Meet the Hurdy Gurdy, the Hand-Cranked Medieval Instrument with 80 Moving Parts

Donovan’s “Hur­dy Gur­dy Man” may be the creepi­est song ever writ­ten about an obscure medieval instru­ment (made all the more so by its use in David Fincher’s Zodi­ac), but the Hur­dy Gur­dy did not give his record­ing its omi­nous sound. Those dron­ing notes come from an Indi­an tan­pu­ra. Yet they evoke the title instru­ment, an inge­nious musi­cal inven­tion “set up pri­mar­i­ly for the pur­pose of mak­ing drones,” Case West­ern Reserve’s Col­lege of Art and Sci­ences explains. “In the Mid­dle Ages, it was known in Latin as the organ­istrum and the sym­pho­nia, and in French as the vielle à roue (the vielle with the wheel).”

With a sound pro­duced by a “rosined wood­en wheel, turned by a crank” that set “a num­ber of strings in con­tin­u­ous dron­ing vibra­tion,” the hur­dy gur­dy can, it’s true, give off a bit of a folk hor­ror vibe. From its very ear­ly, maybe 10th or 11th cen­tu­ry ori­gins in litur­gi­cal music, hur­dy gur­dy expert Jim Kendros tells us in the video above, the instru­ment became asso­ci­at­ed with Euro­pean folk music, shrink­ing from a beast played by two peo­ple to more portable dimen­sions, about the size of a large gui­tar and resem­bling a hand-cranked vio­lin with keys for play­ing melodies on cer­tain strings.

Though it grew small­er and more maneu­ver­able, how­ev­er, the instru­ment grew no less com­pli­cat­ed. Kendros calls it “the equiv­a­lent of a medieval space­ship,” with its more than 80 mov­ing parts.

The hur­dy gur­dy, or “wheel fid­dle,” played in the TED Talk above by Car­o­line Phillips looks less like a fid­dle, or a space­ship, and more like a medieval keytar—just one of the many shapes the instru­ment could take. All of them, how­ev­er, had one impor­tant fea­ture in com­mon: the hur­dy gur­dy is “the only musi­cal instru­ment that uses a crank to turn a wheel to rub strings like the bow of a vio­lin to pro­duce music.” His­tor­i­cal­ly, it was used in medieval dance music “because of the unique­ness of the melody com­bined with the acoustic boom box” of its large body. Try not to shake your body, or to shiv­er, when Phillips plays a haunt­ing, dron­ing Basque folk song.

The Hur­dy Gur­dy spread all over Europe, from Britain to France, Spain, Italy, Ger­many, Hun­gary, and Swe­den, where stringed-instru­ment enthu­si­asts The String­dom caught up with vir­tu­oso Hur­dy Gur­dy play­er Johannes Geworkian Hell­man. He tells us how the hur­dy gur­dy and its dron­ing son­ic cousin, the bag­pipes, set off “an ear­ly folk revival” as com­posers took inspi­ra­tion from peas­ant music. The inter­est from medieval upper class­es meant bet­ter luthiers and high­er-qual­i­ty hur­dy gur­dies. Now mod­ern inter­est in the Hur­dy Gur­dy is grow­ing. While it may take two to three years to hand­craft one, “a lot of new instru­ments are get­ting made,” says Hell­man.

Should you doubt that the 1000-year old hur­dy gur­dy can still sound hip, lis­ten to Hell­man play an elec­tri­fied ver­sion in his hur­dy gurdy/accordion duo, Sym­bio, or hur­dy gurdy/dulcimer two-piece, Mai­ja & Johannes. He coax­es from the instru­ment such a range of rhythms and tim­bres that it’s easy to see why it was so immense­ly pop­u­lar for so long. Yet for all its musi­cal appeal, it is a com­plex machine, dif­fi­cult to tune and sub­ject to any num­ber of mechan­i­cal prob­lems. Not for the casu­al ama­teur, the instru­ment still requires a ded­i­cat­ed Hur­dy Gur­dy man or woman to make it sing—a much more com­mon sight than in Dono­van’s day but an exceed­ing­ly rare one com­pared to the many cen­turies of the hur­dy gur­dy’s hey­day. See more hur­dy gur­dies at the Vin­tage News.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How an 18th-Cen­tu­ry Monk Invent­ed the First Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment

Vis­it an Online Col­lec­tion of 61,761 Musi­cal Instru­ments from Across the World

Watch a Musi­cian Impro­vise on a 500-Year-Old Music Instru­ment, The Car­il­lon

New Order’s “Blue Mon­day” Played with Obso­lete 1930s Instru­ments

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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