A Description of the Hurdy-Gurdy

First of all, lets be clear: we are not referring to the organ grinder's barrel organ, which plays whatever tunes it has been "pre-programmed" to play, like a player piano or a music-box. This point of confusion exists only in English, the only language in the world which has devoted the same name to two quite different instruments. The association, however, is obvious, since both are played with a crank.

Our hurdy-gurdy (or vielle--roue in French) is a bowed stringed musical instrument. It usually has one or two melody strings, and two or more drone strings. Hurdy-gurdies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from traditional period designs almost a thousand years old, to modern "electro-acoustic" machines which challenge many traditional musical and visual aesthetics.

To describe the hurdy-gurdy is a challenge; one might call it a sort of mechanical violin. It is strapped to the midriff of the player, who can be seated or standing. Whereas a fiddler draws a bow across a violin's strings, a hurdy-gurdy player uses the right hand to turn a crank, which is attached via a metal shaft to a wheel (usually of wood) mounted within the instrument. As the wheel turns, its edge, which is coated with rosin, rubs against the strings causing them to vibrate: a continuous circular bow. This steady bowing action, when applied to the drone strings, helps create the hurdy-gurdy's bagpipe-like sound. The player's left hand, like that of the fiddler, produces the melody. Instead of pressing strings against a finger board, however, the fingers press sliding keys which cause the melody string(s) to be shortened and therefore to increase in pitch.

Did he say DOG? 2kb Many hurdy-gurdies have a drone string which rests on a "loose-footed" bridge called a chien (in French), or "dog." Collectively called the trompette (or buzz-o-matic if you're RT), this arrangement can,when skillfully adjusted and played, create a buzzing rhythmic accompaniment unique to the hurdy-gurdy (now might be a good time to check out the sound samples).

The diagram below is based on one from Susann Palmer's book, The Hurdy-Gurdy. It shows the basic components; compare it to the photos on the other pages. Remember that there are many styles of hurdy-gurdies set up in many configurations. This image is merely a typical sample of a popular traditional 18th century-through-present French design. Below the image is a numbered list describing each item (Click on the numbers in the image to jump directly to the corresponding list entry). I use some French terminology where it's appropriate (or where I feel like it!); it's mostly personal preference...

Image map for list below. 8kb

  1. tuning peg - one for each string on the instrument. Violin-type friction pegs often require a leverage-enhancing stick, called a tourne à gauche, to ease tuning, because they are so tight.
  2. sliding nut - one per melody string (# 8); they slide, unlike those on most instruments, to facilitate tuning of the keys.
  3. keys - usually 23 on this type of hurdy-gurdy, for a chromatic, two-octave range. They are usually of hardwood, and must slide freely in their keybox (# 5) slots, since they rely on gravity to return them to their rest position after being released.
  4. tangent - each key has one per melody string. Usually of hardwood, it is an oblong peg which actually contacts the melody string, changing its length and therefore its pitch. The tangents can be rotated to fine tune each note.
  5. keybox - rests on the soundboard, with the melody strings passing through it (on some types of hurdy-gurdies, some or all of the drone strings pass through the keybox as well). The sides have slots in which the keys slide. It usually has a cover, not shown here.
  6. bass drone - or gros bourdon; the lowest pitched drone. It is not usually played together with the tenor drone (# 7), since they are often tuned to different keys.
  7. tenor drone - or petit bourdon. It is not usually played together with the bass drone, since they are often tuned to different keys.
  8. melody strings - they pass through the keybox, and are shortened in length by the keys to play, of course, the melody. They are usually tuned in unison or octaves apart.
  9. bridge for melody strings - supports the melody strings, transferring their vibration to the soundboard.
  10. bridge for low drones - supports the tenor and bass drones, transferring their vibration to the soundboard.
  11. tailpiece - anchors melody string(s); also houses the trompette adjusting peg (# 13).
  12. crank - usually "S" shaped handle, with a freely-turning knob on its end.
  13. trompette adjusting peg - mounted in the tailpiece. When utilizing the trompette, cranking speed is determined by the type and tempo of music being played. Faster cranking speeds generally require loosening of the adjusting peg; conversely, slower tunes usually require tightening of the peg. Tighter settings will cause the chien (# 16) to begin buzzing against the soundboard at slower cranking speeds.
  14. tirant - or trompette adjusting string; it links the trompette string with the trompette adjusting peg (Some hurdy-gurdies use other methods to control the trompette action which do not rely on a tirant and adjusting peg).
  15. bridge for mouche - supports the mouche (# 18), transferring its vibration to the soundboard. This bridge has a slot into which part of the chien fits, holding it in proper position.
  16. chien - or dog; the small, loose-footed bridge supporting the trompette string (# 19). It is this tiny piece of wood which buzzes against the soundboard, making all that racket.
  17. wheel - the center of attention! It is usually of wood, with rosin on its edge, which rubs against the strings. Only half of it is usually visible protruding through a slot in the soundboard. It has a cover (not shown here) to protect it from inquisitive fingers and other unfriendly elements.
  18. mouche - or alto drone; it is considered by some to be optional and is sometimes omitted altogether.
  19. trompette string - the highest pitched drone; its bridge (the chien) is free to vibrate with the string against the soundboard in response to specific cranking motion.
  20. ears - act as nuts for the drone strings on both sides of the keybox. They are not adjustable.


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