1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lyre

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[ 177 ]

LYRE (Gr. λύρα), an ancient stringed musical instrument. The recitations of the Greeks were accompanied by it. Yet the lyre was not of Greek origin; no root in the language has been discovered for λύρα, although the special names bestowed upon varieties of the instrument are Hellenic. We have to seek in Asia the birthplace of the genus, and to infer its introduction into Greece through Thrace or Lydia. The historic heroes and improvers of the lyre were of the Aeolian or Ionian colonies, or the adjacent coast bordering on the Lydian empire, while the mythic masters, Orpheus, Musaeus and Thamyris, were Thracians. Notwithstanding the Hermes tradition of the invention of the lyre in Egypt, the Egyptians seem to have adopted it from Assyria or Babylonia.

To define the lyre, it is necessary clearly to separate it from the allied harp and guitar. In its primal form the lyre differs from the harp, of which the earliest, simplest notion is found in the bow and bowstring. While the guitar (and lute) can be traced back to the typical “nefer” of the fourth Egyptian dynasty, the fretted finger-board of which, permitting the production of different notes by the shortening of the string, is as different in conception from the lyre and harp as the flute with holes to shorten the column of air is from the syrinx or Pandean pipes. The frame of a lyre consists of a hollow body or sound-chest (ἠχεῖον). From this sound-chest are raised two arms (πήχεις), which are sometimes hollow, and are bent both outward and forward. They are connected near the top by a crossbar or yoke (ζυγόν, ζύγωμα, or, from its having once been a reed, κάλαμος). Another crossbar (μάλας, ὑπολύριον), fixed on the sound-chest, forms the bridge which transmits the vibrations of the strings. The deepest note was the farthest from the player; but, as 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 turned with slacker tension. The strings were of gut (χορδή, [ 178 ] whence chord). 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 which might be turned (κόλλαβοι, κόλλοπες); the other was to change the place of the string upon the crossbar; probably both expedients were simultaneously employed. It is doubtful whether ἡ χορδοτόνος meant the tuning key or the part of the instrument where the pegs were inserted. The extensions of the arms above the yoke were known as κέρατα, horns.

The number of strings varied at different epochs, and possibly in different localities — four, seven and ten having been favourite numbers. They were used without a finger-board, 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 plectrum, however (πλῆκτρον), was in constant use. It was held in the right hand to set the upper strings in vibration (κρέκειν, κρούειν τῷ πλήκτρῳ); at other times it hung from the lyre by a ribbon. The fingers of the left hand touched the lower strings (ψάλλειν).

Britannica Lyre Chelys or Lyre.png
Fig. 1. — Chelys or Lyre from a vase in the British Museum, where also are fragments of such an instrument, the back of which is of shell.

With Greek authors the lyre has several distinct names; but we are unable to connect these with anything like certainty to the varieties of the instrument. Chelys (χέλυς, “tortoise”) may mean the smallest lyre, which, borne by one arm or supported by the knees, offered in the sound-chest a decided resemblance to that familiar animal. That there was a difference between lyre and cithara (κιθάρα) is certain, Plato and other writers separating them. Hermes and Apollo had an altar at Olympia in common because the former had invented the lyre and the latter the cithara. The lyre and chelys on the one hand, and the cithara and phorminx on the other, were similar or nearly identical. Apollo is said to have carried a golden Phorminx. (A. J. H.)

Britannica Lyre Tortoise-shell Lyre.png
Gerhard, Auserl. griech. Vasenbilder.
Fig. 2. — Tortoise-shell Lyre from a Greek vase in Munich.

There are three lines of evidence that establish the difference between the lyre and cithara: (1) There are certain vase paintings in which the name λύρα accompanies the drawing of the instrument, as, for instance, in fig. 2 where the tortoise-shell lyre is obviously represented.[1] (2) In all legends accounting for the invention of the lyre, the shell or body of the tortoise is invariably mentioned as forming the back of the instrument, whereas the tortoise has never been connected with the cithara. (3) The lyre is emphatically distinguished as the most suitable instrument for the musical training of young men and maidens and as the instrument of the amateur, whereas the cithara was the instrument of citharoedus or citharista, professional performers at the Pythian Games, at ceremonies and festivals, the former using his instrument to accompany epic recitations and odes, the latter for purely instrumental music. The costume worn by citharoedus and citharista was exceedingly rich and quite distinct from any other.[2]

We find the lyre represented among scenes of domestic life, in lessons, receptions, at banquets and in mythological scenes; it is found in the hands of women no less than men, and the costume of the performer is invariably that of an ordinary citizen. Lyres were of many sizes and varied in outline according to period and nationality.

We therefore possess irrefutable evidence of identification in both cases, all of which tallies exactly. Examination of the construction of the instruments thus indentified reveals the fact that both possessed characteristics which have persisted throughout the middle ages to the present day in various instruments evolved from these two archetypes. The principal feature of both lyre and cithara was the peculiar method of construction adopted in the sound-chest, which may be said to have been almost independent of the outline. In the lyre the sound-chest consisted of a vaulted back, in imitation of the tortoise, over which was directly glued a flat sound-board of wood or parch- ment. In the cithara (q.v.) the sound-chest was shallower, and the back and front were invariably connected by sides or ribs. These two methods of constructing the sound-chests of stringed instruments were typical, and to one or the other may be referred every stringed instrument with a neck which can be traced during the middle ages in miniatures, early printed books, on monuments and other works of art. (K. S.)


Britannica Lyre Egyptian Cithara.png

Fig. 3. — Egyptian Cithara now at Berlin.


Passing by the story of the discovery of the lyre from a vibrating tortoise-shell by Hermes, we will glance at the real lyres of Egypt and Semitic Asia. The Egyptian lyre is unmistakably Semitic. The oldest representation that has been discovered is in one of the tombs of Beni Hassan, the date of the painting being in the XIIth Dynasty, that is, shortly before the invasion of “the shepherd kings” (the Hyksos). In this painting, which both Rosellini and Lepsius have reproduced, an undoubted Semite carries a seven or eight-stringed lyre, or rather cithara in transition, similar to the rotta of the middle ages. The instrument has a four-cornered body and an irregular four-cornered frame above it, and the player carries it horizontally from his breast, just as a modern Nubian would his kissar. He plays as he walks, using both hands, a plectrum being in the right. Practical knowledge of these ancient instruments may be gained through two remarkable specimens preserved in the museums of Berlin (fig. 3) and Leiden (see Cithara). During the rule of the Hyksos the lyre became naturalized in Egypt, and in the 18th dynasty it is frequently depicted, and with finer grace of form. In the 19th and 20th dynasties the lyre is sometimes still more slender, or is quite unsymmetrical and very strong, the horns surmounted by heads of animals as in the Berlin one, which has horses' heads at those extremities. Prokesch copied one in the ruins of Wadi Haifa, splendid in blue and gold, with a serpent wound round it. The Egyptians always strung their lyres fan-shaped, like the modern Nubian kissar. Their paintings show three to eight or nine strings, but the painters accuracy may not be unimpeachable; the Berlin instrument had fifteen. The three-stringed lyre typified the three seasons of the Egyptian year — the water, the green and the harvest; the seven, the planetary system from the moon to Saturn. The Greeks had the same notion of the harmony of the spheres.

There is no evidence as to what the stringing of the Greek lyre was 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, so the trichord is connected with the hexachord or six-stringed lyre depicted on so many archaic Greek vases. We cannot insist on the accuracy of this representation, the vase painters being little mindful of the complete expression of details; yet we 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 which he held in the right hand. Before the Greek civilization had assumed its historic form, there was likely to be 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 an Asiatic bias towards refinements of intonation, from which came the χρόαι, the hues of tuning, old Greek modifications of tetrachords entirely disused in the classic period. The common scale of Olympus

Britannica Lyre Common Scale of Olympus.png

remained, a double trichord which had served as the scaffolding for the enharmonic varieties.

[ 179 ] We may regard the Olympus scale, however, as consisting of two tetrachords, eliding one interval in each, for the tetrachord, or series of four notes, was very early adopted as the fundamental principle of Greek music, and its origin in the lyre itself appears sure. The basis of the tetrachord is the employment of the thumb and first three fingers of the left hand to twang as many strings, the little finger not being used on account of natural weakness. As a succession of three whole tones would form the disagreeable and untunable interval of a tritonus, two whole tones and a half-tone were tuned, fixing the tetrachord in the consonant interval of the perfect fourth. This succession of four notes being in the grasp of the hand was called συλλαβή, just as in language a group of letters incapable of further reduction is called syllable. In the combination of two syllables or tetrachords the modern diatonic scales resemble the Greek so-called disjunct scale, but the Greeks knew nothing of our categorical distinctions of major and minor. We might call the octave Greek scale minor, according to our descending minor form, were not the keynote in the middle the thumb note of the deeper tetrachord. The upper tetrachord, whether starting from the keynote (conjunct) or from the note above (disjunct), was of exactly the same form as the lower, the position of the semitones being identical. The semitone was a limma (λεῖμμα), rather less than the semitone of our modern equal temperament, the Greeks tuning both the whole tones in the tetrachord by the same ratio of 8:9, which made the major third a dissonance, or rather would have done so had they combined them in what we call harmony. In melodious sequence the Greek tetrachord is decidedly more agreeable to the ear than the corresponding series of our equal temperament. And although our scales are derived from combined tetrachords, in any system of tuning that we employ, be it just, mean-tone, or equal, they are less logical than the conjunct or disjunct systems accepted by the Greeks. But modern harmony is not compatible with them, and could not have arisen on the Greek melodic lines.

The conjunct scale of seven notes

Britannica Lyre Terpander Conjunct Scale.png

attributed to Terpander, was long the norm for stringing and tuning the lyre. When the disjunct scale

Britannica Lyre Pythagoras Disjunct Scale.png

the octave scale attributed to Pythagoras, was admitted, to preserve the time-honoured seven strings one note had to be omitted; it was therefore customary to omit the C, which in Greek practice was a dissonance. The Greek names for the strings of seven and eight stringed lyres, the first note being highest in pitch and nearest the player, were as follows: Nete, Paranete, Paramese; Mese, Lichanos, Parhypate, Hypate; or Nete, Paranete, Trite, Paramese; Mese, Lichanos, Parhypate, Hypate — the last four from Mese to Hypate being the finger tetrachord, the others touched with the plectrum. The highest string in pitch was called the last, νεάτη; the lowest in pitch was called the highest, ὑπὰτη, because it was, in theory at least, the longest string. The keynote and thumb string was μέση, middle; the next lower was Mxaros, the first finger or lick-finger string; τρίτη, the third, being in the plectrum division, was also known as ὀξεῖα, sharp, perhaps from the dissonant quality to which we have referred as the cause of its omission. The plectrum and finger tetrachords together were διαπασῶν, through all: in the disjunct scale, an octave.

In transcribing the Greek notes into our notation, the absolute pitch cannot be represented; the relative positions of the semitones are alone determined. We have already quoted the scale of Pythagoras, the Dorian or true Greek succession: —

Britannica Lyre Dorian Scale.png

Shifting the semitone one degree upwards in each tetrachord, we have the Phrygian

Britannica Lyre Phrygian Scale.png

Another degree gives the Lydian

Britannica Lyre Lydian Scale.png

which would be our major scale of E were not the keynote A. The names imply an Asiatic origin. We need not here pursue further the much-debated question of Greek scales and their derivation; it will suffice to remark that the outside notes of the tetrachords were fixed in their tuning as perfect fourths the inner strings being, as stated, in diatonic sequence, or when chromatic two half-tones were tuned, when enharmonic two quarter-tones, leaving respectively the wide intervals of a minor and major third, and both impure, to complete the tetrachord. (A. J. H.)

See the article by Théodore Reinach in Daremberg and Saglio, Antiquités grecques et romaines; Wilhelm Johnsen, Die Lyra, ein Beitrag zur griechischen Kunstgeschichte (Berlin, 1876); Hortense Panum, “Harfe und Lyra in Nord Europa,” Intern. Mus. Ges., Sbd. vii. 1, pp. 1-40 (Leipzig, 1905); A. J. Hipkins, “Dorian and Phrygian, reconsidered from a non-harmonic point of view,” in Intern. Mus Ges. (Leipzig. 1903), iv. 3.


  1. See Ed. Gerhard, Auserlesene griech. Vasenbilder, part iii. (Berlin, 1847), pl. 236 and p. 157.
  2. See Aristotle, Polit. v. 6. 5.