Echos of an Empire


The term chordophones is generally used to classify musical instruments that produce sound by way of vibrating strings, that can be plucked by a plectrum, rubbed by a bow or played by hand.

Research has verified the existence of seven different instruments that can be listed under this category. From the most to the least frequently observed, those instruments were the psaltery: the kithara; string instruments rubbed with a bow; the short-necked lute; the lyre; the long-necked lute and the harp.

The psaltery refers to a category of wooden instruments consisting of many strings, that is in five different shapes which are rectangular, triangular, quadrilateral, trapezoidal and square. Between them, the most frequently used types were the rectangular and the triangular psaltery.

A visual representation of the rectangular psaltery can be seen on this ivory casket, where David is depicted on the bottom left corner, playing this chordophone.

In this miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript, four musicians who are playing (from left to right) a short-necked lute, an aulos, a pair of cymbals and a triangular psaltery are visible.

In a 14th century copy of Job’s Book by Manuel Tzycandyles, there is a miniature which shows in great detail the shape of the trapezoidal psaltery. In the image, three musicians are playing, from left to right, a rectangular psaltery, a short-necked lute and a trapezoidal psaltery.

In the 14th century manuscript known as the Alexander Romance, the scene depicting the ‘Wedding Feast of Alexander the Great and Princess Roxana’ shows four musicians, located at the centre of the miniature. The two musicians on the left are playing a long-necked lute and an aulos while the two musicians on the opposite side are playing crotales and a harp.

The main difference between the kithara and the lyre has to do with the size and the body of the instruments itself. The horseshoe-shaped lyre is smaller in size, has two hollow raised arms that are curved and connected near the top by a crossbar. Contrary to the lyre, the kithara has a rectangular shape, the body of the instrument is greater in terms of size and carries luxurious ornaments and bigger arms.