On the Bowed Psaltery

As you may or may not know, I am quite fond of the phrase ‘as you may or may not know’. Also, that was nearly a quine.

Anyway, to the point: As you may or may not know, although the contents of this blog have been primarily composed of drawings, I am also (perhaps moreso) a musician, and my instrument of choice is the bowed psaltery.

Since I play an instrument that most people have never heard of, I get asked a fair few questions about that, starting with “What’s a psaltery?”, so here I’m going to explain a few things about it.

The bowed psaltery is a stringed instrument, played, of course, with a bow — or, as is my preference, laid in the musician’s lap and played with two bows, one in each hand. (Plucked psalteries also exist, but are only distantly related.) It is shaped like an isosceles triangle, with the strings laid out such that sharp notes are on the left side and naturals on the right. A psaltery has 24 to 32 strings over a range of two to three-and-a-half octaves, which, due to the triangular shape of the instrument, can (only) be played individually, rather than as chords. With two bows, however, it is possible to play double stops (two notes simultaneously).

Although it may be of Greek ancestry, most of the few psalterists I am aware of are celtic or folk musicians. The Wikipedia article on the bowed psaltery can be found here.


My Psaltery

My own psaltery has been, I think, a major influence on my musical style, even in songs without her. A psaltery is more or less a strictly melodic instrument, as no more than two notes can be played at once, limiting a soloist’s ability to play chords. It has a very clear, ringing sound, though the sustain and high-mid frequencies can make recording tricky, and the two-bow style I prefer allows very smooth transitions between notes.
It’s a unique sound, so let me conclude with a recording (pardon the slightly lacking audio quality; it’s a desktop microphone…).
Oh, and happy new year!

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