Hurdy-gurdy looks a bit like a fat violin with a very short neck. Hurdy gurdies usually have from three to six melody strings, and many also have one or two drone strings. These drone or sympathetic strings do not play the melody but vibrate as the instrument is played to create a dreamy, bagpipe-like sound. The features that really set hurdy-gurdy apart from other string instruments are the wheel and keyboard with which the instrument is played.
How it works
Hurdy-gurdy is not bent or pucked; rather, a raisin wheel is twisted under the strings with a crank coming out at the bottom of the instrument. This vibrates the strings, in the same way that a violin bow works. To produce different notes, the strings are pressed if necessary using a keyboard on the side of the neck. The keyboard usually has twenty-four keys.
Like other string instruments, the hudy-gurdy evolved from the ancient Middle Eastern rebab, a primitive bent instrument. In medieval Europe, the rebab gradually evolved into such instruments as the lute, the violin, and finally the hudy gurdy. The intermediate ancestor of hurdy-gurdy is the organ room. The organist had a guitar-shaped body and a very long neck. As a hurdy-gurdy, it was played via wheels and a keyboard. The neck of the organ drum was so long, it took two people to play, one to support the body and turn the wheel and another to hold the neck and work the keys. The Hurdy gurdy was much more practical and could play faster and more melodic music. It quickly became popular for folk music and spread throughout Europe.
Another unique feature of hurdy-gurdy is the faint bridge. Not all hurdy-gurdies have this, but The Fainting Bridge adds a buzzing sound to the drone strings. The faint bridge is a small piece of wood that sits under the drone strings. It is intentionally released from the body of the instrument at one end. This causes the drum bridge to vibrate
Regional significance and variations
Hurdy-gurdy is popular in Eastern Europe, where it is often played by street musicians and folk bands. It is especially popular in Hungary, where there is a significant hurdy-gurdy repertoire in folk music tradition. Hurdy-gurdy is also usually played in parts of France, where there are annual hurdy-gurdy festivals. Regional variations are found on hurdy-gurdies. Depending on where the instrument was made, it may have a relatively small or large wheel, a buzzing bridge and a varying number of strings.
In addition to its traditional popularity in European folk music, hurdy-gurdy has also become more ‘mainstream’ in recent decades. With the release of the British singer Donovan’s song ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ in 1968, the instrument was sold by curious musicians. Hurdy-gurdy can now sometimes be heard in rock ensembles and other popular music. There’s an annual hurdy-gurdy festival in Washington State. Hurdy-Gurdy is a very old instrument associated with European folk music. It reached the height of its popularity in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and is still used in Eastern Europe and parts of France. Even if it looks like some lye or violin, hurdy-gurdy is played with a crank and a keyboard.