Humans have been playing musical instruments for thousands of years. The first ones were simply played by striking. They were followed by chordophones, instruments that created sound through the vibration of strings. Harps and lyres appeared about 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt and Sumaria. The harp is still found in most of the world, while the lyre is largely confined to Africa.
The lyre is a four-sided instrument with a soundbox, two arms and a crossbar. The strings are fastened to the front of the soundbox and run over a bridge to the crossbar.
The tallharpa is a folk lyre from the Baltic region of Europe. It's made of wood and played across the lap, and only has three or four strings. Lyres from the Sudan and Uganda are decorated with beads and feathers and are played during religious festivals and rites of magical healing. The Sudanese four-stringed lyre is called a kissar.
A harp is a plucked stringed instrument where the strings stretch at an angle from the soundbox to the instrument's neck. A Chadian harp might have a large resonator, four strings and several wood holes. A four-stringed harp from ancient Egypt has a wood resonator and a curved arm.
A tambura is a classical drone lute from India. It has four strings but no frets to adjust the pitch. Instead, the pitch is adjusted by moving an ivory bridge up the neck.
The tambur and the tar from Iran also have four strings, and movable frets.
The Chinese p'i p'a also has frets on the belly of the instrument, four silk strings and tuning pegs.
Ukuleles and Banjos
The ukulele is a small guitar from Hawaii. It's descended from a Portuguese stringed instrument and also had origins in the long-necked lutes brought to America by African slaves. The ukulele has an all-wood belly and four strings made of catgut. A banjolele is a hybrid of a banjo and a ukulele. It's also round, with four strings.
Banjos that are plucked with plectrums have four strings. Banjos that are played with fingers have four strings and a "thumb string" to play the melody.
Violins, Violas, Cellos, Double Bass
A classical violin also has four strings, which are bowed or plucked. The modern viola is a larger version of the violin. It started with six strings, and the modern version has four, as does the modern cello.
After some centuries of experimentation, the modern double bass also has four strings. The four-string kit resembles an elongated violin and was played throughout Western Europe. It was called the sordine in Italy and the pochette in France.
- Musical Instruments of the World; Ruth Midgley, et. al.; 1976
- Dictionary of Music; Theodore Karp; 1973
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