The lyre (Greek: λύρα, lýra) is a string instrument known for its use in Greek classical antiquity and later periods. The lyre is similar in appearance to a small harp but with distinct differences. In organology, lyres are defined as "yoke lutes", being lutes in which the strings are attached to a yoke that lies in the same plane as the sound-table and consists of two arms and a cross-bar.

In Ancient Greece, recitations of lyric poetry were accompanied by lyre playing. 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 (c. 1400 BC).[1][2]

The lyre of classical antiquity was ordinarily played by being strummed with a plectrum (pick), like a guitar or a zither, rather than being plucked with the fingers as with a harp. The fingers of the free hand silenced the unwanted strings in the chord. Later instruments, also called "lyres", were played with a bow in Europe and parts of the Middle East, namely the Arabic rebab and its descendants,[3] including the Byzantine lyra.[4]

Museu arqueologic de Creta43
The Mycenaean sarcophagus of Hagia Triada, 14th century BC, depicting the earliest lyre with seven strings, held by a man with long robe, third from the left.
Mousai Helikon Staatliche Antikensammlungen Schoen80 n1
Greek vase with muse playing the phorminx, a type of lyre
String instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification321.2
(Composite chordophone sounded with a plectrum)
DevelopedSumer, Iraq, Bronze age
Related instruments

The word, its uses and etymology

The earliest reference to the word is the Mycenaean Greek ru-ra-ta-e, meaning "lyrists" and written in the Linear B script.[5] In classical Greek, the word "lyre" could either refer specifically to an amateur instrument, which is a smaller version of the professional cithara and eastern-Aegean barbiton, or "lyre" can refer generally to all three instruments as a family.[6] The English word comes via Latin from the Greek.[7]

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"[8] or Byron's "I wish to tune my quivering lyre, / To deeds of fame, and notes of fire".[9]


A classical lyre has a hollow body or sound-chest (also known as soundbox or resonator), which, in ancient Greek tradition, was made out of turtle shell.[7][10] 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; since 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 tuned by having a 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 that might be turned, while the other was to change the placement of the string on the crossbar; it is likely that both expedients were used simultaneously.[6]

Rhyton en forme de tête de chien, détail
Lyre with tortoiseshell body (rhyton, c. 475 BC)
Pothos Apollo Musei Capitolini MC649
Pothos (Desire), restored as Apollo Citharoedus during the Roman era (1st or 2nd century AD, based on a Greek work c. 300 BC); the cithara strings are not extant.

According to ancient Greek mythology, the young god Hermes stole a herd of sacred cows from Apollo. In order not to be followed, he made shoes for the cows which forced them to walk backwards. Apollo, following the trails, could not follow where the cows were going. Along the way, Hermes slaughtered one of the cows and offered all but the entrails to the gods. From the entrails and a tortoise/turtle shell, he created the Lyre. Apollo, figuring out it was Hermes who had his cows, confronted the young god. Apollo was furious, but after hearing the sound of the lyre, his anger faded. Apollo offered to trade the herd of cattle for the lyre. Hence, the creation of the lyre is attributed to Hermes. Other sources credit it to Apollo himself.[11]

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 (cithara) 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.

Fresco from Pompeii, 1st century AD, National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy
A Roman fresco from Pompeii, 1st century AD, depicting a man in a theatre mask and a woman wearing a garland while playing a lyre; it is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale) of Naples, Italy.

Number of strings used for a lyre

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).[6]

There is no evidence as to the stringing of the Greek lyre 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, or series of four tones filling in the interval of a perfect fourth, so the trichord is connected with the hexachord or six-stringed lyre depicted on many archaic Greek vases. The accuracy of this representation cannot be insisted upon, the vase painters being little mindful of the complete expression of details; yet one 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 held in the right hand.[6] 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 a bias towards refinements of intonation.

Britannica Cithara Ancient Egyptian Cithara
A lyre from Ancient Egypt, found in Thebes


Leier at Musical Instruments Fair Japan 2018-10-20 ライアー
Gärtner Lyre.This modern lyre was created by Edmund Pracht and W. Lothar Gärtner in 1926.

Lyres from various times and places are sometimes regarded by organologists as a branch of the zither family, a general category that includes not only zithers, but many different stringed instruments, such as lutes, guitars, kantele, and psalteries.

Others view the lyre and zither as being two separate classes. Those specialists maintain that the zither is distinguished by strings spread across all or most of its soundboard, or the top surface of its sound-chest, also called soundbox or resonator, as opposed to the lyre, whose strings emanate from a more or less common point off the soundboard, such as a tailpiece. Examples of that difference include a piano (a keyed zither) and a violin (referred to by some as a species of fingerboard lyre). Some specialists even argue that instruments such as the violin and guitar belong to a class apart from the lyre because they have no yokes or uprights surmounting their resonators as "true" lyres have. This group they usually refer to as the lute class, after the instrument of that name, and include within it the guitar, the violin, the banjo, and similar stringed instruments with fingerboards. Those who differ with that opinion counter by calling the lute, violin, guitar, banjo, and other such instruments "independent fingerboard lyres," as opposed to simply "fingerboard lyres" such as the Welsh crwth, which have both fingerboards and frameworks above their resonators.

Other instruments called lyres

Ur lyre
A lyrist on the Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BC

The so-called lyres of Ur, excavated in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), date to 2500 BC and are considered to be the world's oldest surviving stringed instruments.[12]

Over time, the name in the wider Hellenic space came to be used to label mostly bowed lutes such as the Byzantine lyra, the Pontic lyra, the Constantinopolitan lyra, the Cretan lyra, the lira da braccio, the Calabrian lira, the lijerica, the lyra viol, the lirone.

Central and Northern Europe

Sutton Hoo lyre (reconstruction)
Reproduction of the lyre from the Sutton Hoo royal burial (England), c. 600 AD
Dusepo lyre
A reconstruction of a Germanic lyre.

Other instruments known as lyres have been fashioned and used in Europe outside the Greco-Roman world since at least the Iron Age.[13] The remains of what is thought to be the bridge of a 2300-year-old lyre were discovered on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2010 making it Europe's oldest surviving piece of a stringed musical instrument.[13][14] Material evidence suggests lyres became more widespread during the early Middle Ages, and one view holds that many modern stringed instruments are late-emerging examples of the lyre class. There is no clear evidence that non-Greco-Roman lyres were played exclusively with plectra, and numerous instruments regarded by some as modern lyres are played with bows.

Lyres appearing to have emerged independently of Greco-Roman prototypes were used by the Germanic 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.

The last of the bowed yoke lyres with fingerboard was the "modern" (c. 1485–1800) Welsh crwth. It had several predecessors both in the British Isles and in Continental Europe. Pitch was changed on individual strings by pressing the string firmly against the fingerboard with the fingertips. Like a violin, this method shortened the vibrating length of the string to produce higher tones, while releasing the finger gave the string a greater vibrating length, thereby producing a tone lower in pitch. This is the principle on which the modern violin and guitar work.

While the dates of origin and other evolutionary details of the European bowed yoke lyres continue to be disputed among organologists, there is general agreement that none of them were the ancestors of modern orchestral bowed stringed instruments, as once was thought.

Left image: Silenus holding a lyre, detail of a fresco from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Italy, c. 50 BC
Right image: Cupids playing with a lyre, Roman fresco from Herculaneum

Villa dei Misteri IV - 1
Herculaneum - Lyre and Cupids
Lira Pushkin metrostation Kharkov1
The lyre as a symbol of poetry in the Moscow tube

Global variants and parallels

  • Armenia: քնար (knar)
  • British Isles: the Scottish gue and cruit, the Welsh crwth, the English rote or crowd
  • Continental Europe: Germanic or Ango-Saxon lyre (hearpe), rotte or crotte
  • Estonia: talharpa
  • Finland: jouhikko
  • Greece: λύρα (lýra; Modern Greek pronunciation: líra) with the subtypes of Politiki lyra ("Constantinopolitan lyre"), Cretan lyra and Pontic lyra ("lyre of the Black Sea", also known as kemençe)
  • Italy: the Latin chorus, the modern Calabrian lira
  • Lithuania: lyra
  • Norway: giga
  • Poland: lira

See also

  • Asor – an otherwise unknown instrument mentioned in the Old Testament which may have been a type of lyre.
  • Barbiton (Barbitos) – a bass version of the Cithara (Kithara).
  • Cithara (Kithara) – the version of the lyre used by professional musicians.
  • Lyre-guitar


  1. ^ Image of Hagia Triada Sarcophagus, University of Arkansas.
  2. ^ J. A. Sakellarakis. Herakleion Museum. Illustrated Guide to the Museum. Ekdotike Athinon, Athens 1987, p. 113 f.
  3. ^ "rabab (musical instrument) - Encyclopædia Britannica". Retrieved 2013-08-17.
  4. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (2009), lira, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, retrieved 2009-02-20
  5. ^ Palaeolexicon, word study tool of ancient languages.
  6. ^ a b c d West, Martin L. (1992). Ancient Greek Music. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-814975-1.
  7. ^ a b Article "λύρα", in Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library.
  8. ^ Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to the West Wind, I, 57–61.
  9. ^ Lord Byron (1807), Hours of Idleness: To His Lyre.
  10. ^ Entry "Lyre" at Retrieved on 2012-09-17.
  11. ^ For example, the Annales Cambriae (B Text).
  12. ^ Michael Chanan (1994). Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism. Verso. p. 170. ISBN 978-1-85984-005-4.
  13. ^ a b "BBC News - Skye cave find western Europe's 'earliest string instrument'". (2012-03-28). Retrieved on 2012-09-17.
  14. ^ "'Europe's oldest stringed instrument' discovered on Scots island". STV (2012-03-28). Retrieved on 2012-09-17.


  • Wikisource Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Lyre" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Andersson, Otto. The Bowed Harp, translated and edited by Kathleen Schlesinger (London: New Temple Press, 1930).
  • Bachmann, Werner. The Origins of Bowing, trans. Norma Deane (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).
  • Jenkins, J. "A Short Note on African Lyres in Use Today." Iraq 31 (1969), p. 103 (+ pl. XVIII).
  • Kinsky, George. A History of Music in Pictures (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1937).
  • Sachs, Curt. The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, East and West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1943).
  • Sachs, Curt. The History of Musical Instruments (New York: W.W. Norton, 1940).

External links

Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus

Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus is the thirteenth studio album by the Australian alternative rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, released on 20 September 2004 on Mute Records. It is a double album with a total of seventeen songs—nine on Abattoir Blues and eight on The Lyre of Orpheus.


The barbiton, or barbitos (Gr: βάρβιτον or βάρβιτος; Lat. barbitus), is an ancient stringed instrument known from Greek and Roman classics related to the lyre. The barbat or barbud, also sometimes called barbiton, is an unrelated lute-like instrument derived from Persia.

The Greek instrument was a bass version of the kithara, and belonged in the zither family, but in medieval times, the same name was used to refer to a different instrument that was a variety of lute.


Bois-Normand-près-Lyre is a commune in the Eure department in Normandy in northern France.


The chelys (Greek: χέλυς, Latin: testudo), was a stringed musical instrument, the common lyre of the ancient Greeks, which had a convex back of tortoiseshell or of wood shaped like the shell. The word chelys was used in allusion to the oldest lyre of the Greeks, which was said to have been invented by Hermes. According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, he came across a tortoise near the threshold of his mother's home and decided to hollow out the shell to make the soundbox of an instrument with seven strings.

The word has been applied arbitrarily since classic times to various stringed instruments, some bowed and some plucked, probably owing to the back being much vaulted. Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia universalis, 486) applied the name of chelys to a kind of viol with eight strings. Numerous representations of the chelys lyre or testudo occur on Greek vases, in which the actual tortoiseshell is depicted. A good illustration is given in Le Antichità di Ercolano (vol. i. p1. 43). Propertius (iv. 6) calls the instrument the lyra testudinea. Joseph Justus Scaliger was probably the first writer to draw attention to the difference between the chelys and the kithara.The acoustics of an authentically reconstructed ancient Greek tortoise-shell lyre, known as chelys, was investigated recently. Modern experimental methods were employed, such as electronic speckle pattern laser interferometry and impulse response, to extract the vibrational behavior of the instrument and its main parts. Additionally, the emitted sound from the instrument was recorded, under controlled conditions, and spectrally analyzed. Major findings include the concentration of the emitted sound between 400 Hz and 800 Hz, with an amplitude modified in a manner consistent with the experimentally measured vibrational characteristics of the instrument’s sound box and bridge. The experimental results validate the historical evidence that chelys was used in Greek antiquity as an accompaniment instrument to the human voice.


The cithara or kithara (Greek: κιθάρα, romanized: kithāra, Latin: cithara) 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 which etymologically stems from kithara.The kithara was a professional version of the two-stringed lyre. As opposed to the simpler lyre, which was a folk-instrument, the kithara was primarily used by professional musicians, called kitharodes. The kithara's origins are likely Anatolian. The barbiton was a bass version of the kithara popular in the eastern Aegean and ancient Anatolia.

In the Middle Ages, cythara was also used generically for stringed instruments including lyres, but also including lute-like instruments. The use of the name throughout the Middle Ages looked back to the original Greek kithara, and its abilities to sway people's emotions.


A glockenspiel (German pronunciation: [ˈɡlɔkənˌʃpiːl] or [ˈɡlɔkŋ̍ˌʃpiːl], Glocken: bells and Spiel: set) is a percussion instrument composed of a set of tuned keys arranged in the fashion of the keyboard of a piano. In this way, it is similar to the xylophone; however, the xylophone's bars are made of wood, while the glockenspiel's are metal plates or tubes, thus making it a metallophone. The glockenspiel, moreover, is usually smaller and higher in pitch.In German, a carillon is also called a Glockenspiel, while in French, the glockenspiel is often called a carillon. In music scores the glockenspiel is sometimes designated by the Italian term campanelli.

Harp guitar

The harp guitar (or "harp-guitar") is a guitar-based stringed instrument generally defined as a "guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking." The word "harp" is used in reference to its harp-like unstopped open strings. A harp guitar must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard, typically played as an open string.

This family consists of many varieties of instrument configurations. Most readily identified are American harp guitars with either hollow arms, double necks or harp-like frames for supporting extra bass strings, and European bass guitars (or contraguitars). Other harp guitars feature treble or mid-range floating strings, or various combinations of multiple floating string banks along with a standard guitar neck.

Hinckley Priory

Hinckley Priory was a small medieval monastic house in the town of Hinckley, Leicestershire, England.


The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument that produces sound by a hand crank-turned, rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow, and single notes played on the instrument sound similar to those of a violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents—small wedges, typically made of wood—against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic stringed instruments, it has a sound board and hollow cavity to make the vibration of the strings audible.

Most hurdy-gurdies have multiple drone strings, which give a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy-gurdy is often used interchangeably or along with bagpipes, particularly in Occitan, Catalan, Cajun French and contemporary Asturian, Cantabric, Galician, and Hungarian folk music.

Many folk music festivals in Europe feature music groups with hurdy-gurdy players. The most famous has been held since 1976 at Saint-Chartier in the Indre département in Central France. In 2009, it relocated nearby to the Château d'Ars at La Châtre, where it continues to take place during the week nearest July 14 (Bastille Day).

La Neuve-Lyre

La Neuve-Lyre is a commune in the Eure department in Normandy in northern France. It is located on the D830 road between Evreux and L'Aigle.

La Vieille-Lyre

La Vieille-Lyre is a commune in the Eure department in Normandy in northern France. On 1 January 2019, the former commune Champignolles was merged into La Vieille-Lyre.


A musical instrument of the chordophone family, the lyre-guitar was a type of guitar shaped like a lyre. It had six single courses and was tuned like the modern classical guitar, with a fretboard located between two curved arms recalling the shape of the ancient Greek lyre.

The lyre-guitar nearly always had a built-in pedestal allowing it to stand upright when not in use.

Lyre-tailed king bird-of-paradise

The lyre-tailed king bird-of-paradise, also known as the lyre-tailed king, lonely little king or crimson bird-of-paradise, is a bird in the family Paradisaeidae that is a hybrid between a king bird-of-paradise and magnificent bird-of-paradise.

Lyre GAA

Lyre GAA is a Gaelic Athletic Association club which takes its name from the nearby village of Lyre, County Cork, and is based in the village of Banteer in the North West of County Cork, Ireland. The club plays in the Duhallow division in Gaelic Football competitions and is affiliated with Banteer hurling club from the same parish. Their first team competes in the Duhallow Junior A Football Championship and the Duhallow Junior A Football League.

In 2010, the club won its first ever Duhallow Junior A Football Championship title.


A lyrebird is either of two species of ground-dwelling Australian birds that compose the genus Menura, and the family Menuridae. They are most notable for their superb ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment, and the striking beauty of the male bird's huge tail when it is fanned out in courtship display. Lyrebirds have unique plumes of neutral-coloured tailfeathers and are among Australia's best-known native birds.


Phorminx is also a genus of cylindrical bark beetles.

The phorminx (in Ancient Greek φόρμιγξ) was one of the oldest of the Ancient Greek stringed musical instruments, intermediate between the lyre and the kithara. It consisted of two to seven strings, richly decorated arms and a crescent-shaped sound box. It mostly probably originated from Mesopotamia. While it seems to have been common in Homer's day, accompanying the rhapsodes, it was supplanted in historical times by the seven-stringed kithara. Nevertheless, the term phorminx continued to be used as an archaism in poetry.

The term phorminx is also sometimes used in both ancient and modern writing to refer to all four instruments of the lyre family collectively:





Tanja sail

Tanja sail (Malay: layar tanja) or tanja rig is a type of sail commonly used by the Malay people and other Austronesians, particularly in Maritime Southeast Asia. It is also known as the tilted square sail, canted rectangular sail, or balance lug sail in English. In historical sources, tanja sail is sometimes incorrectly to referred as lateen sail or simply square sail.

Vulcan (Star Trek)

Vulcans (sometimes Vulcanians) are a fictional extraterrestrial humanoid species in the Star Trek universe and media franchise. In the various Star Trek television series and movies, they are noted for their attempt to live by logic and reason with as little interference from emotion as possible. Known for their pronounced eyebrows and pointed ears, they originate from the fictional planet Vulcan. In the Star Trek universe, they were the first extraterrestrial species to make first contact with humans.

The most famous actor to portray a Vulcan is Leonard Nimoy, who first played the character Mr. Spock (picture shown at right) in Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969).

Éditions de l'Oiseau-Lyre

Éditions de l'Oiseau-Lyre (commonly referred to as L'Oiseau-Lyre) is a French music publishing company and a classical music record label that specialises in Early and Baroque music. It was founded in 1932 as a publisher of scholarly editions of Early music that had never been previously published. Its specialist recording arm, developed from the 1960s onwards, grew into a specialist label that is now a part of Decca.

String Instruments
Percussion instruments
See also

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