The hurdy gurdy, known in France as the vielle a roue or vielle for short, is an ancient instrument which is undergoing a modern renaissance in Europe and America. Today's hurdy gurdy is roughly the same as those built in the middle ages. It has three to six strings which are caused to vibrate by a resined wheel turned by a crank. Melody notes are produced on one string by pressing keys which stop the string at the proper intervals for the scale. The other strings play a drone note. Some instruments have a "buzzing bridge". A string passes over a moveable bridge, which by a movement of the crank in the open hand, can produce a rasping rhythm to accompany the tune by causing the bridge to hammer on the sound board.
The instrument is held in the lap with a strap to hold it steady. The case can be square, lute back, or flat back with a guitar or fiddle shape. The origins of the hurdy gurdy are unknown but one theory says that when the Moors invaded Spain they brought with them many stringed and bowed instruments. There is no proof that the hurdy-gurdy was one of them, but the possibility exists that something similar arrived in Spain at that time and dispersed throughout Europe along the pilgrim's roads.
On The Edges of Twilight, the hurdy- gurdy is heard in The Badger. It is used in the Sister Awake remix on Alhambra. It can also be heard in the Alhambra version of Save Me.
What is a hurdy-gurdy, and how does it work?
The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument in which the strings are rubbed by a rosined wheel instead of a bow. The wheel is turned by the player's right hand, while the left hand plays the tune on the keys in the keybox. Two of the strings (usually), called the chanters or melody strings, run though the keybox and their vibrating length is shortened by the key pressing against it. Several drone strings are outside the keybox, and so sound the same note all the time. For this reason the hurdy-gurdy sounds similar to a bagpipe. A small movable bridge on one of the drones can be made to vibraterhythmically by cranking the wheel harder, and this buzzing is used for a rhythmic accompanyment to the tune.
What does it sound like? Like a bagpipe?
It's different. Many people think that it's a wind instrument because it does sound somewhat like a bagpipe, because of the drone strings. It also sounds a little like a fiddle, because it's technically a bowed string instrument. The dog buzzing sounds a little like a rhythmic one-note kazoo. The whole gets wrapped together into a cross between a fiddle and a bagpipe, with someone keeping time on a kazoo. The hurdy-gurdy often gets played with bagpipes.
What is the history of the hurdy-gurdy?
Hurdy-gurdies were fairly common though most of Europe from the 12th to the 19th centuries, and has been played by everyone from blind beggars to the nobility. The court of France developed an interest for it in the early 18th century, and their style of instrument has become the "standard" instrument, though strong hurdy-gurdy traditions remain in other European countries. The earliest instrument of this design was the organistrum, played by two people, as early as the 12th century in northern France and northern Spain.
Why is it called a hurdy-gurdy?
"Hurdy-gurdy" is the English name for the instrument. It's not clear when the name was first applied, or why it was called that. The conclusion is that no one really knows. There's some speculation that "hurdy-gurdy" is related to the English word "hurly-burly", meaning a great noise. Some players prefer to use the French name, "vielle a roue", meaning "wheel fiddle", possibly because of the association of the name "hurdy-gurdy" with a barrel organ.
Isn't a hurdy-gurdy something played by a guy with a monkey?
Yes and no. That instrument is a barrel piano or barrel organ, which only plays preprogrammed tunes. It was played by turning a crank, so it got named after the stringed instrument which preceded it. Though it is techically sophisticated, it could be used by someone with no musical talent, and was frequently used by street musicians who were more interested in catching people's attention than in providing music.