What is a Nyckelharpa?

The nyckelharpa is a proposed-official traditional folk instrument of Sweden. “Nyckel” is Swedish for “key” and “harpa” is a stringed musical instrument, so this is a stringed musical instrument with keys. If you look at the old church paintings, this is apparently one of the instruments that the angels used to play to make heavenly music. It is traditionally held across the front of your body similar to a guitar and played with a bow. The modern Swedish chromatic nyckelharpa has 4 primary strings that are played, 3 of which have keys to change the pitch. The 4th string is a drone. There are also 12 sympathetic strings that are tuned to the different notes of the chromatic scale. The keys are pressed up from the bottom and have a small wooden post on the top of each key that comes in contact with the bowed strings. These posts shorten the string length to produce different notes along the strings that have keys. While you play, the sympathetic strings resonate along with the various notes to fill out the sound in a very beautiful way. The range of the Swedish traditional instrument is about the same as the upper register of a viola. It is hard to describe the sound, but there are numerous YouTube videos available.

There is quite a range of instrument types currently being made with one, two, three and four rows of keys.  The earliest models, such as the Moraharpa, pre-date sympathetic strings and do not have them.  There are models with the sympathetic strings above and/or below the key box which results in different levels of resonation.  While this instrument has been played in Sweden continuously since the early 1600s, it is now played in numerous countries for many genres of music.

(Page last updated on 6/16/2018)