It's a traditional Swedish instrument that sounds similar to and is bowed like the violin, but with greater resonance, has 16 strings and as many as 37 wooden keys that fret the strings to make particular note. The name in Swedish, “nyckel” means key, and “harpa” doesn't particular mean harp, but is more of a general word for stringed instrument. Played for 600 years or more, it's still popular in Sweden with around 10,000 players, and many more outside the country. Its popularity waned in the early 20th century, but it became part of the folk revival in the 1960s, and has been kept alive by players such as Eric Sahlström.
Its first known depiction is in 1350 on one of the gates of Källunge church in Gotland, as well as church paintings are found in Siena in Italy, in 1408, as well as across Germany in the 16th century.
After several iterations, the modern chromatic nyckelharpa, pioneered by August Bohlin (1877–1949) in the 1920s, has 16 strings: 3 melody strings, one drone string, and 12 sympathetic vibration (or resonance) strings. The wooden keys slide under the strings, the other ends reaching up to fret a string to make particular note. The bow is short, played with the right hand, while the keys are pushed with the left. Unlike the violin, it does not rest on the chin, but around the chest with a strap, or sometimes on the lap.
The range is three octaves starting from the same low G as a violin's lowest, 4th string. Here is a video introduction:
One of the most beautiful examples is Trilltrall played by Anna Rynefors with Erik Ask-Upmark on the harp:
And to show the instrument’s range, here's German player Thomas Roth from the medieval group Geyers, playing his piece Ingredients.
And now let's hear a couple of traditional Swedish tunes played by Gabi Maas in Scotland:
Swedish player Emelie Waldken, who hear gives a rendition of tunes which are actually Celtic – Burning Pipers Hul (by the Polish band Beltaine), and two traditionals: Drowsy Maggie and Tam Lin.
The nyckelharpa isn't just a solo instrument or confined to traditional music. Here's a sample in a more contemporary group setting by the Swedish/Finnish folk rockers Hedningarna from their album Trä, which mixes modern styles with Yoik or juoiggus, a traditional Sami form of song:
Any other nyckelharpa music or images come to mind? Feel free to share other examples in songs, instrumentals, on albums, or other contexts in comments below. You can also get in touch the contact page, and also visit us on social media: Song Bar Twitter, Song Bar Facebook. Song Bar YouTube. and Song Bar Instagram. Please subscribe, follow and share.
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