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.

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.

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.

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 F-C-G-D. 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.

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.

Bass nyckelharpa: Olle Plahn of Sweden is making a bass nyckelharpa. We do not have any information about the range of this instrument. 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.

About extra keys on Earlharpas: 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.

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(Page last updated on 11/29/2018)