A string instrument that was set up primarily for the purpose of making drones was the hurdy-gurdy; at least, that is the modern name for it. In the Middle Ages, it was known in Latin as the organistrum and the symphonia, and in French as the vielle à roue (the vielle with the wheel).

Organistrum. Manuscript illumination, David and Musicians (detail) from English Psalter (12th century). Glasgow, University Library.


Pair of Symphonia players. Manuscript illumination from the Cantigas de Santa Maria (late 13th century). Madrid, Escorial Monastery MS b.I.2.


Hurdy-gurdy. Trouvères: Courtly Love Songs from Northern France. Ensemble Sequentia. Benjamin Bagby, symphonia. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi RD77155-2-RC (1984). Trk 14c Gracieusette (excerpt).


The hurdy-gurdy’s sound was produced when a rosined wooden wheel, turned by a crank, set a number of strings in continuous droning vibration; one of these was also a melody string which could play tunes by being stopped by keys along its length.

Hurdy-gurdy. Marginal decoration from The Hours of Charles the Noble (ca.1404). Cleveland Museum of Art 64.40, fol. 297r.


Hurdy-gurdy. Altarpiece (detail) by Hans Memling. Memling Museum, Bruges.

The hurdy-gurdy made its first appearance in the 10th century, at the same time as the regular vielle, but as a large and unwieldy, two-person instrument. In the 13th century, it was reduced in size and seems thereafter to have become increasingly popular.