The Saxon Lyre: History, Construction, and Playing Techniques

by Dofinn-Hallr Morrisson and Thóra Sharptooth

Copyright (c) 1992, 1995 Greg Priest-Dorman and Carolyn Priest-Dorman.

This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the authors assume no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

This is an expansion and correction of a class pamphlet Dof has used at various East Kingdom University sessions.

The authoritative version of this document exists at

$Id: lyre.html,v 1.3 1995/12/27 12:26:45 priestdo Exp $

The lyre, a particular type of stringed instrument, has proved enduringly popular in many parts of the world. In northern Europe the Germanic tribes played a type of lyre called in Old English the hearpa. Mentioned in Beowulf, the lyre may have been the instrument to accompany the performance of Anglo-Saxon poems and stories such as Beowulf. The remains of several such "Germanic lyres" and their bridges have been found in Saxon and Frankish graves in Germany and England; they range in date from the fifth through the tenth century (Crane, 10). The most famous is no doubt the one from the Sutton Hoo excavation, currently dated to the early seventh century. Sufficient information exists about the Saxon lyre to permit reasonable reconstruction and play of the instrument, and that is the subject of this article.

Playing the Lyre

From the earliest times, depictions of lyres fall into two categories: those with seven or fewer strings and those with eight or more strings. Consistent across 3,000 years of depictions of people playing lyres are two playing styles. Those lyres having seven or fewer strings are depicted being played in a fashion I will describe later that I call "block and strum." Those with eight or more strings are depicted with each hand separately plucking the strings, much as harps are played to this day.

Several early medieval illuminations depict people playing lyres with seven or fewer strings. Eliminating those depictions that post-date the time when the lyre seems to have been common (that is, depictions from after the eleventh century) on the assumption that the artist had never seen someone actually playing the instrument, and focusing on those illustrations actually contemporary in age with the finds, one can see that there is great consistency in the way the instrument is held and the way the hands are placed on the instrument. The lyre is usually held upright resting on one or the other leg; the left hand is behind the instrument with the fingers spread, apparently against the strings. The right hand may hold some kind of plectrum. In those cases where there is no plectrum, the right hand appears to be strumming the strings backhanded, which would result in striking with the fingernails. Typical of these is the illumination of King David from the Vespasian Psalter (circa early 8th century); see Figure 1 for a redrawing of this illumination.

While the individual musician could have done any number of things possible on the instrument, the most likely way to play seems to me to be "block and strum." By this I mean strumming across the strings, either with the back of the hand or with a pick held in the front (usually right) hand, while at the same time blocking selected strings from behind with the back (usually left) hand so the strings you are touching with the back hand do not sound. This is very comfortable to do and produces pleasing results. It matches the arm, hand, and wrist positions in the illuminations and allows for comfortable support of the instrument.

Additionally, of the finds that have openings in the back of discernible size, the openings are longer than one half the string length. This would allow the left hand to produce half-length harmonics for occasional highlights. To do these you would pluck the individual string, which is the way I think plucking would be used occasionally.

We do have a statement contemporary with the instrument's use mentioning how it was tuned, and an example of at least one piece of music for it. Hucbald's De Harmonica Institutione (ca. 880) contains discussion and an illustration of lyre tablature for the common 6-string lyre along with tuning information. Hucbald is explaining the work of Boethius, and gives his audience an example of how Boethius' musical system would describe their lyres. Thus Hucbald's examples are descriptive rather than prescriptive of the tuning found in his day. He notes that intervals between the strings of the lyre are tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone (Hucbald, 22-23). In modern notation, that tuning maps to C-D-E-F-G-a, or D-E-F#-G-a-b, these being the first six notes of a major scale or, looked at another way, the last three and first three notes of a major scale, or the last note followed by the first five notes of a Dorian scale.

Selecting Strings for Your Lyre

The following recommendations for strings are based on standard guitar strings, which are readily available in music shops. Steel strings are louder than nylon; however, steel puts the instrument under greater pressure than nylon. Use steel strings if you choose to build Option 1, and nylon if you choose to build Option 2. Option 1, having a plywood belly and back, benefits from the louder steel strings. Option 2, having a single-grained belly and the routed-out back, has a louder box and can make use of the nylon strings that sound closer to the sound of gut strings. If you find a cheap source for "gut," use those.

The following specifications are based on a measurement of 20" from tuning pin to bridge and approximately 30" overall instrument length. If the distance between your tuning pins and bridge is longer than 20", use slightly lower tunings; if the distance is shorter than 20", use slightly higher tunings.

To buy steel strings, ask for one each of strings 024, 020, 017, 015, 013, 011. These numbers refer to gauge. On your lyre, tune the lowest string to C or D.

To buy nylon strings, ask for two each of strings G, b, and e. On your lyre, tune the lowest string (a G string) up to b, resulting in a tuning of b-flat-c-d-e-flat-f-g.

Building Your Saxon Lyre

It is not the goal of this section to describe how to build a reproduction of an actual historical lyre. The best two authors to go to for information if you wish to build a reproduction of a historical lyre are Crane and Bruce-Mitford. This section tells how to make a hybrid lyre using modern tools and construction methods for the sake of getting one into your hands so you can learn how to play it. I would love to see people constructing their lyres in the way we believe medieval lyremakers to have constructed theirs, but that is another article.

I suggest you build your first lyre one of two ways:

  1. Using power tools and a simple design not exactly like the period examples; or
  2. Using power tools and a design representing a combination of the finds.

Figure 2 shows the nomenclature and component parts of this type of lyre. Figures 3 and 4 and their associated tables summarize the known physical evidence for extant lyres of this type. Look over the evidence and the other illustrations, read over the two methods, and then pick Option 2 if you have some skill with a router, Option 1 if you don't. A high estimate of the cost of materials cost is under $50 (1995 wood prices, USA).

Option 1

This lyre is made of a strong hardwood internal framework (the body) glued between two layers of thinner wood (the back and belly). It has a large hole through it across which the strings are strung (the handhole). See Figure 5.

Tools Required:

Materials Required:

Construction of Option 1 Lyre

  1. Using the information in the figures and tables, and the wood available to you, make a pattern for your body, including the hand hole and sound box. Transfer the pattern to your piece of hardwood.

  2. Cut out the body of the lyre. Then cut out the hand hole and the sound box from the body. The resulting piece is the supporting framework for your lyre.

  3. Check your lyre framework against your pattern. If it differs, trace the framework onto another piece of paper and do all subsequent steps using this new pattern.

  4. Mark and cut a back and belly out of paneling. Do not cut out the handhole yet.

  5. Sand the entire framework. Be careful not to round the two surfaces to which the back and belly will be glued. Put a mark in the dead center of the outside of the bottom edge for the end peg. This will also help you tell where the handhole is to go later.

  6. Using wood glue, glue the back and belly to the body. Clamp it well and let the glue dry completely (usually overnight).

  7. Cut out the hand hole in the paneling. If you have forgotten which end is the hand hole end, look for the mark for the end peg.

  8. Continue as outlined below in "Options 1 and 2." Include all the instructions listed in parentheses.

Option 2

The differences between making this lyre and the one above are

  1. using a router to make the sound box so there is no bottom board

  2. using a better quality (not ply) wood for the top board

  3. using extra pieces of wood with the grain running in a different direction to reinforce the area around the tuning pins
See Figure 6 for an indication of how the insides of this lyre differ from the one in Figure 5.

Tools Required:

Materials Required:

Construction of Option 2 Lyre

  1. Using the information in the figures and tables, and the wood available to you, make a pattern for your body and a pattern for your reinforcing pieces.

  2. Cut out the body of the lyre from the 4/4 hardwood.

  3. Rout out the sound box from the body to a depth of 3/4". You may have to do that in steps depending on how strong your router is and how good you are at using it. It's better to take it down 1/4" at a time than to go through the side accidentally.

  4. Leave a wide enough section of unrouted wood down the center of the cavity to support the plate of your router while you do the rest of the routing. Then take a 3/4" thick block of wood and screw it to the bottom of your router plate; this will allow you to remove that center section of wood while only one edge of your router plate is supported on the edge of the lyre. If your lyre is more than twice the width of your router plate, you will have to leave two sections of unrouted wood in the body of the lyre.

  5. You can inset the back tuning reinforcement rather than simply attaching it to the back. If you wish to do that, use your router and do it now. Only do this on the back of the lyre! To do this, turn your lyre over and rout out a section the depth of your panel and the height of your reinforcement piece.

  6. Cut out the hand hole from the body.

  7. Cut the belly piece out of the panel to match the body, not including the tuning pin area (see Figure 6). Leave the hand hole area solid for now.

  8. Cut two pieces from the panel with their grain running as shown in Figure 6. These are the reinforcements for the tuning pin area.

  9. Sand the entire body. Be careful not to round the surfaces to which the belly and reinforcing pieces will be glued.

  10. Glue the belly to the body, clamp, and let dry completely.

  11. Glue the tuning area supports to the body, one to the back and one to the front. Clamp and let dry completely.

  12. Cut out the hand hole section from the belly.

  13. Continue below, under "Options 1 and 2." Do not include the instructions listed in parentheses.

Options 1 and 2

  1. Using a scrap of the wood from which you cut out the body, drill a hole slightly smaller than a tuning pin. Hammer a spare tuning pin in with a few strokes to test the hole size. Use a small piece of scrap hardwood as a buffer between the hammer and the pin. If the hole is the wrong size, experiment until you find the right size drill bit.

  2. When you have found the correct size drill bit, lay out the holes for the tuning pins in the lyre. Spread them out across the top as evenly as possible: see Figure 2. Mark and drill the holes straight down--at right angles--into the surface. You can use a drill press for this step if you have one, but it is not necessary.

  3. As with the tuning pins, test the drill bit size for the end peg in a piece of scrap hardwood before drilling the hole for the end peg in the lyre. You want a snug fit. Put a mark in the dead center of the outside of the bottom edge for the end peg. Drill the hole for the end peg approximately 3/4" to 1" deep. This hole should also be at a right angle to the surface.

  4. Using your choice of the two patterns in Figure 4, cut out, shape, and sand the bridge. Gently round and smooth the surface where the strings will rest on the wood. Do not worry about cutting grooves for the strings; the strings will most likely seat themselves in the appropriate places when the instrument is strung.

  5. Using the pattern in Figure 7, cut out, shape, and sand the tail piece.

  6. Using the small drill bit, drill the two holes for the violin peg strap in the tail piece. Note that these two holes are drilled at an angle; see the cutaway view in Figure 7. If you wish, you may countersink the two holes on the top side of the tail piece in order to allow the metal ends of the violin strap to seat more firmly.

  7. Using the tiny drill bit, drill the holes in the tail piece for the strings.

  8. Sand, sand, and sand everything some more; it's not documentable, but it sure feels nice. This is your last chance to clean up all the edges around the instrument.

  9. Glue in the end peg.

  10. Using boiled linseed oil and a lint-free rag, oil all the wood, including the bridge and tail piece. If you can slightly warm the linseed oil, it will penetrate much better. Warming a small jar of oil in hot water works well. It's a pain to get to the area under the strings once the lyre has been strung, so repeat until the (cheap back and) belly wood have soaked up a few coats of oil. Please read carefully all instructions about working with linseed oil and disposing of your rag.

  11. Nail down the belly and either the back, for Option 1, or the back tuning pin reinforcement, for Option 2, to the lyre with the brads, spacing them evenly around the entire perimeter of the lyre at approximately 2" apart and approximately 1/4" from the edge. Nail around the hand hole also. (Be careful to offset the brads on the belly and back sides slightly so you don't try to hammer a brad into another brad from the other side.)

  12. Again using a small piece of scrap hardwood as a buffer between the hammer and the pin, hammer the tuning pins into the lyre with a few strokes. Hammer until the hole in the pin is between 1/4" and 3/8" above the body of the lyre.

Stringing and Tuning the Lyre

  1. Put the violin strap on the tail piece. Unscrew one of the two metal ends of the violin strap. Thread the strap through the two holes for it at the end of the tail piece. If you countersunk those two holes, the metal ends should fit into them neatly. Screw the metal end back on, making sure the two metal ends are on the upper side of the tail piece.

  2. Put your strings in the tail piece. If your strings have little lumps attached at one end, then you will need to string each one through the tail piece such that the little lump is on the underside of the tail piece. If your strings have no attachments, then you will need to string each one through the tail piece and then tie each end in a knot (see Figure 7) on the upper side of the tail piece. The lowest (thickest) string should be at the dexter side of the lyre; the strings work toward the highest (thinnest) string at the sinister side of the lyre.

  3. For this next step, if you don't already know how to string a musical instrument, call in a friend who does to help you. Place the violin strap around the end peg of the lyre. Straighten out the tail piece and bring the free end of the dextermost string up to the dextermost tuning pin. Put the end through the hole in the pin. You want to end up with two or three wraps of wire around the pin when you are done. Do not fully tighten the strings yet; after all, the bridge isn't even in place. Wind the pins clockwise.

  4. Once all the strings are on the lyre, slip the bridge into place under the strings. If the strings are too tight to let you do this, loosen them up a bit. Place the bridge approximately halfway between the bottom of the handhole and the bottom of the lyre. See Figure 2.

  5. Now carefully tune the lyre. If you are tuning it for the very first time, and you are using steel strings, you will need to tune the instrument down about one full step from the tunings recommended above. The reason for this is that the wood needs to adjust to the unfamiliar pressure of its new life. With both steel and nylon strings you must be patient: the strings will not keep in tune for long when they are new. Once the strings stretch in, they will keep in tune. Until then, expect the lyre to go out of tune rapidly.

    Watch the bridge as you tune the lyre for the first time; it may try to pull forward or back a bit as you tune. Just gently straighten it out with your fingers.

Now play! The lyre may buzz for the first few days. If it continues to buzz after it has been strung for several days, first check the area around the tuning pins and make sure that none of the string ends are touching any other strings. You can trim any excess string ends down to about 1/2" if you like. If the bridge is the source of the buzzing, see if one of your strings is hitting the bridge in more than one place. If so, you will have to loosen the stringing on the instrument, remove the bridge, and carefully remove some wood from the bridge so that the string only hits the bridge at one point. Make very sure the surface of the bridge is smooth before you replace it under the strings.


About the Authors: Greg and Carolyn Priest-Dorman, (No Soliciting!), both work at Vassar College, where they are allowed to use the library. Dofinn-Hallr Morrisson and Thóra Sharptooth live on a stead outside the teeming metropolis of Jorvík, tending the land and making things out of things.