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~ The Hurdy Gurdy Explained ~

III: The Drone Strings
(Bourdons & Mouche)

The two lowest drones (Fr. bourdons)

Click on the hurdy-gurdies below to hear:
click here to hear the  bass drone string
click here to hear the tenor drone string
click here to hear the bass and tenor drones together
The bass drone string
The tenor drone string
Both drone
As already discussed, it is the presence of constant harmonious tones - drones - against which the melody plays that is a jointly defining characteristic of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies. This hurdy-gurdy is fitted with four drone strings; one of these has a special function and is the subject of the next page. Here, the other three are described: two low-pitched drones on the keyboard side of the instrument (A & B, upper photo) and one higher-pitched drone on the opposite side (H, lower photo).

All of the drone strings have certain features in common: At the crank-end of the hurdy-gurdy they are anchored to ivory fittings mounted just below the top surface of the instrument (I, lower photo). From there, they pass over fixed bridges (C) - there are two of these bridges, one on each side of the instrument. Next they intersect the rim of the wheel and then run more or less alongside the outsides of the keybox across another pair of fixed bridge-like nuts (G), one projecting from each side of the keybox ; finally, the drone strings enter the peg-box through holes in its sides (F, inset, upper photo) and terminate at individual tuning pegs, just as would violin strings.

The bridges and nuts carry the strings in little notches. On the bridges (C) there is an additional notch (D) for each string, located further outward from the centerline of the instrument. When the player wishes to play or tune without a particular drone string sounding, that string is simply pushed over by hand into the outboard notch; this leaves the string out of contact with the wheel and thus silences it.

There is a little bit of cotton wrapped around the strings where they contact the wheel; this saves wear-and-tear on both string and wheel, and smooths the sound a bit as well.

The Mouche
The third-lowest (or second-highest) drone (Fr. mouche)

Click on the hurdy-gurdies below to hear:
click here to hear the  Mouche drone
click here to hear the mouche, tenor and bass drones
The "mouche" drone
The mouche, tenor and bass drones

Unlike most bagpipe drones, hurdy-gurdy drones can be set up to sound different notes, depending on the requirements of the music. The basic note sounded by each drone string is determined by the length of the string between the two bridges, the "weight" (thickness & material) of the string, and the tension of the string. Since the bridge positions and thus string lengths are fixed, tension and string weight are the available variables. Tension adjustment involves nothing more than turning the tuning pegs to make a change of, say, one-fourth of an octave. Replacing strings with ones of a different weight can allow greater shifts of pitch, but of course is not so quick. This ability of the instrument to sound different drone notes, together with its chromatic melody scale, offers the player a high degree of musical versatility - especially in comparison with most bagpipes.

Click on the hurdy-gurdy below to hear:
click here to hear the bass drone in two tunings
The low bass drone in two tunings

French Terminology:
On this page, those parts commonly referred to by their French names, even outside of France, include: the two low drones (A), bourdons; the next higher-pitched drone (D), mouche.

The next page deals with the highest drone, the trompette, which serves a special function.

~ Next Page: Trompette ~

Previous Page: Melody

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.