In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Musical Instruments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Article Collections
  • History Books
  • Journals
  • Classifications of Instruments

Medieval Studies Musical Instruments
Timothy J. McGee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0009


Musical instruments had a constant presence during the Middle Ages. They were a part of many activities and occasions, both formal and informal, and were played by professionals and amateurs. Very few instruments survive from the period, and therefore, most of our information about instruments and their use comes from literature, historical accounts, archival documents, theoretical treatises, and iconography. There was an enormous variety of instruments and very little standardization in terms of size, shape, range, or playing technique. Many of the instruments were developed in the Middle East, and once imported into Europe, they were modified and transformed to fit the needs of the various European societies; the type of change and relative popularity of instruments varied with each geographical area and level of society. The history of medieval musical instruments, therefore, is a study of constant change as the instruments were adjusted to meet the demands of the changing society and evolving musical tastes.

General Overviews

The best overviews of instruments in the Middle Ages are available in three different volumes of the New Oxford History of Music series, each volume approaching the subject from a different point of view: the second edition of Volume 2, Crocker and Hiley 1990, centers on accounts and descriptions of the instruments as discussed in the treatises of the time; Volume 3, Hughes and Abraham 1960, presents a wider but more general view of the topic based on iconography and literature; and the second edition of Volume 3, Strohm and Blackburn 2001, covers many of the same sources as the 1960 volume but provides much more detail about the function of the instruments in society and their repertory. These studies are quite scholarly, but for a superficial, well-illustrated, general overview, Remnant 1989 is accurate although not detailed. McKinnon 1968 and Seebass 1973 provide more tightly focused overviews of the instruments: McKinnon concentrates on the instruments named in psalms and psalm commentaries, some of the main literary sources for instrument information, whereas Seebass studies only a single manuscript that contains a large number of illustrations of instruments. Looking at the instruments from a different point of view, Brown 1990 discusses instruments in terms of their performance practices and, in doing so, points out the limits of our present knowledge about instruments and their uses in the Middle Ages. Winternitz 1979 explains the symbolic use of instruments in art.

  • Brown, Howard Mayer. “Instruments.” In Performance Practice. Vol. 1, Music Before 1600. Edited by Howard Mayer Brown and Stanley Sadie, 15–36. Norton/Grove Handbooks in Music. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

    The instruments are discussed in terms of how we know about them and what that information implies in terms of their repertory and performance practices. Brown is particularly good at explaining the topic in terms of what is and is not known. An excellent presentation of the present status of our understanding of instruments and their place in medieval society.

  • Crocker, Richard, and David Hiley, eds. The Early Middle Ages to 1300. 2d ed. New Oxford History of Music 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

    This is a detailed study of music treatises and their discussion of instruments and the instrumental repertory of the period, but very little about technical matters or description of the instruments. See especially Christopher Page, “Instruments and Instrumental Music Before 1300,” pp. 455–484.

  • Hughes, Anselm, and Gerald Abraham, eds. Ars Nova and the Renaissance, 1300–1540. New Oxford History of Music 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.

    This is the earlier edition of Volume 3 of this series, which discusses the instruments, their depictions in iconography, and their presence in literature. It is a very good general discussion of the instruments in European society without much technical data. See especially Gerald Hayes, “Musical Instruments,” pp. 466–502.

  • McKinnon, James W. “Musical Instruments in Medieval Psalm Commentaries and Psalters.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 21 (1968): 3–20.

    DOI: 10.1525/jams.1968.21.1.03a00010

    An examination of the literature as well as the iconography results in the conclusion that no instrument other than the organ was used in liturgical celebrations prior to the late 14th century. The discussion includes an analysis of the reason instruments appear in the texts.

  • Remnant, Mary. Musical Instruments: An Illustrated History from Antiquity to the Present. London: Batsford, 1989.

    An updated and much more elaborately illustrated version of the author’s earlier Musical Instruments of the West (New York: St. Martin’s, 1978). Restricted to those instruments that were and are involved in the art music of the West, it contains very general and rather elementary descriptions of each family of instruments. Because it jumps back and forth among the centuries, it is sometimes difficult to sort out those facts that pertain to medieval instruments. Good for an elementary illustrated overview.

  • Seebass, Tilman. Musikdarstellung und Psalterillustration im früheren Mittelalter: Studien, ausgehend von einer Ikonologie der Handschrift Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fonds latin 1118. 2 vols. Bern, Switzerland: Franke, 1973.

    A study of the manuscript Paris Bibliothèque Nationale Fonds Latin 1118, dating from the end of the 10th century, which contains numerous illustrations of instruments. Seebass explains the presence of the instruments and compares them with other illustrations of the same period. Volume 2 contains the illustrations.

  • Strohm, Reinhard, and Bonnie J. Blackburn, eds. Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages. 2d ed. New Oxford History of Music 3, Part 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    In this second, completely revised edition, the approach is similar to the earlier edition (Hughes and Abraham 1960), i.e., mostly a discussion of the place of the instruments in the society, as well as their repertory, without much technical information about instrument sizes, etc., but the information is based on different sources, is more detailed, and provides a somewhat different picture of the subject. See especially chapter 3, Part 3, Howard Mayer Brown and Keith Polk, “Instruments: Their Groupings and Their Repertories,” pp. 134–161.

  • Winternitz, Emanuel. Musical Instruments and Their Symbolism in Western Art: Studies in Musical Iconology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

    Sixteen essays on the symbolism associated with music instruments in works of art. Ancient to modern works are considered, but many of the essays refer to the Middle Ages.

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