Lute: Definition & History

Instructor: Laura Armstrong

Laura is a freelance musician and has taught college Music courses and holds a D.M.A. in Music Performance.

In this lesson you will learn about the lute, one of the most important instruments of European music in the Renaissance. It is a stringed instrument and similar to the modern acoustic guitar.

Definition of the Lute

What instrument is pear-shaped, has double strings, and was played by pop stars of the Renaissance? No, it's not the guitar, it's the lute!

A lute is a stringed instrument, and was one of the most commonly played instruments of European music in the Renaissance era (1300-1600.) With its wooden and pear-shaped body, it looks like a cross between a mandolin (commonly used in Bluegrass music) and an acoustic guitar, but has a crooked neck. It is actually closely related to the oud, an essential instrument in Arabic music, both of the past and present day. Also like the oud, it has double strings or courses.

A Lute

During its early history, the lute was played with a tool called a quill, which limited the performer to playing single-line melodies and strummed chords. By the fifteenth century, performers began to use their fingertips, and this allowed the instrument to be used for more complex and interesting music. Lutenists would also read music written in tablature, a notation system similar to what guitarists use now.

The Lute in the Renaissance: Popularity

The lute was an important instrument because it could be used to perform accompaniment to songs, to create dance music, and to be featured alone in solo pieces. It was also less expensive than keyboard instruments and could be taken anywhere to perform. The sound of the instrument was also extremely appealing; it has a lighter, quieter, and more tender tone than the modern acoustic guitar.

There was a large amount of music written for the lute, and it is possible that over 25,000 works for the Renaissance lute alone have survived to this day. Most of these works are songs with the lute providing accompaniment. At this time, vocal music was more important than instrumental music, and the themes of the texts favored classical (Ancient Greek) literature. The lute was even seen to those of the Renaissance as a modern lyre, an instrument heavily used by the Ancient Greeks.

The Lute in the Baroque Era: Waning Interest

By the end of the Baroque Era (1600-1750), the lute was gradually replaced in importance by the violin family and keyboard instruments. Orchestral music was becoming popular as people became more interested in music that could be performed in larger concert halls and for larger audiences. The lute was seen as an instrument for more intimate gatherings. More and more people could now afford to purchase keyboard instruments as well, and they were easier to play. The lute is somewhat limited in its range and technical capacity. The stringed instruments of this time were louder and more versatile, and modern keyboard instruments had wider ranges and could play even more complex music.

The Lute in Contemporary Music: Revived Interest

The lute is still played by professional musicians who are Renaissance or Baroque music specialists and other musicians who are interested in preserving musical traditions of the past. Many lutenists now are former guitar players who grew to love the sound of the lute. As a historical instrument, it is fairly common, but it does not have the star power of its past.

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