The musical instruments played in the middle ages were unusual, varied, and used in a multitude of contexts. The idea of what was standard didn’t really exist, but there were classes of instruments such as keyboards, winds (which were blown), plucked (like a harp), bowed (like a violin), or percussion (like a drum). Instruments were also grouped by volume… as in “loud” or “soft.”
The music that was performed was either vocal, dance, or anything in between.
Pipe and Tabor
One instrument that was both wind and percussion was the pipe and tabor, which has been around since at least the Middle Ages though hasn’t changed much in the ensuing centuries. Imagine the way a pipe and tabor is played: the performer often holds one end of a recorder-like instrument with his left hand while blowing into the other end. Around his left wrist is a leather strap from which hangs a small drum about the size of a tambourine. With his right hand, he beats the drum in time with the music. Sometimes beats with the music in a straightforward way, and, in others, he gets kind of funky.
Slightly pear-shaped and resembling a violin, the medieval vielle was on the shoulder and resting on the legs like a small viola da gamba. It was a very expressive instrument used in accompanying the voice or even performing arrangements of vocal music. One of its ideal partners was the harp, another instrument widely played medieval Europe.
The vielle was played in all parts of society… from peasants to the nobility. It was played at home, at court, as well as dances and parties.
The organetto of the 14th and 15th centuries was no different than the organ except that it was smaller… much smaller. It was portable and was carried by a strap over the shoulder. It could sit quite easily on a table top or on one’s lap. The right hand pressed the keys while the left pumped the bellows. The organetto was heard alone or with other instruments such as percussion.
Today, the recorder is associated with schoolchildren all over the world who are introduced to the fundamentals of music by playing melodies on it. Yet, the recorder has been around since the 13th Century when it was used to play vocal and dance music of all varieties (its use as teaching tool came much, much later). Professional musicians normally had a main instrument and played the recorder on the side (sometimes in a consort).
Here’s a video of the duo Per Far Lieto performing the anonymous song “Per non far lieto”: