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Instrument Biography: The Psaltery

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

The psaltery is a plucked stringed instrument with open (unfretted) metal strings stretched over a flat soundboard and plucked with a quill or the fingers. It’s frequently mentioned in the Bible (Old and New Testaments), and seems to have spread north to Europe from the Middle East. Like the harp and the lute, it’s a chordophone. There are some nice images of psalteries on on the wikipedia page. (The bowed psalteries in the steep isosceles triangle shape that you see in a more general search are a 20 th century invention, and although the sound is somewhat similar, the scales and method of playing have nothing in common with the more ancient, and now rare, psaltery.) Most are somewhat trapezoidal, and some, like mine, are “hog-nosed,” meaning that they have a gentle curve between the sides and the top. The shape varies, but a hog-nosed-shaped trapezoid with incurved sides is most common. You can see an example of this in my blog The History of Music Notation. There’s also a triangular-shaped psaltery, sometimes called the rote or rotta, that is essentially the same instrument. I didn’t find any information on reasons for this difference, but it was probably something like national or ethnic preferences. As far as I could figure out, the psaltery’s tuning was diatonic (Do-Re-Mi) once those scales were invented, but before that, it must have reflected Jewish modes (see Musical Modes, Part 3A (Non-European: Israel) for more on this) and the later Greek and Church modes (see Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on the church modes). Imported to Europe during the Crusades, the psaltery was very popular during the Middle Ages as a solo instrument, as part of an ensemble, and as accompaniment to singing—pretty much anytime there was music. By the 15 th century, though, the harpsichord and virginals gradually pushed it aside. In the 16 th century, plucked instruments like the psaltery and the lute (see Instrument Biography: The Lute for more on this instrument) were integral to the musical scene, whether at court or domestically in Spain and Italy. They were used for recreation or entertainment, or as a pedagogical or compositional tool. This was a departure from traditional musical activity, as instrumentalists became transcribers for vocal polyphony. Playing a stringed instrument soon became a symbol for cultural and social accomplishment. The psaltery appears to have been invented in Southwest Asia in the 9 th century BCE. Early biblical images show King David (c1040–970 BCE) holding one (also a harp or a lyre), so we know that it made its way to the Middle East. It’s entirely possible that the psaltery came west with other instruments, like the lute. The psaltery is often mentioned by Catholic church founders, and it appears in psalms and songs. It first appeared and was called a psaltery in Europe in the 12 th century CE. (See more on the name, below.) Clement of Alexandria (c150-c220 CE) limited instruments for worship to the harp and lyre because he worried about pagan influences. He forbade psalteries, along with trumpets, timbrels (an ancient tambourine), and aulos (a flute, sometimes with two tubes for playing), as they were used by those “expert in war” and he worried that the sound might over-excite the dejected minds of pagans. Eusebios (c260-c340 CE), who was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and author of “Ecclesiastical History” (the most important church history of ancient times), disapproved of the use of instruments of any kind, including the harp. He said that the body of living souls singing God’s praises made up a living psaltery, implying that any other form of instrument was unnecessary. Basil (c330-379) defended the psaltery as symbol of the body of Christ and claimed that the 10 strings represented the ten commandments. St. Augustine (354-430 CE) saw the instruments of the psaltery and the timbrel as symbolic. The skin or leather is stretched on one and the gut strings are stretched on the other, both symbolic of crucification, according to him. We don’t hear much about the psaltery for quite a few years, so presumably, it was maintained by secular musicians, who were often illiterate and left little or no documentation of such things. Odo (see Composer Biography: Odo of Cluny (c878-942)) mentioned that he was fond of the instrument in the 10 th century, and documents about jongleurs in France in the 11 th century say that they were expected to play an instrument—a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or perhaps a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery, or a small organ. The 10 strings probably caused the misunderstanding by the Cistercian reform in the early 12 th century that the modes should only have 10 notes in them. Psalm 150 says, “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet; praise him with the psaltery and harp,” after all (King James Version, Psalm 150:3). The Cistercians were a more severe order of Benedictines founded and spread by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153, France. For a little about him in context of Hildegard von Bingen, see Composer Biography: Hildegard (1098-1179). Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the Irish played the harp and psaltery, and also mentions the rote. It was also common in England. Guiraut de Calanson mentions a rotta with 17 strings in his 13 th century book on French jongleurs. He tells us that the lyre-shaped psaltery was preferred in Germany and England, and the triangular type in Spain. His contemporary, the trouvère Henri d’Andeli, describes the music in his retinue as including bells, rebecs (sort of like a violin, but played on the forearm instead of under the chin), and viols, psalteries, and small flutes, along with singing. Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400) mentions the psaltery in “Canterbury Tales.” In the 14 th -16 th centuries, instruments were classified for their ability to be loud, called haut (French for “high”) and bas (French for “low”) for their volume, not their pitches. The most common low instruments were harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, transverse flutes, and recorders. Among the high instruments were shawms, cornets, and trumpets. Percussion instruments, including kettle drums, small bells, and cymbals, were common in ensembles of all kinds. Because of its quiet bas nature, the psaltery didn’t really survive the late middle ages because it didn’t develop tuning engineering and so couldn’t adapt to more complex scales in addition to not being loud enough to contribute to concert-hall music. It was pretty much gone from the music scene by the 16 th century.


Usually trapezoidal, psalteries were occasionally triangular or rectangular, like a zither. The Moors refined it and called it a qanun. Their version was trapezoidal, or hog- nosed (like mine that you saw in The History of Music Notation). Early psalteries were plucked with a quill or a plectrum, and later versions were plucked or strummed with the fingers. Strings were gut until the Middle Ages, when steel strings came into vogue in some countries. The psaltery is played by silencing strings through touching them with the non-plucking hand in order to strum the remaining notes in a chord. Most of the time, the strings are left open.

Origins of the Name

The English name probably comes from the Ancient Greek psaltērion, which meant to touch sharply, to pluck, pull, or twitch. As I mentioned before, it’s sometimes referred to as a rotta or a rote, but I didn’t find any information on that name. The Arabic name is qânûn, from which we get the word canon in French, canale in Latin, kanon in German, caño in Spanish. A smaller type was known as a micanon, medium canale (which became medicinale), metzkanon, or medio caño. The dulcimer is a descendant, if you think of it as combined with the monochord (a single-string instrument used to find a drone and against which other note’s distance could be measured. Odo of Cluny, who named the intervals A-B-C, was fond of this instrument). The most obvious difference is that the monochord and the dulcimer can change notes along the length of the strings by pressing them, and the psaltery’s strings are played as they’re tuned. There is no way to change keys or sharpen or flatten a note while playing.

Famous Composers

The only mention of anyone composing specifically for the psaltery that I encountered was Guillaume Machaut (see Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377)). It’s probable that the convention of not taking credit for writing music prior to the high Middle Ages prevented people from declaring ownership of their works.


“Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint) “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979. “A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010 “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943 “A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabether Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981