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Viking Age Music

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

I've attended many a song-fire and bardic circle, and I love to sing and I play a number of medieval instruments -- but all the pieces I know are either medieval songs, or else post-medieval folk music. The problem is, I have a Viking persona, and I'd like to be able to develop pieces for performance much more in line with my persona. What kind of music and instruments did the Vikings have? Where can I get sheet music or recordings of Viking Age music and songs?

(signed) Skald with Nothing to Sing

Gentle Reader:

It has been asserted with some justice that music and song are two of the characteristics that are found among every human culture. The Vikings certainly did have music, and musical instruments. However, the Viking Age occurred before the technology of writing on vellum or paper arrived in Scandinavia. While a few accounts exist from outside observers contemporary with the Vikings, and a number of orally-transmitted materials were recorded by Scandinavians harking back to the days of their Viking ancestors, these are few indeed. Further, the technology of recording music was not even well-known among the Christian peoples of more southerly lands during the early Middle Ages, so recorded scores are extremely rare. Still, archaeological finds, the literary accounts, and musical survivals in remote areas give good clues to the music of the Vikings.

Literary Mentions of Early Germanic Music

Music in the Germanic World

Before the advent of the Viking Age, the Germanic peoples were known to sing songs of their gods and heroes. The oldest such record comes from the Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania:

Fuisse apud eos et Herculem memorant, primumque omnium virorum fortium ituri in proelia canunt. Sunt illis haec quoque carmina, quorum relatu, quem barditum vocant, accendunt animos futuraeque pugnae fortunam ipso cantu augurantur. Terrent enim trepidantve, prout sonuit acies, nec tam vocis ille quam virtutis concentus videtur. Adfectatur praecipue asperitas soni et fractum murmur, obiectis ad os scutis, quo plenior et gravior vox repercussu intumescat.

[They say that Hercules, too, once visited them; and when going into battle, they sing of him first of all heroes. They have also those songs of theirs, by the recital of this "baritus," as they call it, they rouse their courage, while from the note they augur the result of the approaching conflict. For, as their line shouts, they inspire or feel alarm. It is not so much an articulate sound, as a general cry of valor. They aim chiefly at a harsh note and a confused roar, putting their shields to their mouth, so that, by reverberation, it may swell into a fuller and deeper sound.]

When the Goths attacked the Roman Empire in the tragic era around 375, the Gothic warriors encouraged each other with songs of their forefathers. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote later of these events:

XXI.7.11. barbari vero maiorum laudes clamoribus stridebant inconditis.

[In truth the barbarians shrieked out songs of praise of their forefathers with disorderly shouts.]

Priscus, an ambassador from the Byzantines, visited the court of Atilla the Hun in 448 and described in this account how he was present at a great feast given by the Huns. The poetry described in this account was likely similar to Germanic music for celebrations. At Attila's feast we read of two skalds who told of the exploits of those present and so moving were their songs, that listeners burst into tears. At the Scandinavian feasts accompanying the blót or sacrifices, it was customary to drink the minni, a toast of rememberance, and at the beginning of the minni-toasts, we are told, also accounts were given of people's exploits and deeds.

When evening fell torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila sang songs they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valour in war. And of the guests, as they looked at the singers, some were pleased with the verses, others reminded of wars were excited in their souls, while yet others, whose bodies were feeble with age and their spirits compelled to rest, shed tears (Priscus, Fragment 8 of Excerpta de legationibus).

Jordanes wrote ca. 500 AD of how the Goths emigrated from Scandinavia:

Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name.... Thence the victors hastened to the farthest part of Scythia, which is near the sea of Pontus; for so the story is generally told in their early songs, in almost historic fashion (Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths IV: 25 & 28).

In earliest times they sang of the deeds of their ancestors in strains of song accompanied by the cithara; chanting of Eterpamara, Hanala, Fritigern, Vidigoia and others whose fame among them is great; such heroes as admiring antiquity scarce proclaims its own to be (Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths V:42).

In another context Jordanes writes of the Capillati (the long-haired):

These and various other matters Dicineus taught the Goths in his wisdom and gained marvellous repute among them, so that he ruled not only the common men but their kings. He chose from among them those that were at that time of noblest birth and superior wisdom and taught them theology, bidding them worship certain divinities and holy places. He gave the name of Pilleati to the priests he ordained, I suppose because they offered sacrifice having their heads covered with tiaras, which we otherwise call pillei. But he bade them call the rest of their race Capillati. This name the Goths accepted and prized highly, and they retain it to this day in their songs(Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths XI:71-72).

In 797 Alcuin, an advisor to the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, wrote in a letter to Speratus, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, that he had heard reports of heathen songs and poems:

Verba Dei legantur in sacerdotali convivio. Ibi decet lectorem audiri, non citharistam; sermones patrum, non carmina gentilium. Quid Hinieldus cum Christo? Angusta est domus: utrosque tenere non poterit. Non vult rex caelestis cum paganis et perditis nomine tenus regibus communionem habere.

[Let the Word of God be heard when the priests eat together. They should listen to the lector, not the cithara (lyre); to sermons of the Church Fathers, not to songs in the vernacular. What has Ingeld to do with Christ? Our house is not wide enough to hold both. The king of heaven wants nothing to do with damned pagans holding the title of king.]

Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon) wrote ca. 700 in his Historia Langobardorum of the Langobard king Alboin, who lived ca. 500. The Historia relates how this king became a part of the Germanic historical songs:

Alboin vero ita praeclarum longe lateque nomen percrebuit, ut hactenus etiam tam apud Baioariorum gentem quamque et Saxonum, sed et alios eiusdem linguae homines eius liberalitas et gloria bellorumque felicitas et virtus in eorum carminibus celebretur (Paulus Diaconus, Historia Langobardorum I:27).

[The name of Alboin, on the other hand, won such reputation and was known so widely, that still today his generosity and his honor, his courage and success in war are praised in songs by the Baioares as well as the Saxons and other folk with the same language.]

Arabic Descriptions of Viking Age Music

The Arabic ambassador Ibn Fadlan mentions singing at the funeral of a Viking chieftain among the Scandinavian Rus ca. the late 900's in his Risala:

They burn him in this fashion: they leave him for the first ten days in a grave. His possessions they divide into three parts: one part for his daughters and wives; another for garments to clothe the corpse; another part covers the cost of the intoxicating drink which they consume in the course of ten days, uniting sexually with women and playing musical instruments (§ 87).

After that, the group of men who have cohabitated with the slave girl make of their hands a sort of paved way whereby the girl, placing her feet on the palms of their hands, mounts onto the ship. The men came with shields and sticks. She was given a cup of intoxicating drink; she sang at taking it and drank. The interpreter told me that she in this fashion bade farewell to all her girl companions. Then she was given another cup; she took it and sang for a long time while the old woman incited her to drink up and go into the pavillion where her master lay (§ 90).

Another 10th century Arabic observer, the traveller and merchant Ibrahim Ibn Ahmad Al-Tartushi, upon visiting the Danish trade-center of Haithabu (Hedeby) ca. 950 noted:

Never before I have heard uglier songs than those of the Vikings in Slesvig (in Denmark). The growling sound coming from their throats reminds me of dogs howling, only more untamed.

Christian Descriptions of Viking Age Music

The German priest and historian Adam of Bremen wrote about Scandinavia ca. 1000 based on other written records and interviews with sailors, merchants and missionaries. In his account of the heathen temple at Uppsala, Adam mentions the singing of obscene songs during the ceremony:

Ceterum neniae, quae in eiusmodi ritu libationis fieri solent, multiplices et inhonestae, ideoque melius reticendae (Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, IV:27).

[By the way, it is said that the songs sung during the ceremony are numerous and obscene, so that it is better to say nothing about them.]

The Danish priest and historian Saxo Grammaticus (d. 1220), in the service of the archbishop Absalon, tells how in heathen times fertility rites in Uppsala were accompanied by crepitacula, some type of jingling, ringing objects. It is not clear whether Saxo is referring to a bell or a rattling instrument.

Ubi cum filiis Frø septennio feriatus ab his tandem ad Haconem Daniae tyrannum se contulit, quod apud Upsalam sacrificiorum tempore constitutus effeminatos corporum motus scaenicosque mimorum plausus ac mollia nolarum crepitacula fastidiret. Unde patet, quam remotum a lascivia animum habuerit, qui ne eius quidem spectator esse sustinuit. Adeo virtus luxui resistit (Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, VI:5.10).

[He went into the land of the Swedes, where he lived at leisure for seven years' space with the sons of Frey. At last he left them and betook himself to Hakon, the tyrant of Denmark, because when stationed at Uppsala, at the time of the sacrifices, he was disgusted by the effeminate gestures and the clapping of the mimes on the stage, and by the unmanly clatter of the bells. Hence it is clear how far he kept his soul from lasciviousness, not even enduring to look upon it. Thus does virtue withstand wantonness.]

Saxo also tells of a lyre-player, who played for King Erik Ejegod:

Cuius prima specie praesentes veluti maestitia ac stupore complevit. Qui postmodum ad petulantiorem mentis statum vegetioribus lyrae sonis adducti, iocabundis corporum motibus gestiendo dolorem plausu permutare coeperunt. Postremo ad rabiem et temeritatem usque modis acrioribus incitati, captum amentia spiritum clamoribus prodiderunt. Ita animorum habitus modorum varietas inflectebat. Igitur qui in atrio melodiae expertes constiterant, regem cum admissis dementire cognoscunt irruptaque aede furentem complexi comprehensum continere nequibant. Quippe nimio captu furoris instinctus eorum se valide complexibus eruebat; naturae siquidem eius vires etiam rabies cumulabat. Victo itaque colluctantium robore, procursum nactus, convulsis regiae foribus arreptoque ense, quattuor militum continendi eius gratia propius accedentium necem peregit. Ad ultimum pulvinarium mole, quae undique a satellitibus congerebantur, obrutus, magno cum omnium periculo comprehenditur. Ubi vero mente constitit, laesae primum militiae iusta persolvit (Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, XII:6).

[First he performed various pieces so that everyone was filled with grief and numbness. And afterwards the sound of the lyre forced them to an impudent and lively state of mind, then jesting tunes which made them eager to move their bodies and they commenced to exchange anguish for applause. Finally it enraged them to madness and rashness, so that they were seized by madness and in utter fury gave great cries. Thus the state of their minds was changed variously. Therefore when the music in the hall came to an end, they saw that the king was driven to madness and rage, so that they were unable to restrain him. Thus they were seized by excessive madness and powerfully overthrown by fury; according to their natures the men's madness increased. And so overcome by the strength of the struggle, he broke their hold and darted forward, wrenched open the door and seized a sword and killed four of his warriors, and none could come near enough to restrain him. At the end his courtiers took cushions and from every side approached, throwing them over him until at great risk they all were able to seize him. When he regained his wits, he paid the just weregild for the warriors' injuries.]

Mentions of Music in Old Norse Literature

There is some opinion that some of the surviving Old Norse poetry that we have may represent work-songs or chants (Hjálmar Ragnarsson). One of these is Grottasöngr, which tells the story of the magic mill that eventually turned the sea to salt. Some see Grottasöngr as an example of a song to be sung while turning a mill or performing other heavy, repetitive work. Another example is the poem Darraðarljóð from Njáls saga, which describes the valkyries weaving on a gruesome loom, which has been interpreted as either a work song, or being patterned after typical women's weaving songs.

Archaeological Finds of Viking Age Musical Instruments

Woodwind Instruments

Replica of 13th century bone flute from Århus, DenmarkModern bone flute replicas made from deer bonesThe Vikings had a variety of instruments. The first were bone or wood wind instruments. The easily-hollowed branches of the elder tree have been providing simple whistles for children and musicians alike in every land in which the tree grows since antiquity. Bone whistles and recorders have also been recovered, most commonly crafted from the legbone of a cow, deer, or from large birds (the Romans had a similar tradition at one point, for the Latin term for a flute is tibia). Bone wind instruments produce a remarkably plangent sound. The ones which have been recovered are all end-blown, with the sound being produced by an inset bone or more often wood fipple. The normal number of finger holes is three, although examples with up to seven holes has been found. The photograph shown at the left is a replica of a 13th century example of a bone flute crafted from a sheep's leg bone, found at Århus, Denmark. Other examples have been recovered from the Swedish trading center of Birka, represented by bone flutes with two finger holes, dating to 800 - 900 AD.

Listen to the sound of the reconstructed Århus flute

Modern replica of the wind instrument from FalsterAnother type of woodwind instrument was a part of an instrument that was found during the excavations of a shipyard at Fribrødre river on Falster, Denmark and which dates from the last half of the 11th century. It is unclear exactly what the original instrument was. Some people think that the Falster find represents a part of a bagpipe-like instrument, but there is no bag or other pipes associated with the pipe to make this a sure theory. In the photograph on the right another reconstruction is shown, in which a wooden mouthpiece has been added, creating an instrument much like a hornpipe.

Listen to the sound of the reconstructed Falster pipe

Modern replica of the Jorvik panpipesPanpipes from the Coppergate excavations at York, EnglandThe Coppergate excavations have unearthed yet another Viking Age woodwind instrument, a set of panpipes made from a small slab of boxwood which date from the 10th century. This Anglo-Scandinavian instrument was created by boring holes into the wood at different depths, then the top of the hole was bevelled slightly to form a comfortable rest for the player's lip. The recovered panpipes have five "pipes" surviving, though it is obvious that originally there were more, and even today the instrument has a five-note scale, from high A to high E.

Listen to the sound of the reconstructed Jorvik panpipe

Modern replica of the Västerby cow-horn recorderGemshorn, a related instrument from 15th century EuropeAnother type of wind instrument would be a type of recorder made from a cow-horn. A four-hole cow-horn recorder was found at Västerby in Sweden, with the mouthpiece being at the small tip of the horn (see photo of replica at left). A similar instrument was found in Konsterud, Visnum parish, Värmland, with a length of approximately 27 cm and having five finger holes. These cow horn recorders are similar in sound to the gemshorn, another recorder-like instrument, which has its mouthpiece at the wide end of the horn, which is stopped with a wooden plug (see photo at right). The earliest record of the gemshorn comes from 1511, long after the close of the Viking Age.

Listen to the sound of the reconstructed cow-horn recorder or gemshorn

"Brass" Instruments

Cow-horn trumpet from the Bayeaux TapestryThe instrument many people think of when imagining Viking musical instruments is a trumpet or blast horn made from a cow horn. There does not seem to be direct evidence for these from the Viking Age archaeological record. However, horn instruments of this type were certainly in use in Northern Europe during the Viking Age, for musicians playing blast horns are depicted on the Bayeux tapestry, which was made around 1070, shortly after William of Normandy, a descendant of the Vikings, had landed and conquered England.

Modern Shepherd's Lur from NorwayBronze Age LurAnother trumpet-like instrument of the Viking Age was the lur, a type of straight trumpet made of wood. There is a considerable amount of confusion caused by the name of this instrument, since it is also used for the trumpet-like instruments of the Scandinavian Bronze Age, long before the Viking Age began (see example at right). The lur of the Viking Age is known from the Oseberg ship-burial, ca. 834 AD. The instrument was 106.5 cm long (about 42 inches), made of wood which had been split lengthwise, the interior hollowed, then the halves banded back together tightly with willow bands. This instrument is almost identical to a wooden trumpet played in Scandinavia by shepherds up to the present day, with the shepherds' instruments being held together with strips of birch bark instead of willow bands (an example of the shepherd's lur is shown at left). It is unknown whether the lur was considered a musical instrument during the Viking Age, as the primary use for the shepherd's lur-horn up to the present to call the cattle home. Horns like this may also have been used for summoning warriors or sending warnings.

Listen to the sound of the wooden lur

Stringed Instruments

St. David Playing the Lyre, 8th cent.Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo LyreThe next type of instrument is the lyre or harp. The sagas mention the harp as a gentleman's instrument, however we do not have a surviving example from Scandinavia. It is believed, however, that the Norse harp would not be too different from the lyre or harp found in the Sutton Hoo burial (a reconstruction of this harp is shoown at the right). Portions of 18 lyres have been found in Scandinavia and its colonies. The Swedish finds are represented by two bridge-pieces: one of amber from Broa, Halla parish in Gotland, from the late 700's, and one of horn from Birka, 800's. These finds are the oldest evidence for stringed instruments in Scandinavia.

Early medieval manuscripts show a variety of illustrations of this type of lyre in use. Those with seven strings or less seem usually to have been played by holding the instrument upright resting on one leg, with the left hand held behind the instrument with the fingers spread, apparently against the strings. The right hand may hold some kind of plectrum, or in some cases the right hand appears to be strumming the strings backhanded, which would result in striking with the fingernails. One example of such illuminations is the depiction of King David from the Vespasian Psalter, dating from around the early 700's. Lyres with eight strings or more seem to have been played by plucking the strings in the same way that harps are played, where both hands are plucking the strings. (Priest-Dorman, The Saxon Lyre: History, Construction, and Playing Techniques)

An excellent discussion of this instrument, with plans for making your own, is located at:

Listen to the sound of the reconstructed lyre

Reconstruction of the Hedeby RebecApparently some sort of fiddle or rebec-like instrument was likewise known, but was apparently not native to the North, being imported at the start of the Middle Ages from the Continent (Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, p. 188; Williams p. 323) An example was found in the trade town of Hedeby, and a reconstruction of that instrument is shown to the left.

Rhythym Instruments

Celtic BodhranSaami Drum and Manuscript Depiction of Drum in UseThe Vikings also probably had drums. These would be of the bodhran or Celtic hand-drum type (see pictures at left), similar also to the skin-headed drums used by the Saami (Lapp) shaman (see pictures at right). These drums consisted of a shallow round or oval wooden frame supported by one or two cross bars inside placed like wheel spokes. Over the frame was stretched a taut rawhide head. The instrument was played while gripping the crossbars from underneath: this meant that the fingers of the gripping hand underneath could contact the drum head for tuning or dampening, and also that the diameter was limited to a size that one could hold in such a manner. The drum itself could played with some type of striker, or with the bare hand. The Celtic drum uses a double-ended barbell shaped striker, while the Saami use a striker shaped like a hammer.

Another item which has been tenatively identified as a musical instrument is a bone-spinner made of the metatarsal bone of a pig, with holes drilled in the middle, dating to 800-900 AD. A long strong would have been threaded in a loop through the holes, so that the bone would be held suspended in the middle while the user grasped the string on either side. The device is then wound up by spinning the bone, and when the user pulls their hands apart, putting tension on the strings, te device unwinds rapidly, producing a whirring or buzzing noise. Similar items are used today generally constructed of a large button strung on a string, often found as children's toys: this find may in fact actually represent a toy.

Rattles were also known and used. One example from Stövernhaugen, Norway and dating to ca. 800-1050 AD consists of three iron rings threaded on a large oval ring, and the whole attached to the top of a stave 170 cm long (approximately 5 feet, 7 inches). The stave would have been tapped against the floor to produce a drumming noise from the staff and chiming or clashing from the iron rings. Similarly-constructed rattles are also found attached to horse-harnesses or to horse-drawn vehicles such as sledges or cleighs. These also consist of iron rings, usually threaded on a larger oval ring. One example comes from Akershus, Norway, 800-900 AD.

Reconstructing the Sound of Viking Age Music

This brings us to what the music of the Vikings might have sounded like. The simple answer is that we do not know. No tablature or written music was recorded or if recorded, survived to the present day. Some modern experts have made educated guesses as to what Viking music may have sounded like.

Drømde mig en drøm i nat

The earliest piece of Scandinavian music thus discovered comes from the Codex Runicus, a vellum manuscript dating from c. 1300 and containing early Danish law texts, most importantly the so-called Skånske lov, or Scanian law. The Codex Runicus is also the source for the melody "Drømte mig en drøm i nat." This melody, thought to be the first two lines of a ballad or folksong, is found on the last leaf of the manuscript, written in the same hand as the text on the preceding eight leaves, but otherwise with no obvious connexion to it. It is the oldest preserved piece of music known in Denmark.

The text reads:

Drømde mig en drøm i nat,
um silki ok ærlik pæl.

(I dreamt a dream last night,
of silk and fine fur).

Nobilis humilis

An earlier piece of music which may shed light on Viking Age musical traditions is a twelfth century gymel or "tune in two parts," Nobilis humilis, written in praise of St Magnus in Latin by the monks of St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. St. Magnus was martyred on the island of Egilsay on 16 April, 1117 during a dispute with his cousin, Earl Hakon, over the just division of the Earldom of Orkney. Nobilis humilis is preserved in the same 13th-century manuscript as Ex te lux oritur, the hymn for the 1281 wedding of Princess Margaret of Scotland and Eric II of Norway.

The hymn is in a two-voice polyphony in the Lydian mode and harmonized in parallel thirds. This can also be described as a parallel organum in thirds, one of the earliest polyphonic forms. The original notation of Nobilis humilis does not show the rhythm, however scholars have shown from a variety of other evidence that the hymn is made up of melodic and rhythmic formulas that formed the building blocks of various secular lays preserved in slightly later manuscripts, and is thought to reflect a much earlier epic style (Wulstan, "Polyphony").

Nobilis humilis manuscript

Modern commentators describe the tune of Nobilis humilis with descriptions such as "eerie," because the harmony is one that is unfamiliar to modern ears. The strangeness of the music and one's modern reaction to it make one think of the Arabic commentators who compared the singing of the Vikings, unfamiliar to their ears, to the howling of wolves or dogs. The music is beautiful, yet our reaction to it colors the way people perceive the music. The major third, found in Nobilis humilis, was regarded as a dissonant interval in the early Middle Ages in Europe, probably because most European music at the time utilized Pythagorean tuning, which gives pure fifths, but very nasty thirds (Lie, "Viking Songs").

The words of the hymn begin:

Nobilis, humilis,
Magne martyr stabilis,
Habilis, utilis,
comes venerabilis
et tutor laudabilis,
tuos subditos serva carnis
fragilis mole positos.

The gymel singing style is known from the Scandinavian-influenced parts of Britain (Robinson and Parrish). The author Giraldus Cambrensis notes this early use of harmony, and attributes its presence in Britain and Wales to Scandinavian influence:

In borealibus quoque majoris Britanniae partibus, trans Humbriam scilicet Eboracique finibus, Anglorum populi qui partes illas inhabitant simili canendo symphonica utuntur harmonia: binis tamen solummodo tonorum differentiis et vocum modulando varietatibus, una inferius submurmurante, altera vero superne demulcente pariter et delectante. Nec arte tamen sed usu longaevo et quasi in naturam mora diutina jam converso, haec vel illa sibi gens hanc specialitatem comparavit. Qui adeo apud utramque invaluit et altas jam radices posuit, ut nihil hic simpliciter, nihil nisi multipliciter ut apud priores, vel saltem dupliciter ut apud sequentes melice proferri consueverit; pueris etiam, quod magis admirandum, et fere infantibus, cum primum a fletibus in cantus erumpunt, eandem modulationem observantibus.

Angli vero, quoniam non generaliter omnes sed boreales solum hujusmodi vocum utuntur modulationibus, credo quod a Dacis et Norwagiensibus qui partes illas insulae frequentius occupare ac diutius obtinere solebant, sicut loquendi affinitatem, sic et canendi proprietatem contraxerunt.

Also in the northern parts of of Britain, that is, beyond the Humber and around York, the people who inhabit these parts use a similar kind of singing in symphonic harmony [i.e., based on the symphoniae or concords]: but with a variety of only two distinct melodies and parts, one murmuring below, the other equally soothing and charming the ear above. Yet in both nations this special style has been acquired not by studied art but by long usage, so that it has now become as it were a habit of second nature. And this has now become so strong in either nation, and taken such firm roots, that one never hears simple singing, but either with many voices as in the former [Wales], or nevertheless at least two as in the latter [northern England]. And what is yet more marvellous: even children, and indeed infants, almost from when they first turn from tears to songs, follow the same fashion of singing.

Since the English do not generally use this manner of singing, but only the northerners, I believe that it is from the Danes and Norwegians, who often used to occupy these parts of the island and were wont to hold them for long periods of time, that the inhabitants have acquired likewise their affinities of speech and their special manner of singing (Robinson and Parrish).

Based on the evidence of the hymn Nobilis humilis, combined with the observations of Giraldus Cambrensis, there are hints that Viking Age secular music may have used harmony and other features found in the Orkney hymn.

Edda Music

Aside from these two early pieces of music, and the musical instruments from the Viking Age, there are not other clues as to how Viking Age music would have been played or sung near the period. Accordingly, in attempting to reconstruct this music, modern scholars look to traditions in Iceland for further guides. Iceland remained remote and maintained the language of the Vikings almost unchanged up to the present day, though there is no solid evidence of any unbroken musical traditions.

One source of early musical evidence comes from 1780, in a book written by Jean-Baptise de la Borde, Essai sur la Musique Ancienne et Moderne. In his book, de la Borde included five tunes to Old Norse texts, which he said were "as they today are sung in Iceland." De la Borde mentioned that he took his information about these Icelandic tunes from the Danish-German musician Johann Ernst Hartmann, who settled in Copenhagen in 1762. It is assumed that Hartmann learned the tunes from Icelanders who visited what was then also the capital of Iceland (Lie, "Viking Songs").

Three of the songs recorded by de la Borde are to poetry taken from the Poetic Edda, specifically the poems Vôluspá, Havamál and Krakamál. The tunes for each of these three pieces are very similar:

...[they] seem in essence to be the same tune. They all are built over a flexible song formula which with minor variations are adapted to different metres. Such a song formula that can be adapted to almost any text, may well derive from ancient oral traditions. And even more strange - these tunes seem to circle around the major third. This is the central interval, and the tunes only go one note above and one below this third, so that the entire range is a fifth (Lie, "Viking Songs").

The fourth tune is a song for Norwegian king Haraldr Hardraði, and it is different than the tunes for the Eddaic poems, starting and ending on the third instead of on the major tone. Interestingly enough, this tune works perfectly if a second part is added in parallel thirds in the same style as the Nobilis humilis hymn (Lie, "Viking Songs").

The last of the five Icelandic songs from de la Borde is called Lilja, and it is markedly different from the prior four tunes. Lie suggests that perhaps this tune is imported to Iceland from some other land.

Score for Vôluspá Tune
Score for Vôluspá Tune

Hear a little of the Voluspa tune played on a bone flute.

Score for Haraldr Hardraða Tune
Score for Haraldr Hardraða Tune

Score for Lilja Tune
Score for Lilja Tune

The early music group Sequentia utilized these tunes from de la Borde as a starting point in creating its recent work Edda: Viking Tales of Lust, Revenge and Family, developed by Benjamin Bagby and Ping Chong.

To hear some of the music from Sequentia in Real Audio or Windows Media formats, you can visit the track samples at the CDNOW Sequentia : Edda: An Icelandic Saga website.

Icelandic Rímur and Tvísöngur

Benjamin Bagby did not limit his reconstruction of Viking Age music to de la Borde's tunes. Sequentia's Edda also looked to the Icelandic sung oral poetry tradition of rímur, which dates from the 15th century, for further inspiration, and also to the Icelandic tradition of tvísöngur, in which two voices sing in parallel fifths.

The earliest printed transcriptions of rímur melodies (rímnalög) are known prior to the early 1900s, when the folklorist Ólafur Davisson published fifteen rímur and the Reverend Bjarni Þorsteinsson published 250 rímur melodies in his Íslensk þjóðlög, the only major collection of Icelandic folksongs published to date (Hreinn Steingrímsson, "Kvæðaskapur" Introduction).


Books and Web Resources

  • Adam of Bremen. Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. Peter's Edda Website. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Andersson, Otto. "The Bowed Harp of Trondheim Cathedral and Related Instruments in East and West". The Galpin Society Journal 23 (1970). pp. 4-34.

  • Andersson, Otto. "The Shetland Gue, the Welsh Crwth, and the Northern Bowed Harp". Budkavlen 1-4 (1954) 58 pages.
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  • Anonymous. "Panfløjten." Skalk (1984/4) pp. 32.

  • Bagby, Benjamin. Edda: Viking Tales of Lust, Revenge and Family. Sequentia Website. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Birdsagel, John. "Music and Musical Instruments." Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia. ed. Phillip Pulsiano. New York: Garland. 1993. pp. 420-423.
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  • Bjarni Þorsteinsson. Íslensk þjóðlög (Icelandic Folksongs). Reykjavik. 1906-1909.

  • Brade, Christine. Die mittelalterlichen Kernspaltflöten Mittel- und Nordeuropas. Ein Beitrag zur Überlieferung prähistorischer und zur Typologie mittelalterlicher Kernspaltflöten. Göttinger Schriften zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte 14. Neumünster. 1975. pp. 48-49, 73-74.
    [Bone flutes]

  • Brøndsted, Johannes. The Vikings. New York: Penguin. 1965.
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  • Carter, Barbara. "Review of Carnyx: Sounds of the Viking Age". Antiquity 60 (1986) pp. 63-64.

  • De Geer, Ingrid. Earl, Bishop, Skald -- and Music. The Orkney Earldom of the Twelfth Century. A Musicological Study. Uppsala: Instiutionen för musikvetenskap. Uppsala Universitet. 1985.

  • de la Borde, Jean-Baptiste. Essai sur la Musique Ancienne et Moderne. Paris: Eugene Onfroy. 1780.

  • Drømte mig en drøm i nat. Website of the Arnamagnean Institute of the University of Copenhagen. Accessed 7 October 2001.

  • Foote, Peter G. and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1970.
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  • Friis, Mogens. Vikings and their Music. The Viking Network. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

  • Giraldus Cambrensis. "Itinerarium Cambriae" in: Henry George Farmer. A History of Music in Scotland. London. 1947. pp. 56-57.
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  • Giraldus Cambrensis. "Itinerarium Cambriae" in: Dom Anselm Hughes, "Music in Fixed Rhythms," Early Medieval Music Up to 1300 New Oxford History of Music 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1954. pp. 311-404.
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  • Giraldus Cambrensis. "Itinerarium Cambriae" in: Percy M. Young. A History of British Music. Ernest Benn, Ltd. 1967. pp. 25-27, 36-37.

  • Gustafsson-Dock, Katarina. Musik: En bakgrund till musiklivet på Foteviken under vikingatid och medeltid. Fotevikens Museum Website.Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

  • Hall, Richard. The Viking Dig: the Excavations at York. London: The Bodley Head. 1984.
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  • Hammerich, Angul. "De ældste Tider." Dansk Musikhistorie indtil ca. 1700. København: Gad. 1921, pp. 12-31.

  • Hammerich, Angul. Mediæval Musical Relics of Denmark. Margaret Williams Hamerik, trans. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Hèartel. 1912. Reprint - New York: AMS Press. 1976.
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  • Hjálmar Ragnarsson. Viking Music in Iceland. From A Short History of Icelandic Music to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Master's Thesis, Cornell University 1980. The Viking Network. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

  • Horton, John. Scandinavian Music: A Short History. London: Faber and Faber. 1963. Reprint - Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1975.
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  • Hreinn Steingrímsson. Kvædaskapur: Icelandic Epic Song. California Institute of the Arts. December 1999. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Jordanes. The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. ed. J. Vanderspoel. Department of Greek, Latin and Ancient History of the University of Calgary. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Leifs, Jón. "The Nature of Icelandic Music". Skírnir (1922).

  • Levick, Ben and Roland Williamson. Music and Verse in Anglo-Saxon and Viking Times. Regia Angelorum. February 1993. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Lie, Kåre A. The Songs of the Vikings. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Lund, Cajsa "Oldtidens orkester". Skalk (1973/2) pp. 18-28.

  • MacGregor, Arthur. Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: the Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. Totowa: Barnes & Noble. 1985.
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  • Madsen, Jan Skamby and Ole Crumlin-Pedersen. To Skibsfund fra Falster. Roskilde: Viking Ship Museum. 1989. ISBN: 8785180157

  • Møller, Dorte Falcon. "Folk Music Instruments in Danish Iconographic Sources." Studia Instrumentorum Musicae Popularis: Bericht über die 4 Internationale Arbeitstagung der Study Group on Folk Musical Instruments des International Folk Music Council in Balatonalmáli 1973. ed. Erich Stockmann. Stockholm: Musikhistoria Museet. 1976. pp. 73-76.

  • Müller, Mette. "Reed-pipe of the Vikings or the Slavs? An early find from the Baltic region." The Archaeology of Early Music Cultures. Third International Meeting of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology. eds. Ellen Hickmann and David W. Hughes. Bonn. 1988. pp. 31-38.
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  • Müller, Mette. "Musik til arbejdet". Skalk (1986/1) pp. 8-11.

  • Nordstrøm, Ole. Oldtidsklange. Herning: Folkeskolens Musiklærerforening i Dansk Sang B-serien. 1990. pp. 13-25, and 26-69.

  • Norlind, Tobias "Sång och harpespel under vikingatiden." Festskrift til O.M.Sandvik. 70-års dagen 1875 - 9 mai - 1945. Oslo. 1945. pp. 173-183.

  • Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon). Historia Langobardorum. eds. Georg Waitz & Lidia Capo. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Povetkin, V.I. "Musical Finds from Novgorod". The Archaeology of Novgorod, Russia: Recent Results from the Town and its Hinterland. Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series 13. Mark A. Brisbane, ed. Lincoln: Society for Medieval Archaeology. 1992.

  • Priest-Dorman, Greg and Carolyn (Dofinn-Hallr Morrisson and Thóra Sharptooth). The Saxon Lyre: History, Construction, and Playing Techniques. 1995. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Priscus. Fragment 8 of Excerpta de legationibus. Trans J.B. Bury. ed. J. Vanderspoel. Department of Greek, Latin and Ancient History of the University of Calgary. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Robinson, Michael and Vicki Parrish. Giraldus Cambrensis. Standing Stones Website. October 2000. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum. Det Kongelige Bibliotek. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Saxo Grammaticus. The Danish History, Books I-IX. trans. Oliver Elton. Online Medieval and Classical Library. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Some Musical instruments of the Vikings. The Viking Network. April 2000. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

    • Cow's horn/Goat's horn. The Viking Network. April 2000. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

    • Falster-pibe. The Viking Network. April 2000. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

    • The Lur. The Viking Network. April 2000. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

    • Lyre. The Viking Network. April 2000. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

    • Pan flute. The Viking Network. April 2000. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

    • Recorder. The Viking Network. April 2000. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

  • Tacitus, P. Cornelius. Tacitus: Germania (in Latin). Internet Medieval Source Book. Paul Halsall. January 1996. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Tacitus, P. Cornelius. Tacitus: Germania. Internet Medieval Source Book. Paul Halsall. January 1996. Accessed 22 December 2005.

  • Wahlöö, Claes. "Säckpipa i Lund?" Kulturen. Lund 1975. pp. 35-38.
    [Lund bagpipe]

  • Wessberg, Erik Axel. "Drømte mig en drøm." Skalk (1996/2) pp. 20-28.

  • Williams, Mary Wilhelmine. Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age. 1920; New York: Krause Reprint Co. 1971.

  • Wulstan, David. Polyphony. A Musical Timeline: The Ninth Century. BBC Online. Accessed 7 October 2001. (Link dead as of 12/22/05).

Recordings of Viking Age Music Instruments and Reconstructed Music

  • Allmo, Per-Ulf and Styrbjörn Bergelt. Svarta Jordens Sång (Song of the Black Earth). Tullinge-Uppsala: All Win. 1995. ISBN 916303106X.
    [Book and CD. Music based on archaeological finds from Birka.]

  • Bagby, Benjamin. Edda, An Icelandic Saga: Myths From Medieval Iceland. Sequentia. BMG/Deutsche Harmonia Mundi #77381.
    [Bagby bases his reconstruction of Eddaic performance on de la Borde's Voluspa fragment and on Icelandic rímur. The overall storyline is based on the story of the Volsungs from the Eddaic heroic poems, framed and set off with other poetry from the Poetic Edda.
    Buy this Music CD from Buy this music CD today!

  • Branzell, Per-Olf. Alder. Viking Times Magazine. Accessed 7 October 2001.
    [Reconstructed Viking Age music using goat horns, horse hair bowed lyre, cow horns, assorted flutes and bag pipe.]

  • Lawson, Graeme & Windy. Carnyx: Sounds of the Viking Age. Cambridge: Archaeologica Musica, 1985. Available from Archaeologia Musica, P.O. Box 92, Cambridge CB4 1PU, England.
    [One cassette tape with accompanying notes. A short collection of six well-reconstructed tenth and eleventh century secular tunes. Reviewed by Barbara Carter in Antiquity (see cite above.)]

  • Lund, Cajsa. Fornnordiska klanger / The Sounds of Prehistoric Scandinavia. Musica Sveciae MSCD 101. Stockholm 1987.
    [LP or CD. LP is Musica Sveciae MS 101. This recording doesn't try to recreate tunes much, but showcases the uses of reconstucted instruments in various ways. Bones, gongs, drums, flutes from all regions of Scandinavia. Extensive notes included. It has 41 tracks and tracks 24-41 are of instruments dating from the Stone Age to the Viking Age. Also available from Digelius Nordic Gallery.]

  • Wessberg, Erik Axel, Mogens Friis, and Knud Albert Jepsen. Viking Tones: I Dreamt me a Dream. Skalk CD 2
    [The pieces on this CD are mainly based the music around the earliest piece of Scandinavian music we have, "I dreamt me a dream." Other music as a basis for these reconstructions includes the 12th century "Hymn to St. Magnus" from the Orkney Islands; a traditional piece from the 10th cenutury in Italy; King Richard the Lionheart's "Ja nuns hons pris", late 1100's, and a couple of traditional Icelandic pieces based on de la Borde. The instruments used are all those known from the Viking Age: the wooden lur as found in the Oseberg ship, 3-hole and 6-hole bone flute, York pan-pipes, Falste-fife, Västerby-horn, drum, and the Sutton-Hoo type lyre.]
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