Sunday, February 9, 2014

Psalteries Bring Music Within Reach Of Everyone

By Marcie Goodman

The ancient stringed instruments called psalteries were a form of harp originally plucked with the fingers. Although today most models are played with a bow, we can see the original type in art from ancient times. The Renaissance saw the rise of many more complicated instruments, but the psaltery never disappeared altogether from the musical scene. It's supposed to be the easiest of all devices to play, even for someone totally untrained in music.

People unfamiliar with this type of musical device might think the term refers to a book of psalms. There is a connection; psalms were hymns meant to be accompanied by a harp, which is another name for the psaltery. The proper term for a book of these hymns of praise is a psalter.

The psaltery was immortalized in many medieval paintings, manuscript illustrations, and sculptures. References to the instruments are found in religious literature from the third century BC. The Renaissance saw the rise of other types of music and the development of instruments with a wider range, like the harpsichord.

At first, gut strings were stretched along a board and plucked with the fingers. Musicians wore them suspended from a neck strap or played them in their laps while seated. Later the soundboard was invented, which is basically a hollow box with or without holes for better tone. If the instrument was too large to be portable, it was laid on a table for performances. Metal strings replaced gut ones at about the same time as the soundboard was invented.

Today most of the ones used are played with a bow rather than with the fingers. Supposedly a novice with musical training can play actual tunes almost at once, while even those with little aptitude can 'master' the instrument in a matter of hours. Even if you consider yourself musically challenged, the makers of the psaltery say that you can play it successfully.

Bowed models are triangular in shape, with twenty or more strings. Like a piano, there are 'natural' notes and 'sharps and flats'. Even the spaces between pegs have their roles. As mysterious as this sounds to the uninitiated, it is still called the easiest of all to play. The bow action is along the side. Bows are usually sold separately.

There is a lot of history online, as well as examples of ancient and modern harps of this kind. You'll see a wide range of shape, size, and number of strings. There are models for both adults and children on today's market. Artisans hand craft them out of carefully selected wood, making one of a kind treasures, and mass marketers also offer them. For bargains, look on auction sites where you can make a bid.

Psalteries are neat, both as living history and as ways for everyone to enjoy making music. Costs range from less than a hundred dollars to many hundreds, depending on the source, the materials used, and the purpose. Novices literally can learn by numbers until their 'ear' gets attuned. Obviously every family needs one of these instruments with a long heritage.

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