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Psalteries Throughout The History Of Man

By Marcie Goodman

Psalteries are ancient stringed instruments made to be played with the fingers. Today, the 'bowed' psaltery is more familiar to many; this modern variation is played with a bow. The instrument went out of prominence during the Renaissance but never entirely disappeared. It's said to be the easiest of all instruments to learn, even for those without prior training or much aptitude.

People unfamiliar with this type of musical device might think the term refers to a book of psalms. There is a connection; psalms were hymns meant to be accompanied by a harp, which is another name for the psaltery. The proper term for a book of these hymns of praise is a psalter.

Many different versions of this lap harp are found in European medieval paintings, illustrations in manuscripts, and sculpture. The Renaissance saw the rise of sophisticated music and instruments like the harpsichord, and the psaltery went out of fashion.

At first, people simply stretched gut strings along a board. Later a 'soundboard' was used, which was hollow and might have holes along its length to improve the tone. Metal strings replaced the gut. Players carried them by a neck strap or played them in their laps. Larger models were placed on a table. There were many shapes, sizes, and differing numbers of strings in these folk instruments.

Today most of the ones used are played with a bow rather than with the fingers. Supposedly a novice with musical training can play actual tunes almost at once, while even those with little aptitude can 'master' the instrument in a matter of hours. Even if you consider yourself musically challenged, the makers of the psaltery say that you can play it successfully.

Bowed models are triangular in shape, with twenty or more strings. Like a piano, there are 'natural' notes and 'sharps and flats'. Even the spaces between pegs have their roles. As mysterious as this sounds to the uninitiated, it is still called the easiest of all to play. The bow action is along the side. Bows are usually sold separately.

There is a lot of history online, as well as examples of ancient and modern harps of this kind. You'll see a wide range of shape, size, and number of strings. There are models for both adults and children on today's market. Artisans hand craft them out of carefully selected wood, making one of a kind treasures, and mass marketers also offer them. For bargains, look on auction sites where you can make a bid.

Psalteries are examples of living history, testifying to mankind's long desire to make music. Prices range from under a hundred dollars for a learner's model to several hundreds, depending on the source and the quality of the instrument. It's enticing to think that the whole family can learn to play by numbers and give their music a personal touch as their 'ear' develops. For a combined history and music lesson, think about one of these harps with a long heritage.

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