan, Sardinian, Cajun French and contemporary Galician and Hungarian folk music.

Many folk music festivals in Europe feature music groups with hurdy-gurdy players. The most famous has been held since 1976 at Saint-Chartier in the Indre département in Central France. In 2009, it relocated nearby to the Château d'Ars at La Châtre, where it continues to take place during the week nearest July 14 (Bastille Day).[1]

Origins and history

Elders playing an organistrum
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
Hurdy-gurdy player in
Saint-Jean-des-Ollières, Puy-de-Dôme (France)
Sound sample of a hurdy-gurdy.

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The hurdy-gurdy is generally thought to have originated from fiddles in either Europe or the Middle East (e.g., the rebab instrument) some time before the eleventh century A.D.[2] The first recorded reference to fiddles in Europe was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911) describing the lira (lūrā) as a typical instrument within the Byzantine Empire.[3] One of the earliest forms of the hurdy-gurdy was the organistrum, a large instrument with a guitar-shaped body and a long neck in which the keys were set (covering one diatonic octave). The organistrum had a single melody string and two drone strings, which ran over a common bridge, and a relatively small wheel. Due to its size, the organistrum was played by two people, one of whom turned the crank while the other pulled the keys upward. Pulling keys upward is cumbersome, so only slow tunes could be played on the organistrum.[4]

The pitches on the organistrum were set according to Pythagorean temperament and the instrument was primarily used in monastic and church settings to accompany choral music. Abbot Odo of Cluny (died 942) is supposed to have written a short description of the construction of the organistrum entitled Quomodo organistrum construatur (How the Organistrum Is Made),[5][6] known through a much later copy, but its authenticity is very doubtful. Another 10th century treatise thought to have mentioned an instrument like a hurdy-gurdy is an Arabic musical compendium written by Al Zirikli.[2] One of the earliest visual depictions of the organistrum is from the twelfth-century 'Pórtico da Gloria (Portal of Glory) on the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain: it has a carving of two musicians playing an organistrum.[7]:47[8]:3

Later on, the organistrum was made smaller to let a single player both turn the crank and work the keys. The solo organistrum was known from Spain and France, but was largely replaced by the symphonia, a small box-shaped version of the hurdy-gurdy with three strings and a diatonic keyboard. At about the same time, a new form of key pressed from beneath was developed. These keys were much more practical for faster music and easier to handle; eventually they completely replaced keys pulled up from above. Medieval depictions of the symphonia show both types of keys.

During the Renaissance, the hurdy-gurdy was a very popular instrument (along with the bagpipe) and the characteristic form had a short neck and a boxy body with a curved tail end. It was around this time that buzzing bridges first appeared in illustrations. The buzzing bridge (commonly called the dog) is an asymmetrical bridge that rests under a drone string on the sound board. When the wheel is accelerated, one foot of the bridge lifts from the soundboard and vibrates, creating a buzzing sound. The buzzing bridge is thought to have been borrowed from the tromba marina (monochord), a bowed string instrument.

During the late Renaissance, two characteristic shapes of hurdy-gurdies developed. The first was guitar-shaped and the second had a rounded lute-type body made of staves. The lute-like body is especially characteristic of French instruments.

Detail of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, showing the first known depiction of a buzzing bridge on a hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the 17th century changing musical tastes demanded greater polyphonic capabilities than the hurdy-gurdy could offer and pushed the instrument to the lowest social classes; as a result it acquired names like the German Bauernleier 'peasant's lyre' and Bettlerleier 'beggar's lyre.' During the 18th century, however, French Rococo tastes for rustic diversions brought the hurdy-gurdy back to the attention of the upper classes, where it acquired tremendous popularity among the nobility, with famous composers writing works for the hurdy-gurdy. The most famous of these is Nicolas Chédeville's Il pastor Fido, attributed to Vivaldi. At this time the most common style of hurdy-gurdy developed, the six-string vielle à roue. This instrument has two melody strings and four drones. The drone strings are tuned so that by turning them on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys (e.g., C and G, or G and D).

During this time the hurdy-gurdy also spread further to Central Europe, where further variations developed in western Slavic countries, German-speaking areas and Hungary (see the list of types below for more information on them). Most types of hurdy-gurdy were essentially extinct by the early twentieth century, but a few have survived. The best-known are the French vielle à roue, the Hungarian tekerőlant, and the Spanish zanfoña. In Ukraine, a variety called the lira was widely used by blind street musicians, most of whom were purged by Stalin in the 1930s (See "Persecuted bandurists").

The hurdy-gurdy tradition is well developed particularly in Hungary, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. In Ukraine, it is known as the lira or relia. It was and still is played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their repertoire has mostly para-religious themes. Most of it originated in the Baroque period. In Eastern Ukraine, the repertoire includes unique historic epics known as dumy and folk dances.

Vagabonds with hurdy-gurdy (1887 drawing)

Lirnyky were categorised as beggars by the Russian authorities and fell under harsh repressive measures if they were caught performing in the streets of major cities until 1902, when the authorities were asked by ethnographers attending the 12th All-Russian Archaeological conference to stop persecuting them.

The hurdy-gurdy is the instrument played by Der Leiermann, the street musician portrayed in the last, melancholy song of Schubert's Winterreise. It is also featured and played prominently in the film Captains Courageous (1937) as the instrument of the character Manuel, acted by Spencer Tracy.

The instrument came into a new public consciousness when Donovan released his hit pop song, Hurdy Gurdy Man, in 1968. Although the song didn't use a hurdy-gurdy, the repeated reference to the instrument in the song's lyrics sparked curiosity and interest among young people, eventually resulting in an annual hurdy-gurdy music festival in the Olympic Peninsula area of the state of Washington each September.[9]

Today, the tradition has resurfaced. Revivals have been underway for many years as well in Austria, Belgium and The Netherlands,[10]:85–116 Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden. As the instrument has been revived, musicians have used it in a variety of styles of music (see the list of recordings that use hurdy-gurdy), including contemporary forms not typically associated with it.

Other instruments called hurdy-gurdies

In the eighteenth century, the term hurdy-gurdy was also applied to a small, portable "barrel organ" (a cranked box instrument with a number of organ pipes, a bellows and a barrel with pins that rotated and programmed the tunes) that was frequently played by poor buskers (street musicians). Barrel organs require only the turning of the crank to play; the music is coded by pinned barrels, perforated paper rolls, and more recently by electronic modules. The French call the barrel organ the Orgue de Barbarie ("Barbary organ"), and the Germans Drehorgel ("turned organ"), instead of Drehleier ("turning lyre").


Hurdy-gurdy player

A person who plays the hurdy-gurdy is called a hurdy-gurdyist, or (particularly for players of French instruments) viellist.

In France, a player is called un sonneur de vielle (literally: "a sounder of vielle"), un vielleux or un vielleur.

Because of the prominence of the French tradition, many instrument and performance terms used in English are commonly taken from the French, and players generally need to know these terms to read relevant literature. Such common terms include the following:

Names of the instrument

Two Hungarian-style hurdy-gurdies (tekerőlants)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the mid 18th century origin of the term hurdy-gurdy is onomatopoeic in origin, after the repetitive warble in pitch that characterizes instruments with solid wooden wheels that have warped due to changes in humidity or after the sound of the buzzing-bridge.[11] Alternately, the term is thought to come from the Scottish and northern English term for uproar or disorder, hirdy-girdy[7]:41 or from hurly-burly,[7]:40 an old English term for noise or commotion.The instrument is sometimes more descriptively called a wheel fiddle in English, but this term is rarely used among players of the instrument. Another possible derivation is from the Hungarian "hegedűs" (Slovenian variant "hrgadus") meaning a fiddle.[12]

In France, the instrument is known as vielle à roue (wheel fiddle) or simply vielle (even though there is another instrument with this name), while in the French-speaking regions of Belgium it is also known in local dialects as vièrlerète/vièrlète or tiesse di dj'va ('horse's head').[7]:38 The Flemings and the Dutch call it a draailier, which is similar to its German name, Drehleier. An alternate German name, Bauernleier, means "peasant's lyre". In Italy, it is called the ghironda or lira tedesca while in Spain, it is a zanfona, except in the Catalan region, where it is known as a viola de roda. In the Basque language, it is known as a brenka. In Portugal, it is called sanfona.[13]:211–221

The Hungarian name tekerőlant and the alternate forgólant both mean "turning lute." Another Hungarian name for the instrument is nyenyere, which is thought to be an onomatopoeic reference to the repetitive warble produced by a wheel that is not even. This term was considered derogatory in the Hungarian lowlands, but was the normal term for the instrument on Csepel island directly south of Budapest. The equivalent names ninera and niněra are used in Slovakia and the Czech Republic respectively. In Russian and Ukrainian the instrument is called "wheel lyre" (колёсная лира, колісна ліра). In Poland it is called "cranked lyre" (lira korbowa).

Leier, lant, and related terms today are generally used to refer to members of the lute or lyre family, but historically had a broader range of meaning and were used for many types of stringed instruments.


Major parts of a modern French-type hurdy-gurdy
Wheel and tangents on a French type hurdy-gurdy with three chanterelles (melody strings). The keyboard is visible on the right side of the picture.


In her overview of the instrument's history, Palmer recorded twenty-three different forms of the hurdy-gurdy,[7]:23–34 and there is still no standardized design for the hurdy-gurdy today.

The six-stringed French vielle à roue is the best known and most common sort. A number of regional forms developed, but outside France the instrument was considered a folk instrument and there were no schools of construction that could have determined a standard form.

There are two primary body styles for contemporary instruments: guitar-bodied and lute-backed. Both forms are found in French-speaking areas, while guitar-bodied instruments are the general form elsewhere. The box form of the simphonia is also commonly found among players of early music and historical re-enactors.


Historically, strings were made of gut, which is still a preferred material today and modern instruments are mounted with violin (D or A) and cello (A, G, C) strings.[8]:10–12 However, metal strings have become common in the twentieth century, especially for the heavier drone strings or for lower melody strings if octave tuning is used. Nylon is also sometimes used, but is disliked by many players. Some instruments also have optional sympathetic strings, generally guitar or banjo B strings.[8]:10–12

The drone strings produce steady sounds at fixed pitches. The melody string(s) (French chanterelle(s), Hungarian dallamhúr(ok)) are stopped with tangents attached to keys that change the vibration length of the string, much as a guitarist uses his or her fingers on the fretboard of a guitar. In the earliest hurdy-gurdies these keys were arranged to provide a Pythagorean temperament, but in later instruments the tunings have varied widely, with equal temperament most common because it allows easier blending with other instruments. However, because the tangents can be adjusted to tune individual notes, it is possible to tune hurdy-gurdies to almost any temperament as needed. Most contemporary hurdy-gurdies have 24 keys that cover a range of two chromatic octaves.

To achieve proper intonation and sound quality, each string of a hurdy-gurdy must be wrapped with cotton or similar fibers. The cotton on melody strings tends to be quite light, while drone strings have heavier cotton. Improper cottoning results in a raspy tone, especially at higher pitches. In addition, individual strings (in particular the melody strings) often have to have their height above the wheel surface adjusted by having small pieces of paper placed between the strings and the bridge, a process called shimming. Shimming and cottoning are connected processes since either one can affect the geometry of the instrument's strings.

Buzzing bridge

Entire buzzing bridge system for a French-style instrument, with part labels

In some types of hurdy-gurdy, notably the French vielle à roue ('fiddle with a wheel') and the Hungarian tekerőlant (tekerő for short), makers have added a buzzing bridge—called a chien (French for dog) or recsegő (Hungarian for "buzzer")—on one drone string. Modern makers have increased the number of buzzing bridges on French-style instruments to as many as four. This mechanism consists of a loose bridge under a drone string. The tail of the buzzing bridge is inserted into a narrow vertical slot (or held by a peg in Hungarian instruments) that holds the buzzing bridge in place (and also serves as a bridge for additional drone strings on some instruments).

The free end of the dog (called the hammer) rests on the soundboard of the hurdy-gurdy and is more or less free to vibrate. When the wheel is turned slowly the pressure on the string (called the trompette on French instruments) holds the bridge in place, sounding a drone. When the crank is accelerated, the hammer lifts up and vibrates against the soundboard, producing a characteristic rhythmic buzz that is used as an articulation or to provide percussive effect, especially in dance pieces.

On French-style instruments, the sensitivity of the buzzing bridge can be altered by turning a peg called a tirant in the tailpiece of the instrument that is connected by a wire or thread to the trompette. The tirant adjusts the lateral pressure on the trompette and thereby sets the sensitivity of the buzzing bridge to changes in wheel velocity.

There are various stylistic techniques that are used as the player turns the crank, briefly accelerating the wheel at various points in its revolution. This technique is often known by its French term, the coup-de-poignet (or, more simply, the shortened coup), with the acceleration being applied by striking the handle with the thumb, fingers or base of the thumb at one or more of four points in the revolution of the wheel (often described in terms of the clock face, 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock) to achieve the desired rhythm. A long buzz can also be achieved by pulling the handle rapidly through the rotation, known as the coup gras.

On the Hungarian tekerő the same control is achieved by using a wedge called the recsegőék (control wedge, or literally "buzzer wedge") that pushes the drone string downward. In traditional tekerő playing, the buzzing bridge is controlled entirely by the wrist of the player and has a very different sound and rhythmic possibilities from those available on French instruments.

Comparison of French and Hungarian buzzing bridges

Regional types

Regional types of hurdy-gurdies since the Renaissance can also be classified based on wheel size and the presence or absence (and type) of a buzzing bridge. The following description of various types uses this framework:[14][15]:23–40

Small wheel

Small-wheeled (wheel diameter less than 14 cm, or about 5.5 inches) instruments are traditionally found in Central and Eastern Europe. They feature a broad keybox and the drone strings run within the keybox. Because of the small size of the wheel these instruments most commonly have three strings: one melody string, one tenor drone and one bass drone. They sometimes have up to five strings.

Large wheel

Large-wheeled instruments (wheel diameters between 14 and 17 cm, or about 5.5 - 6.6 inches) are traditionally found in Western Europe. These instruments generally have a narrow keybox with drone strings that run outside the keybox. They also generally have more strings and doubling or tripling of the melody string is common. Some modern instruments have as many as fifteen strings played by the wheel, although the most common number is six.

List of musicians using the hurdy-gurdy

See also

Dulcigurdy (lower left corner)


  1. La Châtre 2016 Retrieved 30 May 2016
  2. 1 2 Baines, Anthony (May 1976). "Reviewed work(s): Die Drehleier, ihr Bau und ihre Geschichte by Marianne Bröcker". The Galpin Society Journal. 29: 140–141 [140]. doi:10.2307/841885. JSTOR 841885.
  3. Margaret J. Kartomi: On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology, University of Chicago Press, 1990
  4. Christopher Page, "The Medieval Organistrum and Symphonia. 1: A Legacy From the East?," The Galpin Society Journal 35:37–44, and "The Medieval Organistrum and Symphonia. 2: Terminology," The Galpin Society Journal 36:71–87
  5. Scriptores ecclesiastici de musica sacra potissimum, 3 vols., ed. Martin Gerbert (St. Blaise: Typis San-Blasianis, 1784; reprint ed., Hildesheim: Olms, 1963), 1:303. Available online at
  6. Franz Montgomery, "The Etymology of the Phrase by Rote." Modern Language Notes 46/1 (Jan. 1931), 19–21.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Palmer, Susann (1980). The Hurdy-Gurdy. London: David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-7888-0.
  8. 1 2 3 Muskett, Doreen (1998). Hurdy-Gurdy Method. England: Muskett Music. ISBN 0-946993-07-6.
  9. About the Over The Water Hurdy-Gurdy Association. From the 'Over The Water' website. Retrieved on January 9, 2014
  10. Anthoons, Jan; Dewit, Herman, eds. (1983). Volksmuziekatelier - Jaarboek 1. Lennik, Belgium: Jan Verhoeven.
  11. "Oxford English Dictionaries online entry for hurdy-gurdy". Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  12. Slovene Folklore, Author(s): F. S. Copeland, Source: Folklore, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1931)
  13. Veiga de Oliveira, Ernesto (2000) [1964]. Instrumentos Musicais Populares Portugueses. Lisbon: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. ISBN 972-666-075-0.
  14. 1 2 Lommel, Arle; Nagy, Balázs (April 2007). "The Form, History and Classification of the Tekerőlant (Hungarian Hurdy-Gurdy)". The Galpin Society Journal. London and New York: The Galpin Society. 60: 181–190. JSTOR i25163886.
  15. Description of types based on Nagy, Balázs (2006). Tekerőlantosok könyve: Hasznós kézikönyv tekerőlant-játékosok és érdeklődők számára / The Hurdy-Gurdy Handbook: A Practical Handbook for Players and Aficionados of the Tekerő (Hungarian Hurdy-Gurdy). Budapest: Hagyományok Háza / Hungarian Heritage House. ISBN 963-7363-10-6.
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