Early Instruments

Wind Instruments

A number of wind instruments were developed and played across Europe during the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. One way to group them is by the way in which they produce sound: flutes, reed instruments, and instruments with cup mouthpieces. Regardless of grouping, many wind instruments were made in families, with different sizes of the same instrument to play higher and lower parts.


The most common and one of the oldest early instruments from the flute family is the recorder, a relatively simple instrument with a voicing like a whistle; in fact, the word “flute” originally referred to this instrument. Recorders have been found dating back to at least 1400 A.D., and even today many students learn recorder in school as part of music class! Families of recorders were very popular, particularly in England, France, Germany, and Italy during the Renaissance. This grouping of instruments also includes the “transverse flute,” which is more similar to the modern flute.


Most reed instruments through the Baroque era were double reeds, similar to those found on the modern bassoon or oboe (rather than the clarinet or saxophone, which are single reeds). Some of these reed instruments were played by blowing directly into the reed, such as the shawm, a loud medieval precursor to the oboe, dulcian, also called a curtal, an instrument similar to a bassoon common in the Renaissance, and the racket, a peculiar bass-range Renaissance instrument sometimes called a “sausage bassoon”. By the Baroque era, the oboe and bassoon, both with a simpler design than modern versions of the instruments, had become common as well. Others had a “cap” over the reed into which the player blows, and the reed vibrates freely. The most common of these instruments is the crumhorn (easily identified by its umbrella-handle shape and bright, buzzy sound), but cornamuses and rauschpfeifes were also played in the Renaissance, particularly in Germany. Finally, this group includes bagpipes, which combine double reeds, in the chanter, with a form of single reed, in the drones. 


Cup Mouthpieces

Modern music refers to this group of instruments as “brass instruments,” but early instruments are not so easy to classify. Some of these instruments were made from metal, including various straight, trumpet-like instruments as well as the sackbut (the name means push-pull, and the instrument resembles a trombone). Another kind of cup-mouthpiece instruments includes the cornetto and the serpent, which use finger holes like many other wind instruments, though these had fallen out of favor by the Baroque era in favor of early trumpets and other instruments.

Above: Rackets, Below: Crumhorns

Above: Recorders

Above, Left: Lute

Above, Right: Guitar

Above: Theorbo

Plucked Strings

During the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras, a huge variety of plucked string instruments was developed and played across Europe. They can be broadly divided into a few families: lutes, guitars (both of which used gut strings and frets) and instruments that featured metal strings and frets.

Lutes originated in the medieval period as adaptations of the Arabic oud, and grew in size and numbers of strings over the centuries. Instruments in the lute family were very popular and widely used in Europe through the Baroque period in the mid-1700s. They are characterized by their ovoid or egg-shaped bodies with rounded bowl-shaped backs. The tenor lute with 6 to 10 courses (pairs) of strings was the most common Renaissance plucked instrument. In the Baroque period (around 1600-1750), lutes often featured 13 to 15 string courses, and special bass-range varieties such as the theorbo and archlute had large bodies and long necks.

The earliest guitars (around 1500) were small 4-course instruments similar in size and tuning to the modern ukulele, but had gut strings and frets just like lutes. In Spain, the main plucked instrument in the 16th century was the vihuela, which had a guitar-shaped body but was tuned like the 6-course lute. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the guitar became somewhat larger and a 5th course of strings was added, lacking only the lowest E string of the modern guitar. These Baroque guitars were played all across Europe and were often highly decorated with intricate inlays of wood, mother-of-pearl, and other materials.

The family of instruments with metal strings and frets included the cittern, bandora, and orpharion. The brighter sound of the metal strings made them popular for dance music and playing in small mixed ensembles of various instruments, particularly in the Renaissance period.


Learn more about plucked strings here!