Music was vital to ancient peoples. They used music as a way to memorize stories and information. They used music to enhance all ceremonies. The also enjoyed music in festivals and dancing as we do today. Before television, recording devices, computers, and modern technology, the musician was always welcome. Social get togethers usually ended in song. Ancient classes musicians by the range of their knowledge and professionalism. Among the ancient Celts, musicians were classed and only the nobles could play the royal instruments. A bard could be an entertainer, or know the holy songs and play for ceremonies. Only years of study could produce a bard of as high a status as a king.

Instruments fall into five categories. Strings, woodwinds, horns, drums, and rattles. Almost all of these instruments were in use by 2000 BCE, probably much earlier. Most horns were made of cow, ram or bison horns before they were made of metal. Some horns were made of wood. Flutes were made of wood and reeds. Drumheads and some soundbox fronts for viols were made of skin. Strings were made of gut. At this time there was a refinement of woodworking that changed very little until the present day. Only the invention of metal affected the way in which instruments looked and sounded.


Stringed Instruments

The lyre, harp, guitar, viol, and great harp were all in use in some form or another by the time of ancient Egypt. The stringed instrument was of two sorts, a kind of harp or a kind of guitar. Bows did not come into use until much later. The harp type of instrument had a frame for the strings, some kind of tuning keys on one end of the strings, and a sound box or hollow area that would resonate when the strings were plucked. A guitar had strings connected on a long board with tuning keys at one end and a sound box attached that was also hollow, but often covered with skin like a banjo. Many instruments crossed over so that the sound box was also used as a drum.

Stringed instruments were not played in the way that they are today. We think of a harp as being strummed. Yes they were strummed and plucked, but the frame was also wrenched to create an echoing effect like reverb on an electric guitar. They were plucked with a plucking stick (plectum) but also with the fingers. Many of them sounded like balalaikas with a high, furious strumming or plucking, others were plucked once and reverberated. Here are some examples stringed instruments we found in Anieth that are identical to those found in Eurasia even today.


This small harp was attached to a skinned soundbox, played by plucking. Many of these instruments were meant to be played with many others of the same sort for a fuller sound.

khuur khuur

This guitar is very like the Mongolian khuur, that is played like a guitar, although it doesn't sound like one! It was plucked rather than bowed and sounded more like a baglama or tanbur from Turkey without the metallic sound of the strings.

khuur khuur

There were various kinds of lutes and lyres. This box harp was played by a person sitting and sounded very much like a guitar because of the large soundbox.

lyre khuur

Here is the same lyre with nine strings played only by nobles.

lyre khuur

These two could not be more different sounding. The lyre on the left sounded "tinny" but the frame could be moved a bit for reverberation on the stings that were plucked like a harp. The large lyre on the right is like the one above, but strapped, played more like a guitar, but sounded like a balalaika.


The great harp came in all shapes and sizes. This one is a large sound box with an arching neck holding the keyed strings. It had a deeper, fuller sound.


Pipes and Horns

Pipes, too, came in all shapes and sizes. Some were made from a solid block of wood, others from reeds bound together, others from pieced wood and bone and horn.

pipes pipes

One of the more popular instruments was the dual reed flute,and the single flute. This mellow sounding instrument is still popular all over the West. Some were quite small, sounding more like whistles, others were very large.

pipes pipes

The large horn, or Alpen horn is still used in places as far apart as Tibet and Switzerland. The reed pipes were also used in more formal settings but were much easier to construct that the pieced Alpen horn.

pipes pipes

Other horns were made of the horns of animals. Ram's horn trumpets were used all over the ancient world where sheep were common. Other horns (like the one on the left) were made of long horns from cattle or carved of wood. Horns and trumpets were higher pitched that most flutes and very "brassy" sounding, often with only one note.


Drums, Tambours and Shakers

Drums were more important to the ancient world than they are today. Some communicated with them in elaborate rhythms that could be understood and heard over distance. The dance drum, or hand drum was hit with the hand like a tambourine (no bells) or with a stick as they still do in Celtic lands.

drums pipes

You can see from this drumstick that it is double headed, meant to be flipped back and forth.

drums pipes

A larger drum was strung over a hollow log, played like a congo or with sticks or tomtoms, while carried on a strap.

drums cistera

Very popular among the Celts was the great drum, either mounted like this one here, or strapped and played with large tomtoms, usually when marching to war. These were used for ceremonies or religious rites. The cistera and rattles and clackers were also used for religious purposes to drive away sprits or call up the god or goddess.


Part of the education of a Prince or noble was in the use, construction and repair of instruments. Drumheads had to be tightened and tuned.


Woodworking skills were a necessary part of the life of a musician. Often these skills ran in musical families. Here is Raol a famous lyre player whose brother was known on the great harp. Their father made instruments.


Later, Raol himself had a large workshop for the maintenance and fabrication of all manner of instruments. It was necessary to bend and shape wood, shrink and treat skins, string gut and concoct all manner of glues and varnishes. (For more see woodworking in the crafts pages.)

© 2019, A.R. Stone

Background books Background page Making page Art page Calendars page Stonework