Nyckelharpa by Bernt Södergård 1981

The Swedish nyckelharpa is a very old instrument indeed. Here’s a carved representation that dates from around 1350AD. The Swedes are quite proud of it, even placing one on their 50 Kroner banknote.

Källunge church, Gotland

Källunge church, Gotland

So what’s it all about? It’s played a little bit like a violin, and it looks a little bit like a dulcimer. But it has an odd system of forming notes that is unlike any other normal instrument we would know. The strings aren’t held down on a fingerboard like the violin family, or pressed against frets like the guitar family, instead keys attached to ‘tangents’ are pressed against them.

I think it’s closest analogue is probably the hurdy-gurdy, which works like an self-bowing nyckelharpa.

It has three main strings, a drone string, plus twelve resonance strings underneath (tuned chromatically). The number of keys varies from era to era, but modern examples can arrange them in as many as five separate rows.

Despite the complexity, it’s a fun and simple instrument to play around with. The sound is slightly eerie, but remarkably emotive and affecting. Take a listen to Finnish folk band Karuna.

Nyckelharpa 1981

Nyckelharpa 1981