From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The lyre is a stringed musical instrument well known for its use in Classical Antiquity. The recitations of the Ancient Greeks were accompanied by lyre playing.
The lyre is a member of the zither family, and was ordinarilly played by strumming with a plectrum, like a guitar, rather than being plucked, like a harp.
According to ancient Greek mythology, the young god Hermes created the lyre from a large tortoise shell (khelus) which he covered with animal hide and antelope horns. Lyres were associated with Apollonian virtues of moderation and equilibrium, contrasting the Dionysian pipes which represented ecstasy and celebration.
Locales in southern Europe, western Asia, or north Africa have been proposed as the historic birthplace of the genus. The instrument is still played in north-eastern parts of Africa.
Some of the cultures using and developing the lyre were the Aeolian and Ionian Greek colonies on the coasts of Asia (ancient Asia Minor, modern day Turkey) bordering the Lydian empire. Some mythic masters like Orpheus, Musaeus, and Thamyris were believed to have been born in Thrace, another place of extensive Greek colonization. The name kissar (kithara) given by the ancient Greeks to Egyptian box instruments reveals the apparent similarities recognized by Greeks themselves. The cultural peak of ancient Egypt, and thus the possible age of the earliest instruments of this type, predates the 5th century classic Greece. This indicates the possibility that the lyre might have existed in one of Greece's neighboring countries, either Thrace, Lydia, or Egypt, and was introduced into Greece at pre-classic times.
The frame of a lyre consists of a hollow body or sound-chest. Extending from this sound-chest are two raised arms, which are sometimes hollow, and are curved both outward and forward. They are connected near the top by a crossbar or yoke. An additional crossbar, fixed to the sound-chest, forms the bridge which transmits the vibrations of the strings. The deepest note was that farthest from the player's body; as the strings did not differ much in length, more weight may have been gained for the deeper notes by thicker strings, as in the violin and similar modern instruments, or they were tuned by having a slacker tension. The strings were of gut. They were stretched between the yoke and bridge, or to a tailpiece below the bridge. There were two ways of tuning: one was to fasten the strings to pegs which might be turned; the other was to change the place of the string upon the crossbar; probably both expedients were simultaneously employed.
A music holder used by marching bands is also called a "lyre" for its shape similar to this instrument.
Number of strings
The number of strings varied at different epochs, and possibly in different localities – four, seven and ten having been favourite numbers. They were used without a fingerboard, no Greek description or representation having ever been met with that can be construed as referring to one. Nor was a bow possible, the flat sound-board being an insuperable impediment. The plectrum, however, was in constant use. It was held in the right hand to set the upper strings in vibration; when not in use, it hung from the instrument by a ribbon. The fingers of the left hand touched the lower strings.
There is no evidence as to the stringing of the Greek lyre in the heroic age. Plutarch says that Olympus and Terpander used but three strings to accompany their recitation. As the four strings led to seven and eight by doubling the tetrachord, so the trichord is connected with the hexachord or six-stringed lyre depicted on so many archaic Greek vases. We cannot insist on the accuracy of this representation, the vase painters being little mindful of the complete expression of details; yet we may suppose their tendency would be rather to imitate than to invent a number. It was their constant practice to represent the strings as being damped by the fingers of the left hand of the player, after having been struck by the plectrum which he held in the right hand. Before Greek civilization had assumed its historic form, there was likely to have been great freedom and independence of different localities in the matter of lyre stringing, which is corroborated by the antique use of the chromatic (half-tone) and enharmonic (quarter-tone) tunings pointing to an early exuberance, and perhaps also to an Asiatic bias towards refinements of intonation.
While the lyre is no longer played in modern Greece, the term lyra lives on as the name shared by various regional types of folk fiddles (bowed lutes) found throughout the country. There are two basic styles of lyra fiddles: 1) a pear-shaped instrument with a vaulted back which is found in the Greek islands – in particular, the Dodecanese and Crete – and the northern mainland regions of Macedonia and Thrace; and 2) an instrument with a narrow rectangular cylinder body of the Pontic Greeks who trace their roots to Pontos (Pontus), the Black Sea region of northern Turkey. (The Pontic Greek lyra is also known as kemenche.) Both types of lyra typically have three strings. They are held vertically upright and bowed horizontally; if the player is seated, the instrument's base rests on the player's upper left thigh. The Cretan lyra is traditionally played in a duo with the laouto, a long-neck fretted lute that is strummed like a guitar.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.