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The lyre (Greek: , lra) is a string instrument

known for its use in Greek classical antiquity and later
periods. The lyre is similar in appearance to a small harp
but with distinct differences. The word comes via Latin


from the Greek; [1] the earliest reference to the word is

the Mycenaean Greek ru-ra-ta-e, meaning "lyrists" and
written in the Linear B script.[2] The lyres of Ur,
excavated in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), date to
2500 BC. [3] The earliest picture of a lyre with seven
strings appears in the famous sarcophagus of Hagia
Triada (a Minoan settlement in Crete). The sarcophagus
was used during the Mycenaean occupation of Crete
(1400 BC).[4][5] The recitations of the Ancient Greeks
were accompanied by lyre playing.
The lyre of classical antiquity was ordinarily played by
being strummed with a plectrum (pick), like a guitar or a
zither, rather than being plucked with the fingers as with
a harp. The fingers of the free hand silenced the
unwanted strings in the chord. However, later lyres were
played with a bow, including in Europe and parts of the
Middle East.
"Lyre" can either refer specifically to an amateur
instrument, which is a smaller version of the professional
cithara and eastern-Aegean barbiton, or "lyre" can refer
generally to all three instruments as a family.
In organology, lyres are defined as "yoke lutes", being
lutes in which the strings are attached to a yoke which
lies in the same plane as the sound-table and consists of
two arms and a cross-bar.

Greek vase with muse playing the phorminx, a

type of lyre
String instrument
HornbostelSachs 321.2
(Composite chordophone
sounded with a plectrum)

Sumer, Iraq
Related instruments

Chang (instrument)

The term is also used metaphorically to refer to the work or skill of a poet, as in Shelley's "Make me thy
lyre, even as the forest is" [6] or Byron's "I wish to tune my quivering lyre,/To deeds of fame, and notes of

1 Construction
2 Number of strings
3 Central and Northern Europe
4 Global variants
4.1 Europe

4.2 Asia
4.3 Africa
5 Classification
5.1 Other instruments called lyres
6 See also
7 References
8 Bibliography
9 External links

A classical lyre has a hollow body or sound-chest (also known as soundbox
or resonator), which, in ancient Greek tradition, was made out of turtle
shell. [8] 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, makes 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
Lyre with tortoiseshell body
instruments, or they were tuned by having a slacker tension. The strings
(rhyton, 480470 BC)
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 used simultaneously.

The Hagia Triada Mycenaean sarcophagus, 14th

century BCE, depicting the earliest lyre with
seven strings, held by a man with long robe,
third from the left.

According to ancient Greek mythology, the young god

Hermes stole a herd of sacred cows from Apollo. In order
not to be followed, he made shoes for the cows which
forced them to walk backwards. Apollo, following the
trails, could not follow where the cows were going. Along
the way, Hermes slaughtered one of the cows and offered
all but the entrails to the gods. From the entrails and a
tortoise/turtle shell, he created the Lyre. Apollo, figuring
out it was Hermes who had his cows, confronted the young
god. Apollo was furious, but after hearing the sound of the
lyre, his anger faded. Apollo offered to trade the herd of
cattle for the lyre. Hence, the creation of the lyre is
attributed to Hermes. Other sources credit it to Apollo

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 Musaeus, and Thamyris were believed to have been born in Thrace, another place of extensive
Greek colonization. The name kissar (cithara) 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.

Number of strings
The number of strings on the classical lyre varied at different epochs, and
possibly in different localitiesfour, seven and ten having been favorite
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 pick, or 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 (presumably to silence those whose notes were not
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, or series of four tones filling in the interval of a
perfect fourth, so the trichord is connected with the hexachord or sixPothos (Desire), restored as
stringed lyre depicted on many archaic Greek vases. The accuracy of this
Apollo Citharoedus during
representation cannot be insisted upon, the vase painters being little mindful
the Roman era (1st or 2nd
of the complete expression of details; yet one may suppose their tendency
century AD, based on a
would be rather to imitate than to invent a number. It was their constant
Greek work ca. 300 BC);
practice to represent the strings as being damped by the fingers of the left
the cithara strings are not
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 (halftone) and enharmonic (quarter-tone) tunings pointing to an early exuberance, and perhaps also to a bias
towards refinements of intonation.

Central and Northern Europe

Other instruments known as lyres have been fashioned and used in Europe
outside the Greco-Roman world since at least the Iron Age.[10] The remains
of a 2300 year old lyre was discovered on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2010
making it Europes oldest surviving stringed musical instrument. [10][11]
Material evidence suggests lyres became more widespread during the early
Middle Ages, and one view holds that many modern stringed instruments
are late-emerging examples of the lyre class. There is no clear evidence that
non-Greco-Roman lyres were played exclusively with plectra, and
numerous instruments regarded by some as modern lyres are played with

Pushkin lyre as a symbol of


Lyres appearing to have emerged independently of Greco-Roman

prototypes were used by the Teutonic, Gallic, Scandinavian, and Celtic
peoples over a thousand years ago. Dates of origin, which probably vary


from region to region, cannot be determined, but the oldest known

fragments of such instruments are thought to date from around the sixth
century of the Common Era. After the bow made its way into Europe from the Middle-East, around two
centuries later, it was applied to several species of those lyres that were small enough to make bowing
practical. There came to be two broad classes of bowed European yoke lyres: those with fingerboards
dividing the open space within the yoke longitudinally, and those without fingerboards. The last surviving
examples of instruments within the latter class were the Scandinavian talharpa and the Finnish jouhikko.
Different tones could be obtained from a single bowed string by pressing the fingernails of the player's left
hand against various points along the string to fret the string.
The last of the bowed yoke lyres with fingerboard was the "modern" (ca. 1485 ca. 1800) Welsh crwth. It
had several predecessors both in the British Isles and in Continental Europe. Pitch was changed on
individual strings by pressing the string firmly against the fingerboard with the fingertips. Like a violin, this
method shortened the vibrating length of the string to produce higher tones, while releasing the finger gave
the string a greater vibrating length, thereby producing a tone lower in pitch. This is the principle on which
the modern violin and guitar work.
While the dates of origin and other evolutionary details of the European bowed yoke lyres continue to be
disputed among organologists, there is general agreement that none of them were the ancestors of modern
orchestral bowed stringed instruments, as once was thought.

Global variants
Scotland: gue, cruit
England: rote, crowd
Wales: crwth
Continental Europe: Germanic or Ango-Saxon lyre (hearpe), rotte,
Norway: giga
Estonia: talharpa
Finland: jouhikko
Armenia: (knar)
Poland: lutnia
Lithuania: lyra
Latin: chorus

Israel: kinnor
Nepal: sarangi
Iraq: sammu, tanbra, zami, zinar
Arabian peninsula: tanbra
Yemen: tanbra, simsimiyya
Pakistan: barbat, ektara, tanbra
India: ektara
Bangladesh: ektara
Siberia: nares-jux
Iran: chang


Reproduction of the lyre

from the Sutton Hoo royal
burial (England), late
6th/early 7th century AD

Egypt: kissar, tanbra, simsimiyya

Sudan: kissar, tanbra
Ethiopia: begena, dita, krar
Uganda: endongo, ntongoli
Kenya: kibugander, litungu, nyatiti, obokano
Tanzania: litungu

Lyre from various times and places
are regarded by some organologists
as a branch of the zither family, a
general category that includes not
only zithers, but many different
stringed instruments, such as lutes,
guitars, kantele, and psalteries.
Others view the lyre and zither as
being two separate classes. Those
specialists maintain that the zither is
distinguished by strings spread across
all or most of its soundboard, or the
top surface of its sound chest, also
called soundbox or resonator, as
opposed to the lyre, whose strings
emanate from a more or less common
A lyrist on the Standard of Ur,
point off the soundboard, such as a
believed to date to between 2600
tailpiece. Examples of that difference
Dimensions of a lyre from
2400 BCE
include a piano (a keyed zither) and
Ancient Egypt, found in
a violin (referred to by some as a
species of fingerboard lyre). Some specialists even argue that instruments
such as the violin and guitar belong to a class apart from the lyre because
they have no yokes or uprights surmounting their resonators as "true" lyres have. This group they usually
refer to as the lute class, after the instrument of that name, and include within it the guitar, the violin, the
banjo, and similar stringed instruments with fingerboards. Those who differ with that opinion counter by
calling the lute, violin, guitar, banjo, and other such instruments "independent fingerboard lyres," as
opposed to simply "fingerboard lyres" such as the Welsh crwth, which have both fingerboards and
frameworks above their resonators.
One point on which organologists universally agree is that lyres are closely related to harps (and, in some
views, lutes). The other point of agreement is that harps are different from lyres in having strings emanating
directly up from the soundboard and residing in a plane that is near perpendicular to the soundboard, as
opposed to lyres, lutes, zithers and similar instruments, whose strings are attached to one or more points
somewhere off the soundboard (e.g.., wrest pins on a zither, tailpiece on a lyre or lute) and lie in a plane
essentially parallel to it. They also agree that neither the overall size of the instrument nor the particular
number of strings on it are essential to the classification of these instruments. For example, small Scottish
and Irish harps can be held on the lap, while some ancient Sumerian lyres appear to have been as tall as a
seated man (see Kinsky; also Sachs, History ..., under "References"). Regarding the number of strings, the
standard 88-key piano has many more strings than even the largest harp, and harps have many more strings
than lyres.

Other instruments called lyres

Over time, the name in the wider Hellenic space came to be used to label mostly bowed lutes such as the
Byzantine lyra, the Pontic lyra, the Constantinopolitan lyra, the Cretan lyra, the lira da braccio, the
Calabrian lira, the lijerica, the lyra viol, the lirone.

See also

1. (,
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
2. Palaeolexicon (, Word study tool of ancient languages
3. Michael Chanan (1994). Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to
Postmodernism. Verso. p. 170. ISBN 978-1-85984-005-4.
4. Image of Hagia Triada Sarcophagus (, University
of Arkansas
5. J.A. Sakellarakis. "Herakleion Museum. Illustrated Guide to the Museum." p.113,114. Ekdotike Athinon. Athens,
6. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to the West Wind, I, 5761.
7. Lord Byron (1807), Hours of Idleness: To His Lyre.
8. Lyre | Define Lyre at (
Retrieved on 2012-09-17.
9. For example, the Annales Cambriae (B Text).
10. BBC News - Skye cave find western Europe's 'earliest string instrument' ( (2012-03-28). Retrieved on 2012-09-17.
11. 'Europe's oldest stringed instrument' discovered on Scots island | Highlands & Islands | News | STV
News (2012-03-28). Retrieved on 2012-09-17.

Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Lyre". Encyclopdia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University
Andersson, Otto. The Bowed Harp, translated and edited by Kathleen Schlesinger (London: New
Temple Press, 1930).
Bachmann, Werner. The Origins of Bowing, trans. Norma Deane (London: Oxford University Press,
Jenkins, J. "A Short Note on African Lyres in Use Today." Iraq 31 (1969), p. 103 (+ pl. XVIII).
Kinsky, George. A History of Music in Pictures (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1937).
Sachs, Curt. The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, East and West (New York: W.W. Norton,
Sachs, Curt. The History of Musical Instruments (New York: W.W. Norton, 1940).

External links
Anglo Saxon Lyres
at Yahoo!Groups

Wikimedia Commons has

media related to Lyres.

Ensemble Krylos ( a

music group directed by scholar Annie Blis, dedicated to the recreation of ancient Greek and
Roman music, and playing instruments reconstructed on archaeological reference.
Retrieved from ""
Categories: Lyres Ancient Greek musical instruments Ancient Roman musical instruments
Early musical instruments
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