Lyre Playing Techniques










From all of my extensive research and practical experimentation, I have discovered that the range of possible playing techniques for the lyre is only limited by one's musical imagination! To begin this analysis of some of these techniques, here is a video demonstrating and listing virtually all of them:

The diverse range of lyre-playing techniques I have used in the creation of my albums, are all authentically based upon ancient lyre playing techniques which have amazingly survived to the present day, and which can still be heard in parts Egypt and East Africa. These techniques include alternating between guitar-like, plectrum-plucked tones in the right hand and harp-like, finger-plucked tones in the left hand; which also sometimes includes providing basic harmony below the melodic line - this technique is actually mentioned in Virgil's epic poem, "The Aeneid - Book VI, line 645:

"...There Orpheus too, the long-robed priest of Thrace, accompanies their voices with the seven-note scale, playing now with fingers, now with the ivory quill"
[nec non Threicius longa cum ueste sacerdos obloquitur numeris septem discrimina uocum,iamque eadem digitis, iam pectine pulsat eburno]

I have also experimented with the ancient lyre-playing technique of “finger blocking” in “Odessa Bulgar” and also in the final section of “The Music of Moses”; this is where rhythm can be strummed on the lyre with a plectrum in the right hand, just as on a guitar - notes not required in the chords are blocked by fingers of the left hand.

This particular ancient lyre-playing technique can actually still be heard today, in the traditional "Krar" lyre players of Eritrea, in East Africa:

 The "block and strum" method of lyre playing also works beautifully on replicas of the unique Northern European lyres of the Dark Ages - this wonderful video clearly demonstrates a particularly advanced style of "block and strum":


In my own performances, I also ornament the melodic lines with plentiful tremolo accompaniments; a style which has also survived to the present day, as can be heard in the lyre-playing techniques of the traditional "simsimyya" lyre players of Port Said, in Egypt.

The Egyptian simsimiyya (Arabic: سمسمية‎) is an amazing wire-strung lyre, still played in Egypt today..which may have had its origins, 4000 years ago, in the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt.

Here is a video featuring one of these amazing traditional Egyptian folk songs from Port Said, as arranged on my evocation of the 3000 year old Lyre of the Ancient Hebrews:


Below are my new series of videos on Youtube, dedicated to explaining more of how I derived the ancient lyre playing techniques heard in my albums of ancient lyre music:




Finally, here is a demonstration of the hypothetical ancient Greek lyre playing technique (proposed by the musicologist, Curt Sachs) of "string-stopping" - using a knuckle of the left hand as a fret on the string in order to play the accidentals, which are clearly noted in many examples of surviving ancient Greek music. The piece I am playing to demonstrate this hypothetical technique, is "Hymn To The Muse" (c.130 CE), composed by Mesomedes of Crete:




The technique known as "string stopping" (producing accidentals on a diatonically strung lyre or harp by shortening the vibrating length of a specific string by using a nail or knuckle of the hand as a fret on the string), was first hypothesised by the musicologist Curt Sachs in 1924, in an attempt to explain how it was possible to play some of the complex, surviving examples we have of ancient Greek music, on a lyre which usually had just 7 strings. 

For me, the most compelling evidence for Curt Sach's hypothesis on the use of string-stopping on the ancient Greek lyre to produce chromaticism, is the visually compelling evidence of the same technique in use, at least one and a half thousand years earlier than the age of Classical Greece, as practiced by the harpists of ancient Egypt... 
There is a fascinating PDF article abut the ancient Egyptian harp from a book excerpt "Ancient Egyptian Musical Instruments" by Moustafa Gadalla, which I recently discovered, featuring an illustration of a relief from tomb 11 in the Ta-Apet (Thebes) area (New Kingdom 1520 BCE) which actually seems to illustrate this unique ancient harp-playing technique : a harper shortens the string with one hand,and plucks with the other - this is surely the first unambiguous pictorial evidence of the technique of string-stopping from the ancient world! The bent string is clearly shown:

Also, the book excerpt mentions that "in Idut’s Tomb [c. 2320 BCE], two of the five depicted harpers pluck with only the right hand, while the left one holds down the string"

In my EP album, "The Ancient Egyptian Harp", I experiment with the ancient Egyptian harp-playing technique described in this article - of using the left hand to shorten the vibrating length of the string, to create microtones or semitones, in the tracks "Ancient Harps of Kemet" & "Hymn to Osiris"  

If string-stopping was an established ancient Egyptian harp-playing technique for playing chromatics, in use from at least as early as 2320 BCE, then surely there can be no problem with Curt Sach's hypothesis that it was also being used 1500 years later, by the lyra & kithara players of Classical Greece? 

 For me, this illustration from ancient Egypt, is the "smoking gun" to prove the existence of Curt Sach's hypothesis of the finger-stopping technique to play accidentals on a diatonically strung lyre or harp - & even more significantly, the existence of this finger-stopping technique is evidence of an understanding of chromaticism by the musicians & composers of antiquity, dating back over 4000 years!  

The music of the ancients was far more intricate, complex, chromatic & harmonic, than any of the exponents of the "Urban Myth of the Monotony of Monophony in the Ancient World" would ever have us falsely believe! 

I am increasingly fascinated in continuing to discover, just how many types of lyres are still played in the world today! The lyre is such an amazingly versatile instrument, and it is such a tragic loss in the Western world, that it can now only be heard in just a few countries dotted around East Africa - it truly was, the "guitar" of the ancient world...




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