Early instruments


It is a woodwind, double reed instrument. It is played in a similar way the oboe is, but it is less tiring for the player. It consisted on a long wooden tube ended in a kind of bell, with a conical bore, and built usually in one piece. It came in different sizes and it is considered the ancestor of the oboe. The shawms were played in “loud ensembles” at court together with a bombarde (a lower voice shawm), sackbut / trombones and cornetts. It was also popular in “rustic contexts”, e.g. in Spain. They were used to play ceremonial music in court and in town bands, also in religious processions, and they were longer in use in Catalonia (in Spain), e.g. to play villancicos (carols).

  • VIOL

Also known as viola da gamba due to the technique of holding it on the knees or between the legs, it is a bowed instrument with frets. One could think of a big violin or guitar, in the sense it consisted of a wooden box with a neck and strings. It is related to the violin family of today. At the time, they were played in viol consorts or chests, in which there were viols of different sizes (as it happened with other instruments at that time, before the standardization of the orchestra). The viol was considered an instrument for amateurs in the higher classes, but there were also professional players playing in courts. Due to the characteristics of its sound (distinctive, weak accents), it was good for polyphony but less suitable for dances.

  • LUTE

A plucked-string wooden instrument. The strings are usually in paired courses. It consists of a resonance box and a neck with frets. Compared to the guitar (of which it is one ancestor, if not the one), the box has an egg-like shape and it is lighter, plus the pegbox is at an evident angle (almost a right one). The tuning of the six-course lute is related to that of the guitar as well, usually in forths, but with one gap of a major third (44344 for the lute, 44434 for the guitar). At first, lutes were played with a plectrum, and thus playing a melodic line rather than chords, but then they started being played with fingertips. Tablaturas appeared for players, which were demanded virtuosos / lute players, sometimes accompanying themselves with the voice. In fact, the repertory often included songs for solo voices & lute, but also dances, and it could be played solo, as accompaniment for other instruments or to frottolas, and in ensembles.


It is a woodwind instrument with a double reed and a cap (a wind-cap instrument), and a cylindrical bore which is curved upwards next to the end. It seems there is no continuation for it in some modern instruments, probably due to its limited register and the limitations of its dynamic range. It was usually played in consorts. It has no specific repertory, but plenty of the polyphony of the time is playable with a consort of crumhorns. The sound is similar to a Turkish zurna, but with a much lower dynamic and a comical touch.


A single U-tube woodwind instrument with a conical bore and double reed. Kennedy and Kennedy refer to these as two names for the same instrument. Sadie distinguishes between the two names, saying the dulcian was a primitive one-piece bassoon, while curtal was the English word for either a dulcian or a bassoon. No more information was in either book as of the repertory or the use, so I presume it was the one for the first bassoons.


In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the instruments were played either in consorts (an homogenous combination of instruments, e.g. viols) or in broken consorts (instruments from different families were combined, e.g. viols with woodwinds).

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the combination of instruments in the broken consorts was not a random one, but instead they were paired up according to certain traditions, e.g. a monodic instrument (like bowed strings) was paired with a polyphonic string instrument, e.g. a viol with a lute. Over time, howev er, the consorts got bigger and there were some bolder combinations of instruments at times, e.g. jingle bells or bells with a clavichord.

In the 16th century, consorts were more frequent in private life / performances, while broken consorts (cornets, oboes, trombones, sometimes violins) played in public celebrations and public life in general. As for the repertory, any group of instrument could play any part of any polyphonic piece, but each part had to play “according to its nature”, which meant they would embellish the original melody according to the possibilities of the instrument and the ability / knowledge of the player. The high voices tended to be left to instruments with a continuous sound (flute, cornet), with the middle voices being played by instruments with notes that did not last that long (e.g. lutes, harps), all supported by an organ or a positive, or also a trombone or bass viol.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s