Jul 24, 2016

Traditional Music Instruments from Around the World

Much like how different dialects in different languages have different sounds, music instruments from around the world carry distinct traces of unique cultures. In a way, listening to different music styles and instruments becomes a form of cultural immersion.  

Which is simply beautifuland different, of course. 

Map of the collective origins of music instruments covered in this post.

Because theres so much to cover, below is a list of just some traditional music instruments from around the worldalong with where they're from, how they work, what they sound like, and other fascinating facts. And brace yourselves because I'll admit... its a pretty long post.

Balalaika- Russian 

The balalaika is a mother instrument of mother Russia, branching out to include a family with various sizes and pitches—from the highest pitch (being the rarest piccolo balalaika) to the lowest (being the largest contrabass balalaika), with the prima balalaika (second highest in pitch) being the most common [1].

Balalaika Photo by: Inti-sol
Balalaikas come with fretted necks and three strings, plucked in different ways depending on the size and type of the instrument. The prima, secunda, and alto balalaikas are plucked with either fingers or picks (usually decided by the type of music), while the bass and contrabass balalaikas are plucked with leather picks [1]

Individual fingers also play an important role. 

The lefthand thumb is used to make the chords on the fretted neck, while the the (side of) the right hand index finger “sounds the notes on the lower string” [1]—especially when playing the prima balalaika. The large and human-sized balalaikas—the bass and contrabass balalaikas—would have a wooden or metal supporting pin on one of the bottom corners of the triangle shape to support it on the ground, and would commonly be strummed (since the strings are so thick) by picks made of leather shoes or boot heels [1].
Fun Fact: Many theories arose regarding the odd triangular shape of the balalaika, one of the popular ones being that the three sides and strings symbolise the Holy Trinity. But because the medieval East Slavic jokers and entertainers (called skomorokhs”) mocked the Russian state and church with music played on balalaikas, the instruments were prohibited— debunking the popular theory. However, another is given by Nikolai Gogol, historian and author of Dead Souls (an unfinished novel of 19th century Russian literature), claiming that balalaikas were peasant creations made triangular by quartering pumpkins [1].
The Balalaika’s native origins are a mystery, but many agree that the “domra,” a similar-ish looking instrument from the Caucasus region of Russia (a stretch of land between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea), is its great ancestor. Some of the early depictions of balalaikas have around two to six movable strings that were made of “catgut” (not actual cat guts, but those of other animals used to make natural cords for music instruments)—giving balalaikas a similar sound to Turkish and Central Asian music [1].

Balalaika Music Sample: 

Šargija- Bosnian and Herzegovinian 

Šargija Photo by: Nanin7
The šargija (pronounced in English as “shargiya,” and in Arabic meaning “eastern”) is a plucked string instrument with a long neck, played in the folk music of many Balkan countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina—where the instrument originated under the the Ottoman rule [2].

The šargija has a rustic and simple appearance: a curved wooden shape that is “flat at the bottom with a peak,”  and “carvings, paintings, or most often burned decoration” on the body [3]. They come in multiple shapes varying from big to small, with most of the sound holes usually found on the front of the body and one leftover on the left side [3]

Unlike the early šargijas that had four strings, modern ones would include six or seven. The instrument’s frets are usually inlaid metal decorated in a “non-western pentatonic pattern,” and its strings are plucked all together, “to accompany singing, or as a duo with a violin”—sounding much like the saz,” a Turkish string instrument [3].

Fun Fact: One of the characteristic genres of Bosnian music is called the “sevdalinka”—a type of “emotional, melancholic folk song that often describes sad subjects” from death to heartbreak. Sevdalinkas originated in the Ottoman period as “urban Bosnian music with often oriental influences”— therefore played on the Turkish Saz before the accordion took over. The other characteristic genre is “Ilahije”—possibly originating from the Arabic word “Ilah” meaning God, and also called “Anasheed” as a music genre in Arabic. As a type of religious music, “ilahije” usually include religious topics and the occasional love story, originating somewhat around the time the sevdalinka did [5].
Used in Bosnian root music, the šargija adds a distinctive sound—typically accompanied by singing and violins. In this type of music, songs range from stories about love and living well to war and homesickness—with the recent rise of technology and social media mixing in with Bosnia’s famous humour to cover new topics like Facebook’s popularity and smartphones’ daily use [4]

Bosnian root music mainly features two singers—the first begins the song with vibrato (making vibrations that change pitch) and trill (making a “shake” as in rotating between two close notes), and the second joins a bit after the first singer without adding music ornaments. The combination of the two gives the genre its distinct “detuned nature,” along with its short range of notes (minor and major second)—making it a unique quality of sound for Bosnia and Herzegovina [4]

Oud & Qanun- Middle Eastern

On its Wiki page, the oud is described as a “pear-shaped instrument and that makes sense when looking at it. Often heard in Middle Eastern music (and in some Mediterranean areas), the oud is a string instrument consisting of “eleven or twelve strings and five or six courses” [6]. Sharing the same Persian ancestor (the “Barbat” music instrument), the modern oud and the European lute have a lot in common—both becoming the great grandfather of the modern guitar.

Arabic Oud Photo by: captain.orange
Although the word oud is Arabic for a thin piece of wood similar to the shape of a straw,” [6] the reason for its name is not that simple. Many theories claim a variety of possible origins: from the “wooden pick” that players used to strum the strings, from the thin wooden layers placed at the back of the instrument, or from the unique wooden soundboard it's equipped with [6]

More origins are given by researcher Eckhard Neubauer, who shows that the name may have come from the Persian word “rūd” (meaning “strings”), while other information from archaeomusicilogist (apparently thats an actual title) Richard J. Dumbrill connects the word “rūd” with its predecessor, the Sanskrit “rudarī” (meaning “stringed instrument) [6].
Fun Fact: A similar instrument, the Turkish “kopuz” was believed to have “magical powers” [6]. Written on Göktürk (aka “Blue Turks,” a nomadic Turkic group traveling in medieval China, Mongolia, and Russia) monuments, this oud-like instrument was taken along for use in military bands—bands that were “later used by other Turkic states armies and later by Europeans” [6].
Ouds are categorised into two types: Arabic ouds (pegged together due to similar features instead of geographical proximity) and Turkish ouds. The Arabic ones usually appear bigger and thus able to make deeper sounds, while the Turkish is lighter and tuned higher—with an “unfinished sound board, lower string action, and with string courses placed closer together” [6]. The oud is a very important instrument in these regions, and is even commonly held by Iraqis that “[in oud’s] music lies the country’s soul” [6].

Turkish Qanun Photo by: Ozan Yarman
The qanun is a trapezoid-shaped string instrument—meaning “law” in Arabic and Latin (“canon”)—that might go as far back in time to Assyria. There, an older version of the qanun “might have been used in Mesopotamian royal courts and religious ceremonies” [7].

Like the oud, the qanun can be Arabic or Turkish-styled. Arabic qanuns are typically equipped with “five skin insets that support a single long bridge resting on five arching pillars,” meant to accommodate “extreme bass and treble strings” [7]. But the Turkish qanun only has four, making it a smaller version. In general the qanun’s “metallic levers or latches” are its characteristic trait, lifted off or set down to vary the pitch during the music piece [7].

Players must sit in order to play the qanun, “plucking the strings with two-tortoise-shell picks (one for each hand) or with fingernails.” The instrument’s distinctive sound comes from “ornamental sound holes” that change place depending on the type of qanun. Other technical features like how many of them are set or how they appear on the instrument changes depending on style preferences and country origins [7].

Qanun Music Sample: 

Sitar- Indian 

The sitar is a classical Indian string instrument also heard in Hindustani (northwestern Indian) music. Said to descend from the “veenaan instrument played during the Mogul Empire (1526 to mid 1800s)—the sitar gets its name from the Persian “setar (a combination word made of “seh,” meaning “three” and “tar” meaning “string”). But another theory links the name of the instrument with the Sanskrit word “Saptatantari (seven-string) veena,”  that later became “sattar” before changing into its final form, the “sitar” [8].
Sitar Photo by: Mário Pires

The sitar was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries—particularly “in the royal court of the Mughal Emipre based in Northern India—creating a unique sound through its specific design [8]. Out of a number between 18 to 21 strings, six or seven of them are played as they go over the movable “curved raised frets” and connect to tuning pegs either around or on the head of the sitar [8]

The remaining strings are sympathetic strings, coming in various lengths, that run under the frets and connect with smaller tuning pegs found on the sitar’s neck through “small holes in the fretboard” [8]. These two different types of strings complement each other when played.

To play the sitar, it must first be “balanced between the player's left foot and right knee” so that the players’ hands arent burdened with the weight of the instrument. Players would strum the sitar either with a metallic pick or with their index and middle fingers together—the third is optional (occasionally used by some players) and the thumb “stays anchored on the top of the fretboard just above the main gourd” [8].

Like the two types of strings, the sitar comes in two popular styles: the “gayaki style and the “instrumental style.” Gayaki-styled sitars are made of seasoned toon wood (with their source unknown or a “highly guarded trade secret”) and some, if any, carvings on dark varnish. Some design elements also change depending on the style—such as the number of sympathetic strings, the type of bridge, and the soundboard’s thickness [8]. However, the instrumental-styled sitars, also made of the same woods (though usually Burma teak), and come in fully decorated designs, with “floral or grape carvings and celluloid inlays with coloured (often red or brown) floral or arabesque patterns” [8].

Sitar Music Sample: 

Guzheng- Chinese

Photo by: Lien Bryan
The guzheng is a Chinese plucked string instrument with over 2500 years of historical baggage, and was huge in the Qin (221-206 BC) and Tang (618- 907 CE) dynasties. But the instrument kept changing over the years, becoming more influenced by Western music and history. Long ago made with silk strings, the guzheng’s strings are now made of steel to improve performance and sound (technically steel improves the instrument’s “volume and timbre”) [9].

The guzheng can be played in many different ways, ranging from traditional to modern. Traditionally, guzheng players create “vibrato, pitch alterations or slide” effects in their performance—using a right hand pick to strum the strings as the left hand presses them down [10]. In this style, the right hand is reserved for “melodic purposes” while the left is used only for “ornamentations,” such as tremolos (note repetition of a plucked string done by index and thumb fingers) and vibratos (pressing strings to left of the bridge to create a sound used a lot in Korean and Chinese music) [9]

Fun Fact: The guzheng can be played in an “experimental” way, adding more to its repertoire of sounds. By bowing, hammering, or plucking strings, the player can recreate sounds like “a cascading waterfall, thunder, horse’s hooves, and even the scenic countryside” [10].
To play the guzheng in a modern way though, the player uses both hands “to play a counter-melody” [10] that is based on “Western music theory” [10].

As a combo of history and culture, the guzheng is a significant music instrument, but is also considered as decoration [9]. Chinese artists have used the guzheng as a platform to display their work—ranging from poetry and calligraphy to painting and carvings [9]. It is also the great ancestor of the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum, and the Mongolian yatga (all of which will be covered below) [10].

Guzheng Music Sample: 

Gayageum & Haegeum- Korean

The gayageum is a traditional Korean string instrument, “with twelve silk strings, twelve movable bridges, and a convex upper surface,” made of wood the length of an actual person (160 cm) [11]In the History of the Three Kingdoms (called “samguk sagi” in Korean), the instrument was created during 6th century Kaya Kingdom (42 - 532 AD) and evolved since then around the later years of the Silla Dynasty (57 BC - 935 AD) [12]. But physical proof from archeological findings (in southwest of South Korea) show that the gayageum’s history goes even further back to 100 -1 BC [12].

Gayageum Photo by: Tonio Vega
Musicians play the gayageum by propping it up on their right knee, keeping one of its ends touching the floor. The right hand—more specifically, the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers of the right hand—strums the strings at the right of the bridge, while the left “pressed down or pulls the strings” (on the left of the bridge), creating sound ornamentations (like a “wide vibrato” effect) [11]. The combination makes for a “soft, delicate, and subtle” sound that is characteristic of the gayageum [12].

Fun Fact: The History of the Three Kingdoms also mentions that King Gasil (referred to as “Haji of Daegaya) created the gayageum after seeing “an old Chinese instrument” [12]. His version was the original Pungryu Gayageum—which, back then, was called “Gayago  [12].
There are three main types of gayageums: the Pungryu Gayageum, the Sanjo Gayageum, and the “Isibil Hyongeum” [12]. The Pungryu Gayageum is the original gayageum built for “slower-tempo works” [12] (since the strings are set further apart from each other), and was specifically for “court and classical ensemble music” [11]

However, the Sanjo Gayageum is a more “modern version,” built smaller for the purposes of fast-paced music (its strings are closer to each other) [12], like “folk and virtuosic music” [11]. This type of gayageum is the most popular—mainly due to the “sanjo (translating into “scattered melodies) music genre trend, involving “fast tempos and some improvisation” from the 19th century [12]

The last type is the newer “Isibil Hyongeum” (aka the twenty-one stringed gayageum), is a gayageum specifically tailored to create contemporary music, with its broader shape and additional strings—common in North Korea [12].

Haegeum Photo by: Eggmoon
Kind of like a Korean (traditional) fiddle, the haegeum is an instrument made of “gold, rock, thread, bamboo, gourd, soil, leather, and wood”—a total of eight components that earned its name “paleum (eight sounds) [14]. The haegeum is shaped as a “hollow wooden box,” connected to a “rodlike neck” [14]. Although it only has two strings, the haegeum can create sad and uplifting tunes—used in Korean court music and folk or commoners’ music (called “madangnori”) [14].

Players must sit “cross-legged” to play the haegeum, propping the instrument up on their left knee [13]. The right hand is used to control the bow, while the left is for controlling the strings. Because there are no frets, the strings are pulled “towards the neck,” to change pitch and vibrato [13].

Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly how long the haegeum has been around, but speculations link it to Mongolia. Some have tracked it back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918- 1392) through the “hanlimbyeolgok” (“unrhymed verse and songs of the royal scholars”) [13]. Another source shows that the haegeum was used for “royal ancestral rites, parades, and festivals” during the Joseon Dynasty (1392- 1897) [14].

With the passing of time, haegeum playing styles have changed to generate better sound—and they have been changing since the 1960s [14]. Back in Joseon times, players “plucked the ring as it was tuned” [14]. But now, players pull the two strings instead [14].

Gayageum Music Sample: 

Koto & Shamisen- Japanese

As the Japanese national music instrument, the Koto has been around since the 7th and 8th century coming from China. At first, all Japanese string instruments were called “koto,” but that changed as the types of instruments kept growing with the passing of time[15]

So, the “yamatogoto” (pure Japanese seven-string instrument) became “the wagon,” the “kin no koto” (the Chinese version of the yamatogoto) became simply the “kin,” and the “so no koto” became what we now refer to as the “koto.” So, basically, the modern koto was (once called) the traditional “so” [16].

Koto Photo by: Brendan Landis
Roughly as long as a tall person (180cm), the koto has thirteen strings—that are plucked with picks only by the first three fingers (thumb, index and middle) of the right hand—and bridges, which are moved around before the beginning of the performance to change pitch [15 & 16]. After the 16th century, the left hand was used to change the pitch by pressing strings down left of the bridges [16]. It’s usually propped up on a stand or a “bridge-storage box,” so the koto doesn’t actually touch the floor as the player plays either kneeling or seated [16].

Based on the “gakuso,” an older koto of sorts that was used in court, the koto became a characteristic choice for the wealthy and romantic. The instrument was even mentioned in Japanese literature as one of “imagery and other extra music significance” [15]

When western music came into Japan during the mid 19th century (Meiji period), the koto started to slowly lose its popularity. What ultimately brought it back was the efforts and compositions of blind composer and performer, Michio Miyagi, who included both western and traditional styles in his music—saving the koto from total negligence [15].

Shamisen Photo by: Timothy Takemoto
The shamisen, a “long-necked fretless Japanese lute,” is quite popular in folk music and puppet plays—often heard (among other instruments) in Bunraku (puppet) and Kabuki plays [17]. Like the Indian sitar, the Japanese shamisen is a combo word directly translating into “three strings”—as it does actually have three (silk) strings [17]The shamisen is also a descendant of the Chinese Sanxian (Chinese three-stringed lute), which made its debut in 16th century Okinawa (at that time called “Ryukyu Kingdom”). There, it evolved into the “sanshin”—the beginning of what then became the shamisen [18].

These three strings are somewhat elevated at the bridge (so they don't touch the body), with the bottom string placed even lower near the “nut of the instrument,” creating a buzzing sound that is (also) very much like the Indian sitar [18]. Shamisens are built in different ways depending on the type of music they’re meant to be playing, as well as the accumulated skills of the player doing the playing [18].

Generally, the shamisen consists of: cat skin stretched across its “small square body,” three silk strings, and a “curved-back pegbox with side pegs” [17]. However, cat skin is reserved for professional players (it apparently sounds better), so those learning how to play are often using dog skin instead (it’s cheaper and tougher to break) [17]. And although silk is the standard type of string, it’s not used by those still learning because a) it’s expensive and b) it breaks too easily [18].
Fun Fact: The Gidayū shamisen (after Takemoto Gidayū, a narrative music chanter who created the bunraku narrative chanting style around mid 17th century) requires its player to memorise the whole play so they could “respond effectively to the interpretations of the text by the singer-narrator”—whose role (speaking character lines and singing action commentary) is so hard and “vocally taxing” that performers switch the job in the middle of the play [18].
Now, onto the slightly tough part.

The shamisen is typically played by a variety of picks, depending on the genre [17]. The Nagauta (translating into “long song”) genre is used for kabuki plays [18]. The jiuta genre (translating into “local song”) is also referred to as “song of monk” because it was sung by a group of blind men [18]Min’yo is another genre, translating into “folk song” that hung around from the 20th century [18]Kouta (meaning “small song”) are the type of shamisen songs geishas learn, while hauta is a genre for popular Edo music [18]Jiuta (translating into “earthen music”) is considered to be the “classical style of shamisen music” [18].

So, there are three basic sizes: hosozao (“thin neck”), chuzao (“middle neck”), and futozao (“fat neck”). Hosozao shamisens are the ones used in kabuki plays and geisha music (that they played on using their fingernails), described as “the smallest kind with a particularly thin neck” [18]. The Chuzao type is a bit bigger with a thicker neck than Hosozao shamisens, described as an “all-around instrument” for any genre [18]. The last type, futozao, is mainly used for folk songs and puppet plays since its particular neck design is specifically tailored for these types of songs [18].

Shamisen Music Sample: 

Yatga & Morin Khuur- Mongolian 

Like the Guzheng, the yatga is a wooden-boxed string instrument with one of its sides dipping down so that it touches the floor (or is supported by a stand), and the other on the player’s knees when played. By using their right hand fingernails to pluck the strings and their left hand for putting pressure on them, players are able to vary notes—though playing style depends heavily on the player’s preferences [19].

Yatga Photo by: Shadowmaster2503

Master Yatgas (aka contemporary versions) have around twenty-one strings, while the “Hand Yatga” (the “Gariin Yatga”) has thirteen. Historically, the number of strings mattered—indicating social class. Twelve strings (on a Hand Yatga) were for “royal court symbolic reasons,” reserved exclusively “for the court and monasteries” and had “symbolised the twelve levels of the palace hierarchy” [19]. The ten strings though were specifically for commoners to play on. Nowadays though, the Yatga is mainly for concerts or interludes[19].

Regardless, the instrument must be placed in a way so that “the higher strings are on the right and front side--and that all strings would be plucked on the right side of the bridges, since the left is reserved for varying notes and pitches [19]. Like some of the previously mentioned instruments, the yang also has movable bridges--but is equipped with hidden mechanics for tuning the instrument on its right side [19].

Loosely translated as “fiddle with a horse’s head” in Classical Mongolian, the Morin Khuur is a major symbol of Mongolian heritage, with different names in different regions—the west call it “ikil and the east refer to it as “shoor” [20].

Just as they have different names, they also have different shapes. Central Mongolian Morin Khuurs have bigger shapes, with higher volume, than those in Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region north of China). Even the position of strings change depending on regions. On the modern Morin Khuur, “the deep string is placed at the right side and the high string is placed at the left side, seen from the front of the instrument” [20]. But on the western “ikil,” strings are flipped [20].

Now, the Morin Khuur is pretty uniquely designed: It has a neatly carved horse head on top, strongly connected to the Mongolian culture that can even “be used to imitate the sound of a herd of horses” [21]. As a trapezoid-shaped “bowed string instrument,” the Morin Khuur has two strings, usually placed “between the musician’s legs” [20]

Morin Khuur Photo by: Bill Taroli
The “bowing technique”—where the last two fingers on the right hand are on the bow hair while the other two (index and middle) apply “pressure on strings” is also uniquely practiced. [20]. Since Mongolians aim to produce a “clear sound,” if the bow changes its direction, then the right hand changes along to prevent “scratchy sounds”—making for a better sound experience [20].

Mongolia grew as a “horse riding nomadic civilisation,” [20] so it’s safe to say they’re all about horses (among other things, of course). Because of that, they were likely to have created and designed their own musical instruments—including the Morin Khuur, which has plenty of interesting origin stories [20].

One of these stories starts out with a shepherd, Namjil the Cuckoo, who had a flying horse he used to fly on for night trysts to see his significant other. But another woman got so jealous that she chopped off the horse’s wings, causing it to fall out of the sky and die. The shepherd felt terrible and decided to make the Morin Khuur from the horse’s body (technically his tail hair and skin) so he could play sad songs about the horse [20]. Another story says that the Morin Khuur was invented by Sükhe, a boy who owned a beautiful white horse. When a lord killed Sükhes horse, the horse’s ghost instructed Sükhe to make a Morin Khuur out of its body in a dream. That way, they would “still be together and neither would be lonely” [20].
Fun Fact: The Morin Khuur also has another interesting use among Gobi farmers. They would use the instrument to create “khoosloh, defined as “special low harmonic types of songs to heal mother camels stress” after giving birth to a calf since the stress causes it to reject the calf. The melody is meant to encourage the mother camel to re-adopt its calf—or in situations where the mother camel died in childbirth, the melody is meant to encourage other mother camels (of their own calfs) to adopt the now-orphan calf [20].
Since the instrument is so important, many festivals celebrate itsuch as the Biannual International Morin Hour Festival and Competition, where Korea, China, Russia, America, Germany, France, and Japan participate [20]. Essentially, traditional Morin Khuur pieces are categorised into three types: Urtiin Duu” (meaning “long song”), Magtaal (meaning “praise song”), and Tatlaga (solo pieces usually mimicking horse or camel sounds. Magtaals are sung to praise the best horse, wrestler, and archer—and are a unique feature event during the national festival, “Naadam.” And “Tatlaga dancing” might be done by some Western Mongolians, which is kind of like a waltz except that the dancing steps are designed to look like the “daily tasks of a nomad’s family” [20].

Morin Khuur Music Sample: 

(Here's another link to another sample that I just couldn't resist sharing, though this one has a piano accompaniment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1wmAa0_YTA)

Lur- Scandinavian 

Curved (Bronze) Lur Photo by: Anagoria
The lur is a wind instrument with a simple “long natural blowing horn without finger holes” [22]. They come either curved or straight—though the curves were meant as a convenience for carrying the instrument, as well as a way to avoid defeating people standing close by[22]

Lurs can also be either wooden, dating as far back as the Middle Ages, or bronze—going even further into the Bronze Age. Found in some wetlands (areas with high saturation of water, supporting marine plants) of northern Germany, Denmark, Norway, and south Sweden, lurs can be anywhere from 1.5 to 2 meters long. Lurs have been around for so long that they were even spotted in some Scandinavian rock paintings [22].
Fun Fact: The term “lur is still used today to mean “any funnel-shaped implement for producing or receiving sound” [22]. For example, the Swedish word for headphones, “hörlurar, can be translated into hearing lurs, and the word for telephone handset is telefonlur” [22]. The Norwegian word tåkelur and the Swedish word mistlur both meaning “foghorn coming from this very multipurpose sound instrument [22].
Straight (Birch) Lur Photo by: User:Thuen
First mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas (Icelandic historical literature covering events from the 9th to the 11th century) as a war sound instrument, the lur was used to “martial troops and frighten the enemy” [22]—kind of like an ancient whistle of sorts. A one-meter long straight wooden lur was even found on longboats (big boats launched out of sailing ships) [22].

This multipurpose instrument was used in farms as well as battlefields, with Nordic farmers playing the straight wooden version to manage livestock during the Middle Ages [22]. The difference is that farm lurs are covered in birch wood while the war one in willow [22].

Langspil & Fiðla- Icelandic

Langspil Photo by: Neitram
The langspil is one of the most distinctive Icelandic music instruments. Made with one melody string and a number between one to five (usually two) drone strings, the langspil is a prominent sound in Icelandic folk music [23]This instrument, made from various woods (though most commonly driftwood) can either be curved or straight (in appearance), varying lengths from 104cm to 73cm [23]  With a fretboard on one side, the langspil is played “either by using a bow over the strings or striking them with a stick” [24].

As a somewhat rare instrument, it had fallen out of popularity until its resurrection in the 1960s, with the oldest records being from the 18th century. Thanks to the musicians of that era, the langspil remains as a cultural sound of Icelandstill used as an instrument in bands today [23].

Fiðla Photo by: Michael King
Like the langspil, the fiðla—aka the “Icelandic Fiddle”—is a string instrument, made in the shape of a wooden box with two strings. But unlike the langspil, the fiðla (pronounced “fithla) doesn’t have a fretboard as the two strings “are stretched high above the instrument’s body” and pass the bridge where they are tied to two pegs at the opposite side [24]

Ironically different from the actual fiddle, the fiðla is played by using a bow, and instead of pressing the strings down as if on a fretboard to create different pitches, players would “move their fingers or the backs of their fingers along the strings” [24].

Although the Icelandic fiddle is a rare survivor that faced extinction in the early 19th century, it still remains available for those interested at the National Museum of Iceland [24].

Langspil Music Sample: 

Tautirut- Canadian Inuit 

The tautirut, aka the “Eskimo Fiddle” is a boxed string instrument—with three sinew strings and a willow root bow [26]—that possibly originated before Columbus’ arrival [25]. The word “tautirut” comes from an Inuit word meaning “bowed harp or boxed zither” (zither being a string instrument). The instrument itself was played in the areas North of Quebec and South of Baffin Island, Canada [26].

"Eskimo Violin" by Lucien M. Turner from "Ethnology of the Ungava District, Hudson Bay Territory," published 1894.  

The tautirut bears some resemblance to the Icelandic fiðla in appearance, but is played differently. Unlike the Fiðla, the tautirut has only one bridge, forcing the player to strum the strings as “they come off the soundboard, and not into the air as on the Icelandic Fiðla” [26].
Fun Fact: The Inuit culture has unique vocal games in which two (usually female) players face off one another and begin a series of vocal articulations and rhythmic sounds in a complementary manner (where once voice reaches a strong accent while the other a weak one)—often mimicking wildlife sounds until one of the players stumbles on the sounds, runs out of breath, or laughs [27].
As a part of the Inuit culture, the tautirut comes from a region where the meaning of music is unlike that of what most people are used to. Music, to the Inuit, had a stronger spiritual significance—whereas what most people commonly refer to as “music” was called “nipi among the Inuit, a term for referring to “music, sound of speech, and noise” [27]. Instead of professing love songs (like in most other cultures), the Inuit used music as lullabies or in hopes of calling forth good luck in upcoming hunts or gambles [27].



*Note: Most of the sources are from wikipedia, and though I really wanted to diversify, there was just not enough information on other sites—or it wasn’t as interesting or varied. But a more likely reason is that I simply didn’t have the time to scour the ends of the Internet for various sources. It’s still a comprehensive list, though—that’s something... 

*Disclaimer: All the credits of every video linked in this post goes to the owners and creators of the videos—basically, I don't own any of them.