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~ The Hurdy Gurdy Explained ~

II: The Melody Strings

The Melody Strings & Key Mechanism

Click on the hurdy-gurdies below to hear:
click here to hear the high melody string
click here to hear the low melody string
click here to hear both melody strings
The high melody string
The low melody string
Both melody
This hurdy-gurdy is fitted with two melody strings (A); instruments with a single melody string are not unusual, and some with more melody strings exist, but two is the most common number. Each of the two strings is anchored to a tailpiece at the crank-end of the instrument. They then pass over a common stationary bridge (B) and through the keybox (J) containing, logically enough, the key mechanism, to a pair of movable bridge-like nuts (D) and then through a pair of holes into the peg box (C) where they terminate, just as violin strings would, at tuning-pegs.

The acoustic length of each string - the part that actually vibrates and produces sound - is the portion between the bridges and nuts. The nuts are movable and thus the acoustic length of each string can be adjusted to compensate for any of the myriad variables that might affect the strings and/or the associated mechanisms.

The basic tuning of each melody string - that is, the note produced when the entire length of the string is sounded - is variable by two means: the "weight" (thickness and material) of the string, and the tension it is placed under by the tuning pegs. On the instrument here, the two melody strings are tuned one octave apart; by changing the strings and/or their tension, all sorts of other relationships are possible. Here, the string uppermost in the photo is the lower-pitched of the pair.

As the wheel rotates during play, the vibrating length of the melody strings - and thus the pitch sounded - is altered by means of a key mechanism. The lower row of 13 keys (E) produces whole diatonic tones, while the upper row of 10 keys (F) provides sharps & flats; thus altogether the instrument plays a chromatic scale. The keys are operated by the player's left hand, with the wrist more or less resting on the hinged keybox lid (H) (shown open here but normally closed and latched (K) during play). The effect is the same as when a violin player presses a string against the fingerboard, "stopping" the string at a particular point to yield one or another note. In the hurdy-gurdy, there is no fingerboard or equivalent; rather, melody strings are stopped by being touched by small thin movable rectangular wooden blocks , called "tangents" (G), that push sideways against the strings (A) when a key is pressed inward. There is very little complication; each

Detail of key mechanism

key is little more than a straight wooden bar (M) that passes at a right angle under the strings and is supported on each end in openings (N) cut into the sides (J) of the key-box. At one end the bars widen to a size appropriate for fingers to push on them. Each bar is fitted on its top surface with two of the little tangents (G) (one for each string). Thus when a key is pushed, both strings are stopped simultaneously to the same length. Because of the way the instrument is held when played, gravity serves to return the keys after actuation; there is a strip of felt (K) glued along the inside of the lower side of the keybox to dampen the clacking noise of the keys falling back into their resting positions.

The nose of each tangent on this but not all instruments is padded with leather (L); this prevents unwanted sounds on contact with the strings and softens the tone somewhat. The tangents are constructed with a short round peg extending from their bottoms. This fits snugly but without glue into a round hole on the key bars; thus the tangents can be rotated, changing slightly the exact point at which they make contact lengthwise along the strings. That allows fine tuning, either to compensate for mechanical factors or to meet particular musical requirements.

The lower-pitched melody string can be silenced by lifting it up so it loses contact with the wheel and then hanging it on the little ivory peg (I, upper photo); this instrument does not have a provision for similarly disengaging the other melody string, but that can nevertheless be accomplished by lifting it up onto a convenient spot on the key mechanism.

French Terminology
The hurdy-gurdy today is so closely associated with France - one of the few places where its traditions never faded from view - that many of its parts are routinely referred to by their French names. On this page, those parts include: the melody strings (A), chanterelles; the rear bridge-like nuts for the melody strings(D), sillets.

On the next page the drones of the hurdy-gurdy are described.

~ Next Page: Drones ~

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Beginning of the Hurdy-Gurdy Section

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Text and photographs on this page are original works by Oliver Seeler and are copyright 1999, Oliver Seeler.