About the Nyckelharpa

What is a nyckelharpa anyway? 

A nyckelharpa is an instrument that I fell in love with since 2009, and in 2015 I took a two year sabbatical from my symphonic job to learn how to play it and its repertoire. 

My particular nyckelharpas are Swedish and were made for me by the makers Bosse Nilsson and Dan Eriksson, both reputable makers in Stockholm and Åland respectively. “Nyckel” means “key” in Swedish, and “harpa” means strings: keyed strings in other words!  The exact origin of the nyckelharpa is not known, but it does have a long and unbroken history in Sweden of about 6-700 years! Its origins are from the Medieval era and I suspect the idea of keyed and sympathetic strings comes from India and the Middle East around the 10th century. 

How does it work? 

The Swedish nyckelharpa comes from an area of Sweden called Uppland, and these instruments are tuned in the key of C.  Thus my Swedish nyckelharpa is tuned: ACGC. It is tuned like a viola ( a fifth down from the violin ), but not in fifths- that took a little bit of adjustment for my brain I can tell you! I play on the top three strings with my keys, and the bottom C string is a drone string, for the nyckelharpa is a droning instrument. Attached to my keys are wooden “teeth” which are called tangents, and when I press the key with my finger, the tangent presses against the string, producing a stop, or tone.  Violinists use their fingers to stop notes, but nyckelharpa players use the keys and their tangents to stop notes. 

In addition to the four playing strings, there are 12 sympathetic strings which are placed into the bridge and are tuned to the semitones in the octave. These strings ring when I play any note on the harpa, giving the instrument a deeper, more complex sound. It is this sound which got me hooked as a matter of fact, and playing the Swedish/Scandinavian repertoire on this nyckelharpa sounds just incredible. It’s like having my own church acoustic built into my instrument! 

Why the Swedish nyckelharpa, and not the European nyckelharpa? 

If you do some research on the internet, you will not only learn that the nyckelharpa is enjoying a revival in Europe and North America, but  that there are also different kinds of nyckelharpas, and several different ways of tuning! I chose the Swedish nyckelharpa for two reasons: one, the sound of the instrument is very powerful and deep to my ears, and two, the Swedish traditional repertoire and players are incredible!  Learning about the history of the players, makers and repertoire is an endless treasure trove for me, and I know there will always be more to learn and to discover. The European harpa also makes a beautiful sound, but to me it sounds more like the viol family with sympathetic strings, thus the sound is softer, and European Art music is often played on these instruments. As I play baroque violin and viola, I am very familiar with this repertoire, thus I thought it would be more interesting and fun for me to try the Swedish nyckelharpa, and it was the best decision for my needs and goals. 

What repertoire can you play on the Swedish nyckelharpa? 

Truth be told, you can play all kinds of repertoire on the Swedish nyckelharpa, not just Swedish trad. stuff, which is a huge amount of tunes by the way! The Swedish traditional repertoire is vast and you could spend a lifetime just spending time diving into this music! I myself have played Bach, Medieval and Renaissance music, Appalachian, Bluegrass, OldTime tunes, Irish and Cape Breton tunes, as well as Jazz, Flamenco tunes and my own compositions.  It’s very cool to have a nyckelharpa in your band in other words 

If all of this information intrigues you, my first teacher and mentor, Olov Johansson, has a really fabulous section about the Swedish Nyckelharpas on his webpage: https://olovjohansson.se There is even more in depth information about these instruments, and also what Olov does as a musician, clinician, and instrument maker himself. 

What does it sound like? 

Head over to my Music page to listen. Enjoy discovering the nyckelharpa world!

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