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What Is a Hurdy Gurdy? - Meaning, Music & Parts

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

A hurdy-gurdy may sound like a strange piece of clothing or a carnival ride, but it is actually a musical instrument! Find out more about this unique Renaissance instrument in this lesson.

What Is a Hurdy-Gurdy?

A hurdy-gurdy is unique musical instrument that was popular during the European Renaissance Era. Loosely related to the modern-day violin, the hurdy-gurdy has a nasally, bright sound, a buzzing timbre, and drone strings. It is played by turning a wheel with one hand and operating a keyboard with the other to change pitch.

The hurdy-gurdy.
Hurdy-gurdy.

How Does a Hurdy-Gurdy Work?

The hurdy-gurdy is also called a wheel fiddle because it uses a wheel instead of a bow to produce sound. Early hurdy-gurdies had a box-shaped body, but later models had a more pear-like shape.

Diagram showing the standard parts of a hurdy-gurdy.
Diagram of hurdy-gurdy.

Some parts of the hurdy-gurdy can be most easily understood in relation to the violin. The hurdy-gurdy wheel functions like a violin bow by rubbing against the strings from underneath. To change pitch, a miniature keyboard is attached to the neck of the hurdy-gurdy that pushes on little wedge-shaped pieces of wood called tangents.

Unlike the violin, a standard feature on the hurdy-gurdy is the addition of drone strings. These strings do not typically change pitch and are not used for playing a melody. Their main function is to produce a constant background sound while the instrument is operating, much like the way bagpipes have a constant drone sound.

Hurdy-gurdies also have a unique buzzing timbre that is created by a small piece of wood called a buzzing bridge that is loosely attached to the highest drone string, which is called the trompette. One end of the buzzing bridge is attached to the instrument, and the other end is free to vibrate against the body of the instrument, creating a characteristic buzzing sound. In modern instruments, an additional device called a tirant can be used to control the amount of buzzing.

Close-up of buzzing bridge underneath the trompette.
Photograph of buzzing bridge.

Origins of the Hurdy-Gurdy

The hurdy-gurdy evolved from Middle Eastern bowed string instruments. During the late Medieval Era, an early version of the hurdy-gurdy called an organistrum first appeared.

Carving of two men playing an organistrum.
Carved facade with organistrum.

The organistrum was larger than the hurdy-gurdy and required two people to operate it: one to turn the wheel and another to push the keys. Over time, a new type of key mechanism was invented that was much easier to operate. The instrument was made smaller so that one person could easily reach the keyboard, and, combined with the new key mechanism, the hurdy-gurdy was born.

Development and Decline

The hurdy-gurdy first appeared in the late Medieval era and gained popularity during the Renaissance, a time period from 1450 - 1600 A.D. It was during this era that the instrument evolved into a standard form. Many of the hurdy-gurdy's features have Middle Eastern roots, including the drone strings and the buzzing sound, both of which were probably brought back from the Middle East during the Crusades and through east-west trade routes.

As the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque era, popular musical tastes started to change, and the hurdy-gurdy was unable to keep up with the new preferred styles. It became associated with lower classes and peasants, but enjoyed a more wide-spread comeback of sorts during the 18th century, which helped to spread the instrument throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

In the western world today, the hurdy-gurdy is mostly viewed as a Renaissance artifact, but it still occasionally appears on the pop scene. Bands like Arcade Fire, Led Zeppelin, and Weezer have used the hurdy-gurdy, and the instrument also had a brief cameo in the popular 2004 children's film The Polar Express.

Man playing a hurdy-gurdy at a Renaissance Fair.
Photograph of man playing hurdy-gurdy

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