Friday, June 6, 2014

The Bowed Psaltery Makes Musical Magic

By Sally Delacruz

The family tree of stringed musical instruments reaches far into the past. The orchestral instrumentation everyone recognizes today did not emerge fully fledged in the 18th century, but developed over time and across cultures. Their earliest ancestors were often plucked or hammered, and the adoption of the horsehair bow expanded those capabilities. The bowed psaltery is a relative newcomer, and produces its own unique, ethereal sound.

Hearing one reminds many people of an ancient harp, with a touch of the violin and dulcimer. Although the word is found in the Bible, the instrument being described was named by medieval scholars most familiar with the music of their own day. While the psaltery did have ancient origins in the Middle East, it is considered a part of the modern chordophone family.

That group includes any musical device using a resonator in combination with strings. Modern chordophonic instrumentation is inseparable from composition, and is integral to all symphonic music. They are not limited to acoustic performances, and may be amplified like modern guitars. All have the ability to play chromatic scales. Older models lacked that important feature, and over time their popularity faded.

They did not disappear altogether, but evolved into different forms. Their musical DNA can be found in hammered dulcimers and other progeny, including harpsichords with keyboards and plucked strings, later to become the modern piano. Although adding a keyboard produced obvious advantages of expression, people today still find the simple, original tones appealing.

The current shapes, sizes, and playing techniques emerged fairly recently. Popular history places the birth of the modern version in Germany over a century ago, but the true beginnings probably have no specific date. The addition of a horsehair bow separates ancient instruments from modern, and their design makes playing one comparatively uncomplicated. The sounds are medieval, but the mechanisms are modern.

Twenty-first century versions are shaped a little like a science-fiction space cruiser, in the form of a long, narrow isosceles triangle. They are available in soprano and alto formats, and both are less than 24 inches long. The soprano version has a higher and brighter tonality, while the alto is somewhat darker, with a chromatic capability that extends the lower range. Both are portable and personal.

Playing a violin can be difficult because good technique usually takes years of practice, but not a psaltery. It possesses two distinct sides, with spaced string pegs representing the black keys of a piano on the left, with corresponding white key spaces on the right side. Written music does not necessarily have to use standard notation, but can simply designate bow spaces.

The artists moves a short horsehair bow across the strings between the tuned pegs, and the correct note is sounded. The instrument is played from the side, not from a high point in the middle of the strings. There is no right or wrong way to hold it, and beginners will be delighted with the wonderful sounds they can make with a little practice. Today, there is a growing library of music available on line, both in written and live forms.

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