The Light and Airy Lyre Has Plucked Its Way Through the Ages

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky  | 

lyre
This ethereal statue of Apollo playing his lyre stands at Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge, England. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

It's not an instrument you're likely to see make an appearance during a modern musical performance, but the lyre played a major role in ancient Greek culture. But even before it began popping up at private drinking party performances and religious ceremonies, an earlier version of the stringed instrument likely originated in the ancient Middle East.

According to Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at Stanford University, the versions of the lyre that existed in Mesopotamia and the Near East around 2000 B.C.E. included bigger "box" lyres that were sometimes so large, they had to be set on the ground like a modern harp. "There is at least one ancient figurine from the Aegean islands (later Greece) from around 2500 B.C.E. showing a seated man playing one of these larger harp-like instruments, held on his knees," Martin says, in an email interview.

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The Traditional Structure of the Lyre

Traditionally, the lyre had two fixed upright arms (pecheis) or horns (kerata) and a crossbar (zygos), and its tuning pegs (kollopes) were made of bronze, bone, ivory or wood. The instrument's seven strings (neurai or chordai) measured the same length but varied in thickness and were stretched between the crossbar and a fixed tailpiece (chordotonon).

"The lyre dates from thousands of years before the Common Era and is mentioned in numerous hymns in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey," says professional musician Dave Mostert, in an email. "Because of the references in the Bible, lyres are sometimes used as symbols of the establishment in Western culture."

The lyre many of us are familiar with today is the "bowl" lyre that is typically associated with Greek culture, which Martin says was invented after 1000 B.C.E. "It was small and light and had from three to 11 strings that you would play by plucking," he says. "The bowl lyre was associated with private entertainment at drinking parties (symposia). Apparently, the sound was not too loud and you'd hear it better in a room."

lyre
An 8th century B.C.E. terracotta figure of a lyre player from Crete (left) and, an early lyre from the Belgian Congo in Central Africa (right) exemplify the similarity of the instrument's structure throughout radically different cultures.
Print Collector/Getty Images; Michel HUET/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

Martin says the true origin of the lyre depends on which version of the instrument you're referring to. "Depending on how you define it, the lyre, or another simple hand-held stringed instrument like it, seems to be popular from the Mediterranean through to India and in many parts of Africa," he says. "Musicologists debate whether one very ancient prototype spread, with different cultures borrowing from others, or whether these were independent creations."

At the same time the lyre was becoming a favorite among Greek partiers, another instrument was also picking up popularity. "Ancient Greeks also had what they called a kithara, a much-larger, box-style lyre that you played with a pick (plectrum) and which had a resonating sound-box," Martin says. "This was used in musical competitions, either for instrumental pieces or to accompany singers. It was also played during rituals, where it would accompany more formal, public songs like the paean, a hymn of praise and celebration of victory."

According to Mostert, the earliest lyres were likely made from the forearm bones of sheep, goats or donkeys, and images of the instruments were depicted on Sumerian carvings dating from approximately 2000 B.C.E. "There are many representations of lyres on classical Greek vase paintings, and according to the accounts of various historians, the body shape of lyre instruments varied greatly over the years," he says.

lyre
The lyre guitar, this one an 1805 Thibout, was popular as a salon instrument, especially in Paris, between 1780 and 1820.
Nigel Osbourne/Getty Images

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The Science of the Lyre's Sound

According to Jed Macosko, professor of physics at Wake Forest University and academic director of AcademicInfluence.com, there's solid science to explain the unique sound of the lyre.

"In the ancient world of lyre-players, no one had an electronic tuner, or even a tuning fork," he says, in an email interview. "So, how did they keep their lyres sounding good? They had to use math! Pythagoras — the guy with the a-squared-plus-b-squared-equals-c-squared theorem — and his students were among the first to associate the lengths of equally tight, equally heavy strings with their tones and, more importantly, recognize that ratios of the lengths of those strings was super important. In the end, he was able to explain why the fours strings on the lyres that people played in his time sounded good together, and he was able to help people keep them in tune!"

When it comes to the actual acoustics of the lyre, people have described the gentle sound in a variety of ways. "They sound like Hawaiian slack-key guitars, only tinnier," Martin says. "I've only heard reconstructed instruments, of course," he says, referencing this video from composer Michael Levy:

Mostert confirms the lyre's delicate sound, attributing the acoustic effect to the instrument's construction. "The strings on a lyre are generally stretched over a frame because of the force they exert," he says. "The sound of a lyre is light and airy, and not powerful enough for orchestral performance."

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The Lyre's Role in Mythology

Martin, an expert on all things Greek mythology, says the lyre played an important role in at least one famous tale of the gods. "The most famous story is how Hermes, when only a 1-day-old baby, enticed a tortoise into his home, killed it, gutted it, and made a lyre out of it, stretching skin on top of the hollow shell and then tightening seven sheep-gut cords over the skin," he says. "Hermes then went and secretly stole the cattle of his brother Apollo. When the older god tracked him down, the baby god enchanted Apollo by playing on his newly invented instrument. Apollo was so taken with the music it produced that he made a deal with Hermes — he would take the lyre and give Hermes a golden wand, and also power over some forms of divination."

The instrument also made an appearance in another famous myth regarding Hercules, otherwise known as Heracles. "The lyre figures in the story of how the young Heracles killed his first music teacher, Linus, by cracking him over the head in anger with his lyre," Martin says. "Orpheus the famous singer who could move rocks and trees and animals with his music played a lyre. And when Orpheus was killed the gods placed his lyre in the sky — it became the constellation, Lyra."

Another Greek god also had ties to the lyre, according to Martin. "We get the word 'lyric' as in 'lyric poetry' from the instrument that was used to accompany ancient songs and recitations," he says. "Apollo, who is shown playing the big concert-style kithara more often, does play the lyre as well, as represented on some ancient Greek vase paintings. It is interesting that Apollo is also the god of archery, famous for his unerring arrows and bow, because in some cultures (for example, in parts of South Africa) people even today actually can convert their hunting bows into musical instruments — they are multifunctional."

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