The string instrument: how it all started

As I mentioned in my first post, I am starting this blog by discussing the evolvement of the piano. Whilst researching, I could not find a reliable accessible online source that included all the information that I was looking for. Therefore, I am aiming to provide in the following posts the origin and the evolvement of the keyboard instrument, point out the basics of each instrument and their different mechanisms without analysing everything in depth. All the instruments that I will refer to have contributed in the evolvement of the piano. Some of them have also evolved as distinct instruments. I will not discuss the modern evolvement of those instruments (unless it is requested), but only point out how it all started and evolved to the modern piano.

The piano is considered to be both a string and a percussion instrument. Sound is produced from strings vibrating, thus a string instrument. It is also a percussion instrument because the strings are struck by hammers found in the inside of the piano, which are moved when the piano keys are pressed by the performer.

Going back a very long time ago, Pythagoras (c. 570-495 BC) is considered by many as the proto-musician. Even though there is a dichotomy. The Old Testament refers to Jubal as the first musician. Genesis 4:21 cites “Jubal; ipse pater canentium cithara et organo” (Jubal as the father of them that play upon the harp and the organ). Nevertheless, according to a Greek legend Pythagoras discovered the musical proportions when hearing the sound pitches that were produced by a blacksmith’s hammer.


Whether Pythagoras was the first musician or not it is not as important in regards to what he actually ‘discovered’. He is considered the father of music since after hearing the pitches produced by the blacksmith’s hammer, he then produced the monochord to show the connection of mathematics with music by studying musical intervals in regards to the ratio of the length of a string.

Pythagoras basically believed that through numbers a universal philosophy existed. He characterised music in three kinds: as ‘musica instrumentalis’, playing an instrument; ‘music humana’, the harmonious and inharmonious music of each human organism between the body and soul; and the ‘musica mundana’, music of the spheres. He believed that the essence of life and notes are based on numbers, and numbers were the key to music and to the universe. In other words, music is made of numbers and the cosmos is basically music; thus, the ‘music of the spheres’, which refers to the harmony created by the planets vibrating, like the strings, at a specific interval in the universal scale. The universe being in harmony was characterised as a lyre producing a celestial concert.


Nonetheless, the monochord, as the word implies, (μονόχορδο, monokhordon, μονό+χορδή= only-string) consisted of a single string held by two bridges at each end. Tuning pins were used to adjust the tension. By moving a bridge, the string would divide in different lengths. Therefore, when the string was plucked, depending on the length, the string would vibrate and produce different sound intervals. For instance, by stopping the string exactly halfway he produced the ratio 2:1, the octave. Then in 3:2 he developed the perfect fifth and in 4:2 the perfect four.

Organistrum 1

Many musical stringed instruments have evolved from Pythagoras’ monochord. There are many string instruments that can be related such as the organistrum (or symphony), a stringed keyed instrument from 1100, and also the predecessor of the hurdy-gurdy. By turning the wheel it caused the strings to vibrate, and by pulling the keys (not pressing them) the strings were stopped at specific intervals. Because of its size it needed to people to be performed, one to turn the wheel and one to pull the keys.

The first reference to a stringed keyboard instrument was firstly mentioned in 1356 in the account books of John II the Good of France, who referred to the chekker or an eschiquier. The final mention of the instrument was in 1552 in Le Quart livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais. There are many references to the chekker during that time, nevertheless there is nowhere an iconography identified as the chekker. There is an academic debate whether it was the clavichord, harpsichord or a similar instrument.

The Psaltery
The Psaltery

Which was the exact beginning and what followed? One cannot be definitely sure because of the lack of documented proof and musical instruments. The monochord was the beginning of understanding how the intervals worked on a string. Many similar instruments followed and evolved differently. Such as the psaltery that probably evolved from the epigonion. Both instruments were performed by plucking the strings, without using a plectrum. From a Greek Pelike, held at the British Museum, the psaltery dates back to c.320-310 BC.

Video: Psaltery          Video: Epigonion 

The Epigonion

The epigonion invented by Epigonus of Ambracia (c. 6 BC), is supposed to be the first plucked string instrument. It had 40 strings and was triangular. It may be a form of psaltery, or its predecessor. Athenaeus of Naucratis wrote in his Deipnosophists D’ 183d, 81:

“Juba mentions also the lyrophœnix and the Epigonius, which, though now it is transformed into the upright psaltery, still preserves the name of the man who was the first to use it. But Epigonius was by birth an Ambraciot, but he was subsequently made a citizen of Sicyon. And he was a man of great skill in music, so that he played the lyre with his bare hand without a plectrum”.


Hammered Dulcimer

The  hammered dulcimer (Hackbrett in German, and Salterio tedesco in Spanish) was very similar to the psaltery, however the strings were struck by hammers instead (like in the modern piano). Its origin is uncertain, but it seems to have been invented in Persia and then it was brought to Europe during the Crusades, specifically in Spain at the beginning of the 12th century. The dulcimer is basically a zither, and there are many similar versions of it, i.e the Indian santoor, and the Greek santouri. Depending on the manner the strings are struck it is capable of a range of louder and softer dynamics.                         Video: Hammered Dulcimer

All these string instruments evolved to our modern chordophones, and have played a vital role in the involvement of the mechanisms of the piano.


5 thoughts on “The string instrument: how it all started

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