What sounds like a cross between a violin and a bagpipe, works like a violin, held like a guitar, and plays like a keyboard. It's the almighty hurdy-gurdy!
Picking up groovy hurdy-gurdy skills is definitely your gateway to learning other musical instruments in the future, such as the violin or the piano in the future.
But, why these particular instruments in the future?
It's because the sounds you’ll learn to make on the hurdy-gurdy range from simple notes that sound like a violin, to tunes that sound like a bagpipe.
The way you play the keys of the hurdy-gurdy is also undoubtedly similar to playing a keyboard or piano.
How do I play the Hurdy-gurdy?
How does one go about picking up the Hurdy-gurdy? It’s quite like any new experience you face - you pick up the instrument and start trying. If you’re able to pat your head whilst simultaneously rubbing your stomach, then you’re almost there for the motions of playing the hurdy-gurdy.
First, place the hurdy-gurdy onto your lap such that the strings face upward and slightly away from you. The keys should be on the end furthest away from you, and the crank for the wooden wheel will be situated to your right.
Place your left arm across the top with your left hand resting on the top of the hurdy-gurdy and fingers poised on the keys. Once you’re set, it’s time to start playing!
But first, you need to choose the strings that will be making the sounds by turning the correct levers. Rotate the crank at a smooth pace to begin making a continuous sound. While still rotating, play a note by pressing on a key.
You’ll notice the key is connected to wedges through wooden arms, and as it presses against the vibrating strings, it results in a differently pitched sound being produced.
The wedge in-effect alters the pitch by altering the length of the vibrating string. We'll go deeper into how this mechanism works later below.
What’s also great about the hurdy-gurdy is that you are able to add a vibrato (a vibrato is rapid variation in the pitch) by pressing up and down repeatedly on the keys.
If you’ve connected the trompette string through the bridge, you'll notice that by rotating the crank, it results in a buzzing sound. Use this method to add a percussive beat to the mix.
And there you have it, that's how you create a tune on the hurdy-gurdy!
Going from Creating a Tune to Creating Music
Combining different tunes together, and you'll get a melodious song that you call your own.
The key is to start with really simple music, and the hurdy-gurdy is an easy way to start. This is because one hand turns a wheel, whilst the other plays the keys - it doesn't get easier than this!
You can begin to learn purely by listening and attempting songs through trial and error. But to join the big leagues, you’ll eventually need to learn a bit of basic music theory, most notably: Music notations.
If you’re not comfortable with reading music yet, you can use numbered music sheets that match the keys to a particular number.
Our Hurdy-gurdy model building kit comes along with 3 numbered music scores that you can get started playing immediately after building your own Hurdy-gurdy.
Notable musicians to follow
Patty Gurdy is a hurdy-gurdy player with millions of views on YouTube. She has many tutorials for her songs and would be a good teacher for you to put your hurdy-gurdy to work!
Fun Fact: Another all time favorite, also known as the Hurdy Gurdy Man, Donovan Philips Leitch is a popular Scottish singer-songwriter. But doesn't play an actual Hurdy Gurdy. His single, "Hurdy Gurdy Man" reached the Billboard Hot 100 in the US and number 4 on the UK Singles Chart.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, this link has a whole host of hurdy-gurdy artists that you can listen to and follow.
The Mechanisms of the Hurdy-gurdy
The hurdy-gurdy’s simplicity, as an instrument to pick up, masks the complexity of its more than 80 moving parts. The moving parts can be broken down into three key areas.
They are the strings, the wheel, and the keyboard.
As the hurdy-gurdy string vibrates transversely as a result of the wheel acting against the string, the string pushes against the air molecules that are immediately surrounding it.
These air molecules are bounced off onto more air molecules and more. This process transfers the sound energy from the Hurdy-gurdy instrument all the way to your ears.
There are three types of strings:
Melody strings – playing the keyboard alters the pitch of these strings.
Drone strings – This is a constant pitch accompanying the melody and results in the bagpipe-like noise.
The trompette string – a moving bridge connects one of the drone strings to the wheel. When the wheel is turned suddenly, a buzzing noise can be heard. This acts as a rhythmic percussion sound.
Medieval hurdy-gurdies have two melody strings and two drone strings. However, the more updated renaissance era hurdy-gurdies contained six strings in total, three of each.
To amplify the sound that the strings make, a hollow sound board is placed strategically next to them, making the vibrations of the strings more audible, just as you’d see in a guitar.
Turning the crank turns a wooden wheel acting on cotton surrounded strings to act as a bow on the strings. This is just like the bow used for a violin.
Disconnecting the drone strings therefore makes the instrument sound more similar to the violin and viola.
The speed of turning the wheel results in the volume produced. The higher the turn rate, the higher the volume.
There are two levels of keys, just like the white and black notes of a piano sitting at different levels. One of your hand plays the keys in the opposite way that you would normally do so on a guitar.
Hitting the keys presses small wooden wedges, called tangents, against the melody strings. This in effect shortens the string’s length and results in a higher pitch sound.
This process makes playing a hurdy-gurdy much simpler than a guitar.
A Brief History of the Hurdy-gurdy
The Hurdy-gurdy began its humble beginnings back in the 1150 AD when the two person organistrum was developed.
To play the organistrum, it required one musician to turn the crank, which in turn rotates the wheel. The other musician then had to press the keys with both hands.
This cumbersome instrument got reinvented after two centuries, and evolved into a smaller and simpler instrument, which required only one musician to play it by the 13th century.
Around the 1650s, the Hurdy-gurdy became a popular instrument across the whole of Europe.
During the 17th century, the Hurdy-gurdy entered and exited the courts during the reign of King Louis XIV. During which, famous musicians such as Vivaldi and later Mozart composed music for the hurdy-gurdy.
In 1778, further adaptations were made to the Hurdy-gurdy, which eventually became the instrument that we recognise today!
During the 1800s, the hurdy-gurdy gained vast popularity across the regions of Central France. Nostalgia for the folk tunes made by the hurdy-gurdy grew as more people move into the city. This rekindled the demand for music to be made by the Hurdy-gurdy.
In the late 19th century, other similar sounding instruments such as the accordion begin to gain popularity.
The Hurdy-gurdy retains its popularity in the central regions of France with traditional folk dances from the 1910s onwards.
Take part in French tradition by picking up this simple-to-play instrument. It is so versatile in allowing for mastery, yet it does not dissuade beginners from playing great melodies.
Try your hand out at building one yourself with our Hurdy-gurdy model kit, before playing on it.