Thursday, January 3, 2013

Music Devices in the 15th Century

The 15th century was a time of historical transition, when the LateMiddle Ages passed into the early modern era. The flourishing cultural developments of the modern era mean that its music is generally seen to be distinct from that of the Middle Ages. Some of the music devices that survived into the modern era are still in use today whereas other music devices from the Middle Ages were developed and improved upon.

Music Devices in the 15th Century thumbnail
The harp was popular in the 15th century and remains so today.

  1. Stringed Musical Devices

    • Some lutes had a rounded back and distinctively angled headstock.

      Although the harp has been in use since the beginning of recorded history, the triangular harp, akin to that seen in use today, was first documented around the 8th century and was incredibly popular throughout the Middle Ages and early modern era. Another stringed music device that maintained its popularity during the 15th century was the lute. It was during this transitional century that the practice of using a quill like a plectrum to play the instrument was replaced with the practice of plucking. A number of developments of the lute during this period also contributed to the evolution of the modern guitar. A notable example is the vihuela, essentially a flat-backed lute, which was played in Spain and other southern European countries. Another stringed device popular during the 15th century was the rebec, a device that resembled and was played like a modern violin.

    Wind Musical Devices

    • The trombone differs little from a sackbut, except its more flared bell.

      As well as instruments such as the flute, trumpet and bagpipe, which are still popular today, a number of wind music devices existed in the 15th century that are now extinct or were modified over time into modern devices. The crumhorn was a curved instrument with a double reed at the mouth piece, which made a strong buzzing sound. The gemshorn, a flute-like relative of the ocarina, was made from the horn of a goat or chamois and is thought to have been immensely popular throughout the century. The sackbut was an early horn, almost identical to a modern trombone, but with a less flared bell, giving it a softer sound. The lizard, also known as a tenor cornett, was an "S"-shaped horn that went on to be extremely popular during the 16th and 17th centuries.

    • A modern tambourine, similar to the style popular during the 15th century.

      Many of the percussive music devices used in the 15th century are still in use today, albeit in modified form. The drums of the period were originally introduced to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. Nakers were small ancestors of modern kettle drums, generally slung over the shoulder, played in pairs and struck with the hands or sticks. They were made with animal skins pulled over a wooden or stone wear bowl. Side drums, similarly made from animal skin on a wooden frame, were much larger, often worn on the hip and produced a louder and deeper sound. In later periods they were commonly used for battlefield organization. Also popular during this period were the tambourine, generally considered a woman's instrument, and the tabor, a small one-handed drum often played in unison with a pipe.

    15th-Century Musicians

    • By the 15th century minstrels were often traveling musicians than court entertainers.

      The most commonly depicted 15th-century musician is the minstrel. By this period the tradition of wandering minstrels, musicians who traveled around entertaining people with tales of real or imaginary events, was firmly established. Minstrels were originally popular sources of entertainment in royal courts; however, by the 15th century they had ceased to be popular in this role. Instead, minstrels as we imagine them today, living a nomadic storytelling life, were commonplace. Although the popular image of a minstrel is of a someone playing a lute, in reality they played almost any light and portable music device, including fiddles, recorders and small percussive instruments. They were also expected to entertain in a variety of other ways, such as comedy, juggling and reciting poetry. The social significance of minstrels in England was emblazoned into law in 1469, when King Edward IV ordered all minstrels to join a guild called the Guild of Royal Minstrels. Any who refused to join were ordered to stop working as minstrels.

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