A lyre is a stringed musical instrument well known for its use in Classical Antiquity. The recitations of the Ancient Greeks were accompanied by it.
The lyre is a member of the zither family, and was ordinarilly played by strumming, like a guitar, rather than being plucked, like a harp.
According to ancient Greek mythology, the young god Hermes created the lyre from the body of a large tortoise shell (khelus) which he covered with animal hide and antelope horns. Lyres were associated with Apollonian virtues of moderation and equilibrium, contrasting the Dionysian pipes which represented ecstasy and celebration.
Places in southern Europe, western Asia, or north Africa have been proposed as the historic birthplace of the genus. The instrument is still played in north-eastern parts of Africa].
Some of the heroes and improvers of the lyre were of the Aeolian or Ionian Greek colonies on the coasts of Asia (ancient Asia Minor, modern day Turkey) bordering the Lydian empire. Some mythic masters like Orpheus, Musaeus, and Thamyris were believed to have been born in Thrace, another place of heavy Greek colonization. The name kissar (kithara) given by the ancient Greeks to Egyptian box instruments reveals the apparent similarities recognized by Greeks themselves. The cultural peak of ancient Egypt, and thus the possible age of creation, predates the 5th century classic Greece. Thus we can infer that the instrument might have existed in one of Greece's adjacent countries, either Thrace, Lydia, or Egypt, and was introduced into Greece at pre-classic times.
The frame of a lyre consists of a hollow body or sound-chest. From this sound-chest are raised two arms, which are sometimes hollow, and are bent both outward and forward. They are connected near the top by a crossbar or yoke. Another crossbar, fixed on the sound-chest, forms the bridge which transmits the vibrations of the strings. The deepest note was the farthest from the player; but, as the strings did not differ much in length, more weight may have been gained for the deeper notes by thicker strings, as in the violin and similar modern instruments, or they were turned with slacker tension. The strings were of gut. They were stretched between the yoke and bridge, or to a tailpiece below the bridge. There were two ways of tuning: one was to fasten the strings to pegs which might be turned; the other was to change the place of the string upon the crossbar; probably both expedients were simultaneously employed.
Number of strings
The number of strings varied at different epochs, and possibly in different localities – four, seven and ten having been favourite numbers. They were used without a finger-board, no Greek description or representation having ever been met with that can be construed as referring to one. Nor was a bow possible, the flat sound-board being an insuperable impediment. The plectrum, however, was in constant use. It was held in the right hand to set the upper strings in vibration; at other times it hung from the lyre by a ribbon. The fingers of the left hand touched the lower strings.
There is no evidence as to what the stringing of the Greek lyre was in the heroic age. Plutarch says that Olympus and Terpander used but three strings to accompany their recitation. As the four strings led to seven and eight by doubling the tetrachord, so the trichord is connected with the hexachord or six-stringed lyre depicted on so many archaic Greek vases. We cannot insist on the accuracy of this representation, the vase painters being little mindful of the complete expression of details; yet we may suppose their tendency would be rather to imitate than to invent a number. It was their constant practice to represent the strings as being damped by the fingers of the left hand of the player, after having been struck by the plectrum which he held in the right hand. Before Greek civilization had assumed its historic form, there was likely to have been great freedom and independence of different localities in the matter of lyre stringing, which is corroborated by the antique use of the chromatic (half-tone) and enharmonic (quarter-tone) tunings pointing to an early exuberance, and perhaps also to an Asiatic bias towards refinements of intonation.
While the lyre is no longer played in modern Greece, the term lyra lives on as the name shared by various regional types of folk fiddles (bowed lutes) found throughout the country. There are two basic styles of lyra fiddles: 1) a pear-shaped instrument with a vaulted back which is found in the Greek islands – in particular, the Dodecanese and Crete – and the northern mainland regions of Macedonia and Thrace; and 2) an instrument with a narrow rectangular cylinder body of the Pontic Greeks who trace their roots to Pontos (Pontus), the Black Sea region of northern Turkey. (The Pontic Greek lyra is also known as kemenche.) Both types of lyra typically have three strings. They are held vertically upright and bowed horizontally; if the player is seated, the instrument's tail end rests on the upper left thigh. The Cretan lyra is traditionally played in a duo with the laouto, a long-neck fretted lute that's strummed like a guitar.
Types of the classic Greek lyre:
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.