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Lyre: Musical Instrument Types, Classification & Uses | What is a Lyre?

Instructor: Kristy Bowen

Kristy Bowen has an M.A in English from DePaul University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago. A writer and book artist, she currently works as a content writer with an arts and culture focus. She runs an indie press, dancing girl press & studio, and has taught writing and art workshops in college and community settings.

Learn about the lyre. Identify what this music instrument is, and learn what type of music a lyre produces. Discover the difference between a lyre and harp. Updated: 09/08/2022

What is a Lyre?

Lyres are musical instruments with roots dating back to as early as the 3rd millennium among the Sumerians. The stringed instrument, however, is more often associated with the Ancient Greeks, who employed it to accompany lyric poetry, which takes its name from the instrument, as well as song, dance, and dramatic performances.

The word "lyre" describes a variety of variations on a stringed instrument, usually employing anywhere from 4-8 strings and a body created by two arms, a curved base, and a crossbar to which the strings are strung from the base. Early lyres were often made from tortoiseshell, then later with wood.

Woman holding Ancient Greek lyre

illustration of a woman holding lyre

The word itself comes from the Mycenaean word for "lyricist," after the performers who would have used a variation of the lyre instrument early on. The modern English word is a Latin variation on the Ancient Greek.

History of the Lyre

Evidence of the first lyre instruments can be found in the ancient Sumerian culture around 2500 BC., where we find the first depictions of a similar stringed instrument in art and representations. These Sumerian lyres, the Lyres of Ur, predate ones found in Egypt from around 2000 BC. The first known depiction of a lyre in western culture is carved onto a sarcophagus, the Hagia Triada, on the island of Crete.

The Greeks, who made the lyre very much a part of their practice, believed it was a creation of the messenger god Hermes. According to the myth, Hermes often posed as a trickster figure and stole a herd of cows from the god of music and livestock, Apollo. When Apollo discovered this, he was furious. Hermes reportedly sacrificed one of the cows and created an instrument strung from its entrails and a nearby tortoise shell. When Apollo came upon Hermes, he asked Hermes to trade him the instrument in lieu of the cows and they called it even. The lyre, thereafter, became one of the chief symbols of Apollo.

A variety of Ancient Greek lyre, 480-470 BC

depiction of Ancient Greek lyre

Greek lyres symbolize wisdom and moderation in addition to their connection to lyric poetry, which is poetry performed by the Greeks with the musical accompaniment of the instrument. Variations in design began to develop, with many early lyres involving only 4 strings that would be plucked with the use of a pick, or plectrum, in one hand while the other strummed the strings. Later, the Greeks employed as many as 7 or 8 strings to get more tonal variation in tone. The development of the lyre continued through the Middle Ages and into the 18th century. A European variety, the rotta, involved up to 16 strings.

Types of Lyres

Egyptian oblique lyre

Egyptian oblique lyre

Ancient Sumerian lyres were depicted as very large and played like a harp, with the base of the instrument seated on the ground. Ancient Greek lyres were smaller in size and meant to be held with two hands, one to hold the base and the other to strum the strings. The instruments were often split into two varieties; the lyra and the kithara. Lyras were often associated with amateur musical practice, while the kithara was reserved for more complicated play by professional musicians. Initially, the instrument involved the entire tortoise shell, forming a curved backplate but later was rendered flatter and open.

Greek lyre made from a full tortoise shell.

lyre made from tortoise shell

The Middle Ages version, the rotta, required even more strings, allowing variations in tone. The lyre guitar, which combines the features of both instruments, became popular in the 18th century. Development continued into the 20th century with the modern lyre, which contained more strings and variations in tone. The most current rendition of the lyre was developed in the 1920s by musician Edmund Precht, who designed, with the help of an artist, a more streamlined modern interpretation of the lyre often used in orchestral and solo performances today. Many lyres can be played either using a plectrum or a bow.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a harp and lyre?

Harps and lyres differ most in the way they are played. While harps involve the plucking of strings and a foot pedal, lyres are played by strumming, with tones dictated by hand movements along the base.

What kind of instrument is a lyre?

A lyre is a stringed instrument similar to the guitar or violin. It is considered a member of the zither family.

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