Modern Nyckelharpas

modern 3-rowed nyckelharpaIn October of 2013, we attended the International Days of the Nyckelharpa in Germany. We discovered that the nyckelharpa has continued to develop in Europe outside of Sweden. Many builders are making 4-rowed instruments of types not typically seen or played in Sweden. In Europe, the nyckelharpa is being played for early Baroque, medieval, folk and modern classical styles of music. The nyckelharpa is becoming a world music instrument. We saw this trend continuing when we again attended the International Days of the Nyckelharpa in 2015 and 2017.

Another significant issue in Europe outside of Sweden is that approximately ½ of the nyckelharpas are tuned the traditional Swedish, or Sahlström way (main strings CGCA) while the rest are tuned in 5th’s (CGDA), like a viola. The variations in tuning are not a problem for the workshop leaders at the International Days of the Nyckelharpa, as both are accepted. Whether the instrument is tuned using the Sahlström tuning or in 5th’s, in our opinion, is the personal choice of the player.

Sympathetic strings did not come into use until the early 1700's. Initially, they were placed under the key box, which provided some resonation, but not a lot. About the time of the kontrabass and silverbass nyckelharpas, they began to place some of the sympathetic strings above the key box, which provided a louder resonation sound. When the fully chromatic nyckelharpa came into being, the sympathetic strings were all moved to above the key box to maximize the resonation. Some recent developments have moved the 12 sympathetic strings to below the key box. This results in less resonation, in addition to narrowing the neck and reducing instrument weight. Current makers place the sympathetic strings above, below, or a combination of the two, depending on how much resonation is desired. Another even milder resonation is obtained by using only 6 sympathetic strings below the keybox, but placing them such that each string provided two notes on either side of the bridge.

The types of strings used can also affect the sound of the instrument. The Mora harpa, Esse harpa and kontrabass harpa traditionally used gut strings.  There were some A strings that were wound silk. These instruments were not designed for the high tension that steel strings require. We do not know what modern players are using for strings on reproduction instruments today. The silverbass harpa used silver wound gut strings for the main playing strings. The Swedish traditional 3-rowed chromatic nyckelharpa uses steel core cello strings with the sympathetic strings being metal guitar strings.  The string choice was made to maximize the volume of sound and resonation from this instrument. Some of the modern 4-rowed nyckelharpas that have been developed are using gut strings to get a very different sound profile for the instrument. The instruments with the sympathetic strings below the key box that use gut strings are finding acceptance in the Baroque and early music community in Europe.

With 4-rowed nyckelharpas now being made in different ranges with different locations and numbers of sympathetic strings, along with using various types of strings, gives a wide variety of range and sound available from modern nyckelharpas.  Most, if not all of these 4-rowed nyckelharpas are beyond the ability of many Swedish builders to make. The modern nyckelharpas being built mostly outside of Sweden have really become a world music instrument.  They are commonly now used in the following music styles: medieval, early/baroque, classical, several styles of folk, jazz and contemporary.

There are currently several different types of nyckelharpas available from makers around the world. We will start with the standard Swedish instrument.

Standard Swedish-style 3-rowed Chromatic nyckelharpa (Sahlström model):

This model was developed in the 1920's, making this a "modern" instrument.

The more common Swedish tuning for the main playing strings is: CGCA. There are keys on the 3 higher bowed strings with the low C string being a drone. The alternate tuning is to shift the middle C string to a D to get the strings tuned in 5ths (like a viola). The low drone is sometimes tuned to a D so it chords better with the adjacent G string. There are 12 sympathetic resonation strings: one string for every note in the standard chromatic music scale.

The standard full-sized instrument has a nut to bridge (mensur) string length of 400 mm. There is also a common smaller instrument commonly referred to as a ¾-sized that has a 340 mm mensur length.

The common Swedish key configuration is 7-10-20, with the bottom row of 7 keys on the G string, the middle row of 10 keys on the C/D string and 20 keys on the top row (A-string). Some instruments have 22 keys on the top row; this includes 2 more accidentals at the upper end of the A-string range. Additional keys are also sometimes added to the middle and bottom rows. Advance players sometimes want extra keys to expand the versatility of the instrument.

There are a significant number of Swedish traditional tunes that work very well on this instrument.

By only having 3-rows of keys, the standard Swedish nyckelharpa basically has the same range as a fiddle with shifting on the nyckelharpa's A-string to compensate for the lack of an E-string. It can be problematic to play a lot of "fiddle" tunes due to the fast shifting issues. Some call it a soprano range instrument, due to the lowest keyed string being a G like a violin, others consider it an alto instrument due to the highest string being an A like the viola.

Since the predecessor to the chromatic nyckelharpa was the silverbasharpa, many of the traditional tunes in the Uppsala region of Sweden are in the key of C. It appears that the Swedish tuning may have been adopted to get the best sound for tunes in the key of C.

There has been a strong opinion in Sweden to prefer the 3-rowed chromatic nyckelharpa with the CGCA tuning, but this has recently been changing, with some Swedish players playing in 5ths.

Other Nyckelharpas:

In continental Europe, most of the non-Swedish traditional nyckelharpas are being made with 4 rows of keys. We are using the common standard musical terms for the instrument ranges. These terms are also being used by some members of the nyckelharpa community in Europe.

Mora Harpa:  There are two of these that were found in the Älvdalen Parish, near Mora. These appear to be made based on a publish drawing from 1620 by Pretorius.  There are modern reproductions available.  It has 3 or 4 strings, one row of keys and no sympathetic strings.  It is often used for medieval music.

Esseharpa: The Esseharpa is an early version nyckelharpa that was found in the village of Esse Finland. It had a body similar to the kontrabass harpa with one row of keys, 4 strings and no sympathetic strings.  There are plans available.  There are some reproductions around.

Kontrabas Nyckelharpa:  This type of nyckelharpa emerged in Sweden between1630 and 1640 and has been continuously played since then.  It typically has a smaller body with round sound holes on either side of the tailpiece.  It does have sympathetic strings, most of which are located below the keys.  It plays in the keys of C, G and D.  The bridge is quite flat.  Most of them have one row of keys, but many of the keys actually have tangents on two of the playing strings.  It is played with a slack haired bow.  The flat bridge and slack haired bow result in chorded playing for most tunes. 

Silverbas Nyckelharpa:  Initially developed around the 1860s, the silverbass has a slightly larger body. It uses silver wound strings and only plays in the key of C. Like the kontrabas, it has a flatter bridge and is played with a slack haired bow. The 4 main bowed strings are tuned to CGCA. The sympathetic strings are as for the kontrabas, most are below the keybox; just a few are above.

staff with instrument notes

The staff above shows the main playing strings of each of the labeled ranges of instruments.

Sopranino:  While in Germany in 2015, we saw a small 4-rowed nyckelharpa tuned in 5ths that is actually ranged higher than a violin with tuning FCGD. These are being made in Belgium by Nikolaj Marks. It is a small, lightweight, nice sounding instrument.

Soprano Nyckelharpa: Violin range; main strings are GDAE (in 5ths). The nut to bridge length can range from 400 mm (matches the Swedish instrument) to as low as 350 mm.

Alto nyckelharpa: Viola range; this is the standard Swedish range instrument with keys added to the C drone. Traditional Swedish tuning is CGCA; in 5th's, CGDA. Nut to bridge length is 400 mm.

Tenor nyckelharpa: This is one octave below the violin. The main strings are tuned GDAE. The nut to bridge length is typically 440 mm. There is a modern Swedish design by Johan Hedin in 2004 available from some builders, including Earl. All the sympathetic strings in Hedin model are below the keybox.

Cello-nyckelharpa or Octave-nyckelharpa: This has the range of a cello, the main strings tuned, traditional Swedish CGCA, in 5ths, CGDA. The nut to bridge length is 480 to 510 mm. This is one octave below the Alto nyckelharpa. It can be found with either 3 or 4 rows of keys. We believe that most people typically consider the 3-rowed version to be the Octave-nyckelharpa, while the 4 rowed is the cello-nyckelharpa. Most builders have the sympathetic strings on the cello below the keybox. Earl is working on one that would have some of the sympathetic strings above the keybox, but not all of them, due to the size the neck would have to be to accommodate all the strings.

Bass nyckelharpa: Olle Plahn of Sweden is making a bass nyckelharpa. If interested, contact either Olle Plahn or Holger Funke.

Electric Nyckelharpa:  There are a couple builders that have made nyckelharpas with direct electric pickups.  Some of these have no sound box body.  Holger Funke can answer more questions about these.

About the number of keys on a row:

The common 3-rowed nyckelharpa has 20 keys on the top row, 10 keys on the middle row and 7 keys on the bottom row. We call this a 7-10-20 key set. Several builders making 4-rowed instruments will do a 7-10-10-20 key set. Some builders will put more keys on the lower rows of keys for say a 10-12-12-22 or 12-15-15-22 key set. Most players want as many extra keys as they can get. It can be difficult for builders to get a sound good on those higher range keys on the lower strings. The key spacing also gets quite tight, making the nesting of very close keys an interesting building issue. Earl will do everything he can to get as many keys as possible sounding good. On the key sets with keys beyond a 7-10-10 on the bottom 3 rows, there may be a couple keys we just can’t get to sound good. However, there should be a good sounding key on the next string that can be used.

The current Swedish situation:

The 3-rowed nyckelharpa has a well-developed folk tradition mostly in the region of Upland from the mid-to-late 20th century.  The nyckelharpa music is tied into folk-tourism.  This gives an economic consideration to the focus on the “tradition”. We have noticed a nationalistic pride about the nyckelharpa among many in the nyckelharpa community in Sweden.  This sometimes translates into cultural prejudice and bias.  We have personally experienced this, but will not directly comment about it at this time.

During the several trips we have made to Sweden to study building nyckelharpas, we noticed that there is little to no mention of any of the nyckelharpa activities occurring in the rest of Europe.  They want the focus on Sweden.

There are Swedish nyckelharpa players who are interested in 4-rowed violin range nyckelharpas so that they can play along with fiddlers. We also know that there are builders of 4-rowed nyckelharpas from outside of Sweden that are getting sales in Sweden.


In Sweden, there is a strong opinion by some that the 3-rowed nyckelharpa should be tuned with the ACGC tuning, especially among the older players who learned back during the 1980s or earlier. We are aware that there are now several professional nyckelharpa players in Sweden who tune in 5ths. 

For at least 20 years there have been regular nyckelharpa workshops occurring throughout Europe.  The majority of these have had workshop leaders from Sweden.  In Europe, outside of Sweden, half of the nyckelharpas are tuned with the Swedish ACGC tuning and the other half tuned in 5ths, ADGC, just like a viola. Instruments of both tunings are regularly in the same workshops, and have been for years.

We know that the ACGC tuning does give a slightly different sound.  Musicians have their own reasons why they may want to use one tuning over another. Both DoAnn and our son, Ian, started playing using the Swedish tuning and then later switched to 5ths, which at this point is what they prefer. Our position is that the musician should determine what tuning they are going to use, not some demand from a workshop leader or teacher, as has sometimes been the case in the past.

We also understand that the Swedish Folk school, the Erik Salstrom Institute, now allows students to play with nyckelharpas tuned in 5ths, like a viola. 

It is a nyckelharpa, or is it called by something else?  What is in a name?

In Swedish “nyckel” translates to key, so nyckelharpa is: keyed harp.  According to Per-Ulf Ullmo, the defining characteristics of a nyckelharpa are: a key box and played with a bow.  This gives the Swedish nyckelharpa claim to the medieval ancestry from various countries in Europe.  However, this really is the Swedish name for the instrument.

Here are several names used in other languages:
In Italian: Viola d’Amore a Chiavi
In German: Schlusselfidel
In Spanish: Viola de teclas
In Sweden, they assume the English translation for the name is: keyed fiddle.

The common practice in English/American is to adopt the instrument name from the country of origin.  So, in the United States, most call it a nyckelharpa. We suspect that the use of other forms of the name may have come about in part due to the strong opinions of some of the Swedish traditionalists that only the Swedish versions of the instrument when tuned “correctly” can properly be called nyckelharpas.  This has been affirmed by an American nyckelharpa traditionalist who got it from a Swedish player.

We suspect that several of the other names may have come from medieval records of what the early forms were actually called.  (Note: If someone can provide details, we will incorporate them.) Our personal practice is to call these instruments by the Swedish name, nyckelharpa. This gives credit to Sweden for having preserved the instrument to modern times and gifted it to the world.  It also connects people who discover the instrument to Sweden so they can also discover the very unique and wonderful Swedish traditional music, and just maybe fall in love with it.

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(Page last updated on 08/09/2020)