Music Teacher's Helper Blog

A Brief History of String Instruments

The following post is from guest blogger, Emily Steves:

Left hand of acoustic guitar playerSome of the most important instruments in the history of music have been stringed instruments, which range from early to modern forms of the violin and the guitar, through to contemporary experiments with amplification and electric or digital recording. Forerunners to current instruments have been found in ancient burial sites, and demonstrate a clear historical progression into the stringed instruments that we use today.

Some of the earliest stringed instruments have been identified in archaeological digs of Ancient Mesopotamian sites, which include artifacts over three thousand years old. Lyre instruments with wooden bodies, and strings used for plucking or playing with a bow represent key instruments that point towards later harps and violin type instruments; moreover, Indian instruments from 500 BC have been discovered with anything from 7 to 21 strings.

During the medieval era, the rate by which string instruments developed arguably varied from country to country – Middle Eastern rebecs represented breakthroughs in terms of shape and strings, with a half a pear shape using three strings. Early versions of the violin and fiddle, by comparison, emerged in Europe through instruments such as the gittern, a four stringed precursor to the guitar, and basic lutes. These instruments typically used catgut and other somewhat unpleasant materials for their strings, with higher end versions featuring silk.

woman playing violinString instrument design was refined during the Renaissance and into the Baroque period of musical history – violins and guitars became more stable in terms of their design changes, and were roughly similar to what we now use – the violins of the Renaissance featured intricate woodwork and stringing, while more elaborate bass instruments such as the bandora were produced alongside quill plucked citterns, and Spanish body guitars.

In the 19th century, string instruments were made more widely available through mass production, with woodwind string instruments a key part of orchestras – cellos, violas, and upright basses, for example, were now standard instruments for chamber and smaller orchestras. At the same time, the 19th century guitar became more typically associated with six string models, rather than traditional five string versions.

Major changes to string instruments in the 20th century primarily involved innovations in amplification and electronic music – electric violins were available by the 1920s, and were an important part of emerging jazz music trends in the United States. Breakthroughs in electric guitar and basses then saw major breakthroughs in pop and rock music through the middle of the 20th century. The ongoing connection of string instruments to electronic amplification added variety to classical performances, and enabled experimentation in the dynamic range of orchestras, bands, and solo performances.

emilyEmily Steves is associated with Mann’s Music , which is a UK specialist musical instrument shop based in Colchester, Essex. She is a young girl, her passion is music, she writes articles on musics and musical instruments. In her free time she loves to do research with different musical instruments.

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  1. Anthony Vanover

    The musical bow is one of the earliest stringed instruments that I know of. It originated in Africa and has been connected to cave painting dated to 13,000 BCE.

  2. Lida

    I have this instrument that looks like a banjo violin with original string very unusually will send picture

  3. Bill Golden

    can someone give me the name of the Norwegian 1 string church instrument?

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