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The lyre is a stringed musical instrument well known for its use in classical antiquity and later. The word comes from the Greek "λύρα" (lyra) and the earliest reference to the word is the Mycenaean Greek ru-ra-ta-e, meaning "lyrists", written in Linear B syllabic script. The earliest picture of a lyre with seven strings appears in the famous sarcophagus of Hagia Triada (a Minoan settlement in Crete). The sarcophagus was used during the Mycenaean occupation of Crete (1400 BC).The recitations of the Ancient Greeks were accompanied by lyre playing. The lyre of Classical Antiquity was ordinarily played by being strummed with a plectrum, like a guitar or a zither, rather than being plucked, like a harp. The fingers of the free hand silenced the unwanted strings in the chord. The lyre is similar in appearance to a small harp, but with certain distinct differences.
The word lyre can either refer specifically to a common folk-instrument, which is a smaller version of the professional kithara and eastern-Aegean barbiton, or lyre can refer generally to all three instruments as a family.
The term is also used metaphorically to refer to the work or skill of a poet, as in Shelley's "Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is"or Byron's "I wish to tune my quivering lyre,/To deeds of fame, and notes of fire"
Arguably the Lyre belongs to the Zither family which alos includes lutes, guitars, kantele, and psalteries. There are some points organologists can agree on. First, the Lyre and Harp are related. Secondly, the Lyre and Harp are not the same.
A classical lyre has a hollow body or sound-chest (also known as soundbox or resonator). Extending from this sound-chest are two raised arms, which are sometimes hollow, and are curved both outward and forward. They are connected near the top by a crossbar or yoke. An additional crossbar, fixed to the sound-chest, makes the bridge which transmits the vibrations of the strings. The deepest note was that farthest from the player's body; as the strings did not differ much in length, more weight may have been gained for the deeper notes by thicker strings, or they were tuned by having a slacker tension. 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 used simultaneously.
The number of strings on the classical lyre varied at different epochs, and possibly in different localities – four, seven and ten having been favorite numbers. They were used without a fingerboard, 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 pick, or plectrum, however, was in constant use. It was held in the right hand to set the upper strings in vibration; when not in use, it hung from the instrument by a ribbon. The fingers of the left hand touched the lower strings (presumably to silence those whose notes were not wanted).
According to ancient Greek mythology, the young god Hermes created the lyre from a slaughtered cow from Apollo's sacred herd, using the intestines for the strings - eventually Apollo discovered who had stolen his herd, but Hermes was forgiven after he gave Apollo the instrument. Lyres were associated with Apollonian virtues of moderation and equilibrium, contrasting with the Dionysian pipes and aulos, both of which represented ecstasy and celebration.
Locales 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 cultures using and developing the lyre were the Aeolian and Ionian Greek colonies on the coasts of Asia (ancient Asia Minor, modern day Turkey) bordering the Lydian empire. Some mythic masters like Musaeus, and Thamyris were believed to have been born in Thrace, another place of extensive 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 the earliest instruments of this type, predates the 5th century classic Greece. This indicates the possibility that the lyre might have existed in one of Greece's neighboring countries, either Thrace, Lydia, or Egypt, and was introduced into Greece at pre-classic times.
Lyres appearing to have emerged independently of Greco-Roman prototypes were used by the Teutonic, Gallic, Scandinavian, and Celtic peoples over a thousand years ago. Dates of origin, which probably vary from region to region, cannot be determined, but the oldest known fragments of such instruments are thought to date from around the sixth century of the Common Era. After the bow made its way into Europe from the Middle-East, around two centuries later, it was applied to several species of those lyres that were small enough to make bowing practical. There came to be two broad classes of bowed European yoke lyres: those with fingerboards dividing the open space within the yoke longitudinally, and those without fingerboards. The last surviving examples of instruments within the latter class were the Scandinavian talharpa and the Finnish jouhikko. Different tones could be obtained from a single bowed string by pressing the fingernails of the player's left hand against various points along the string to fret the string.
Below, Earliest known depiction of lyra in a Byzantine ivory casket (900 - 1100 AD)
In the Byzantine Empire the term lyre or lyra was used to describe the bowed Byzantine lyra, a pear-shaped bowl lyre with 3 strings, sounded by a horse tail hair bow. The Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih of the 9th century, in his lexicographical discussion of instruments, cited the Byzantine lyra as the Byzantine instrument equivalent to the bowed rebab of the Islamic empires of that time. The Byzantine lyra spread westward through Europe influencing, for one notable example, the design of the Italian lira da braccio, a 15th-century fiddle and predecessor of the modern violin. The instrument is not entirely dead, even today; variations of the lyra are still played in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Turkey; a notable example is Crete, where the Cretan lyra is central to the traditional music of the island.
The cithara or kithara was an ancient Greek musical instrument in the lyre or lyra family. In modern Greek the word kithara has come to mean "guitar" (a word whose origins are found in kithara).
The kithara was a professional version of the two-stringed lyre. As opposed to the simpler lyre, which was a folk-instrument, the cithara was primarily used by professional musicians, called citharedes. The barbiton was a bass version of the kithara popular in the eastern Aegean and ancient Asia Minor.
Jewish vase drawing depicting a man playing a cithara with eight strings. (right)
The jouhikko (pictured left) is a traditional, 2 or 3 stringed bowed lyre, from Finland and Karelia. Its strings are traditionally of horsehair. The playing of this instrument died out in the early 20th century but has been revived and there are now a number of musicians playing it.
Sources: All info and images from Wikipedia...just reconfigured a little :)
I hope you guys are looking forward to upcoming articles on the Lute, Mandolin, Barimbau and more!