Viking Age Music – What kind of musical instruments did the Vikings have?
Music has since we were cavemen been part of our culture, and that was of course also the case in the Viking age. Today we can still find the remains of the musical instruments in our soil that the Vikings used during their lifetime. Unfortunately, we are not able to dig up their music and listen to how it sounded like, and there has also not been found any musical notations from the Viking age.
The archaeologists have found a wide range of musical instruments from the Viking age, and many of them still looks like musical instruments that is being used today in some parts of Eastern Europe.
Viking woodwind instruments
Cow horn & goat horn
The first musical instrument we are going to take a look at is the horn, this type of recorder could either be made from a cows horn or a goats horn. The people in the Viking age would bore holes into one of these horns just like we see on a flute.
A horn like this would typically have four to five holes in them, but it was not always something that you could decide for yourself, the length of the horn could vary a lot from horn to horn. This horn in the image is a replica of the cows horn from Västerby in Sweden.
We are also quite sure that some horns did not have any holes in them, and were merely used as a blast horn, but there is no archaeological evidence for this, however, we do have depictions of it on the Bayeux tapestry, which were made shortly after the battle at Hastings in 1066.
There has been found many flutes in Scandinavia from the Viking age, these flutes were mostly crafted from animal bones such as the legbone of a cow, deer, or from large birds. These flutes mostly had three holes in them, but there has been found flutes with up to seven holes in them.
Panpipe from the Viking age
A musical instrument that you might not have associated with the Viking age is the panpipe (Also called Pan flute). One of these panpipes were found at the Coppergate excavations that were conducted from 1976 – 1981 in York (Jorvik), England. This panpipe from York is estimated to date back to the 10th century, which is at the end of the Viking age. This panpipe is made from a small slab of boxwood and the pipes were created by boring holes into the wood at different depths.
The top of the holes was beveled slightly to form a comfortable rest for the musician’s lips. The York panpipe has five pipes, and it is actually still is possible to play the AHCDE sounds on it.
This is a replica of the musical instrument known as ”Skalmejen”, and it was found on the island called Falster in Denmark, and it is estimated to date back to the 11th century. There is a bit of mystic around this instrument because the archeologists are unsure how it was used.
Some have speculated that it was part of a bagpipe, but there was not found any remains of a leather bag at the excavation. However, there has been found one that looks very similar in Sweden, and that did have some remains of leather next to it. It is possible that this musical instrument is some kind of a hornpipe with a mouthpiece added to it.
This rather strange looking instrument is a jaw harp, and it was part of the Vikings toolkit when they played their music. It really has quite a unique sound to it, that on one side sounds foreign, but on the other side sounds familiar, as if something deep down inside us recognizes the sound.
Viking brass instruments
If we take a look at one of the brass instruments from the Viking age, I think we should look at the lur, since it is one of the most mentioned instruments from the Viking age. This trumpet-like instrument was made from wood and it came in different lengths.
For example, lurs found in Denmark in the 90s at Herning and Holing were between 78cm – 79.5cm long (30-31 inches), and the Lur found at Oseberg ship-burial in 1904-1905 were 106.5cm long (42 inches).
The lurs were made from one piece of wood which had been split lengthwise, the interior hollowed, and then the two halves were banded back together very tightly with some willow bands.
We think it was a musical instrument during the Viking age, but it is really unknown if it was, it was probably primarily used by the farmers to call their livestock back home to their farm. However, We are quite sure that the lur was used during warfare to gather the troops for an attack, and it was probably also used at home to warn the locals from incoming enemies.
Viking string instruments
The Vikings also played on string instruments, and what better instrument to start looking at then the lyre. This lyre is a Scandinavian instrument but it is basically a harp, and it is an instrument that according to the Norse sagas was thought of as being a gentleman’s instrument. If you have watched the series Vikings, you have probably seen Einar Selvik from the musical band known as Wardruna play on this instrument.
Another string instrument from the Viking age is the Tagelharpa, which basically means horsehair harp because the strings are made of horse hair. This is also one of the instruments that Einar has used for composing his music with Wardruna.
The Vikings were known to travel far and wide, and therefore they often came across other cultures with new and exciting musical instruments, that they never had seen nor heard of. It is highly likely that the Vikings came across the string instrument called rebec on one of their many journeys to the Byzantine empire.
They probably found a rebec at one of the many merchant stalls in one of the dusty streets of Constantinople or as the Vikings called it Miklagård (Old Norse: Miklagarðr), and they probably traded some of their fur for it. This instrument looks almost like a violin, however, the sounds are not quite the same.
We do not know how far spread this instrument was in Scandinavia during the Viking age, and there has only been found one rebec in Scandinavia so far, from the Viking age, and that was at an excavation at the old Viking town Hedeby.
Viking Rhythm instruments
The drum is one of the oldest musical instruments, and it was of course also known in Scandinavia, however, there has not been found any drums so far. It is speculated that the drums the Vikings used were something similar to either the Irish bodhran drum or the skin-headed drums used by the Sami people in northern Scandinavia.
If the Vikings used drums just for their ceremonial rituals or also as part of their music, is something we simply do not know, but it would be kinda odd if they didn’t.
Other Nordic music instruments
There was probably no limit on what could be considered a musical instrument during the Viking age, and they probably used all kinds of instruments. From using their voice, whistling, stomping their feet or clapping their hands, it is really only the imagination that sets the limits.
There has also been found a wide range of bells and rattles, that probably also were used as part of their music. Rattles and bells also had that added benefit that they kept the evil spirits away from the children when they lay in their beds.
Descriptions of Viking Age Music
Most of the sources available to us today from the Viking age have been written by people who did not like the heathens very much, and because of this they often injected their own options into their work. They probably also did not know the Nordic culture very well, and it is possible that they just stood and watched how the heathens behaved without interacting with them.
Which would make as much sense as standing outside and looking into a room from a foggy window, and then claim to understand what is going on. So always take the non-heathen sources with a grain of salt, since they did not necessarily want to paint them in a favorable light. Many of them did either have an agenda and wanted to be loyal towards the church and others were simply outsiders that came to Northern Europe from a much different climate and culture.
Alcuin of York’s descriptions of Viking age music
It should really not come as a big surprise to you that the Christians were very dissatisfied with the Vikings, and the pagan music was far from being among their popular songs. In 797 Alcuin of York, who was an advisor to the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, expressed his opinion about the Viking music in a letter to Speratus, the Bishop of Lindisfarne.
”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.”
Translated into English:
”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.”
Saxo Grammaticus’s descriptions of Viking age music
In the 12th century, the Danish priest and historian Saxo Grammaticus describe in his book, how a lyre-player performed for King Erik Ejegod, who was the King of Denmark in the 11th century.
”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).”
Translated into English:
”First he performed various pieces so that everyone was filled with grief and numbness. And afterward, 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.”
Arabic descriptions of Viking age music
In 950, the Arabic traveler and merchant Ibrahim Ibn Ahmad Al-Tartushi, traveled to the Danish trade town Hedeby (Old Norse: Heiðabýr)(German: Haithabu), and here he observed either one of their songs or rituals.
”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.”
In the late 10th century the Arabic ambassador Ibn Fadlan wrote about the Vikings singing at a Viking burial ritual in his book Risala. Ibn Fadlad did not travel to Scandinavia, but he did travel to Volga, which is in modern-day Russia, and it was here he met the Rus’ people. The Rus’ people also referred to as Viking Rus are people from Scandinavia, that often traveled around in the eastern parts of Europe to raid and trade.
”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 pavilion where her master lay (§ 90).”
The oldest Danish song
As I said earlier, we, unfortunately, do not have any musical notations from the Viking age, but I have my hopes that this will change one day. The oldest Nordic music notations with lyrics, that has survived through time from Scandinavia, was discovered on the very last page of the Scanian Lawbook (Codex Runicus) (Danish: Skånske lov) from the 14th century.
This book contains all the laws that were used in the eastern parts of Denmark, which at that time was, Skåne, Halland, Blekinge and the island of Bornholm. It also contains some of the church laws and some information about the early Kings of Denmark.
But it is this song that the book is most famous for, and rightfully so. The song that was found in this book is not just very old it could be much much older than from the 14th century. Not only does the tones from this song fit remarkably well with the preserved pan flute that was found in York. The musical notations were also written with runes, which is very unusual because everything that was written in ink around 1150 CE was written by using the Roman alphabet.
The lyrics of this song reads as following
”Drømde mik en drøm i nat um silki ok ærlik pæl”
We know for sure that the first part of the text ”Drømde mik en drøm i nat” means ”I dreamt me a dream last night” but there are some doubts to what the last part of the text really means. There are a few different interpretations flooding around the internet, what the last part of the song could mean, here are three of them.
”Drømte mig en drøm i nat om lighed og retfærdig dom”
”I dreamed a dream last night about equality and fair judgment”
”Jeg drømte en drøm i nat, at jeg var klædt i silke og fornemt stof”
”I dreamed a dream last night that I was dressed in silk and classy fabric”
”Jeg drømte en drøm i nat, at jeg var klædt i silke og i en fin pels”
”I dreamed a dream last night that I was dressed in silk and fine fur”
Modern Viking music
Today there are quite a few musical bands who specialize in music from either the Viking age or the early medieval times. If you are interested in this kind of music, I would like to recommend that you look into either, Wardruna or Forndom and if you are into heavy metal, you should check out Amon Amarth. But the list of Viking music is quite long, and I bet there are still some bands within this music genre that you have never heard of before.