What is a Rebec?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Medieval music sounded very different than what Western music sounds like. In this lesson, we'll explore a unique musical instrument from that time, the rebec, and see how it impacted medieval life.

The Rebec

Life in the Medieval era was pretty different than life now. They ate different foods, talked differently, and listened to different music. In fact, most of what we think of as traditional Western music wasn't actually developed until the end of the Italian Renaissance or later. So, what made medieval music so different? For one, they used different instruments, like the rebec. A rebec is a stringed instrument common to the Medieval era and the Renaissance. It was an important part of medieval life, giving a unique sound to a unique period in history.

The rebec in a 16th-century painting
Rebec

Physical Characteristics

Let's get a little more familiar with this instrument. The rebec was small, carved from a single block of wood into a shape sort of like a stretched-out pear. From the neck to the body stretched between one and four strings. The most common version features three strings, each tuned in increments of fifths on the musical scale. It was played sort of like a fiddle, with one hand passing a bow drawn across the strings, and the other pressing the strings against the neck at various positions to change the notes.

A rebec
Rebec

The rebec produces a unique sound, which may come off somewhat sharp and crass compared to the softer sounds of modern violins and fiddles. It is able to sustain long notes, like most bowed instruments, and does not strictly adhere to what is now the Western set of musical notes.

Origins

So where did this unique instrument come from, and why does it have such a distinct sound? The rebec may sound familiar to anybody who has experienced music of the Middle East. That's because it has its roots in Islamic traditions. Like a great number of things in medieval Europe, the rebec originated in the Middle East and made its way into Europe during the high amounts of cultural contact in the Holy Crusades.

In roughly the 10th century, there was a small stringed instrument popular in Arabian music called the rabob. Many scholars believe that the rabob entered Europe through Spain, which at the time was partly occupied with Islamic Moors from Northern Africa. The rabob first appeared in Europe around the 10th century, taking on the name of rebec and adapting to local needs. Generally, a rebec has more strings than the Arabic rabob, and is held on the shoulder rather than the thigh or lap as in Arabic traditions. Although the instrument developed a following in Spain early on, its popularity remained limited in the rest of Europe until the later medieval era between the 13th and 15th centuries. At this point, it seems to have become a commonly used instrument.

Europeans playing a rabob-like instrument
Rabob

Role in Medieval Society

When studying the history of music, we spend a lot of time talking about the courtly music of the wealthy nobility. The rebec was used in royal courts, but its real power seems to have been in its role as a popular instrument. The rebec was almost certainly favored amongst the lower classes before becoming a court instrument. It seems to have been very popular in peasant dances and events and shows up in many of the (unfortunately limited) accounts we have of peasant life. Traveling musicians of the medieval era, who performed largely for the lower classes, also used the rebec in their songs.

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