Kantele - a global musical instrument

Nowadays in the era of fast development of technology and globalization many of us feel the special need to preserve our traditions and national values. Every country in the world has its own national instruments that have throughout centuries gained sacred status and become symbols of a nation. Such are Finnish kantele, Russian gusli, Chinese guzheng, Arabic kanun etc. Did you know, however, that all these instruments altogether represent our common global music heritage and belong to one large family of multi string fretless instruments? In every country an instrument was developing in its own peculiar way, getting its shapes and adapting to specific cultural context, and is known under a variety of names. These days we get unique opportunities to study this heritage and share our common knowledge.

Our hope is to create a wider perspective of common global heritage. Currently, there is only a certain number of instruments presented so if you see something is missing or you would like to add some more information please get in touch. 

Let's take a journey to the world of multi-string instruments where we will get to know their origins, history and other interesting facts!



Autoharp is another member of the zither family that has series of chord bars attached to dampers, which, when depressed, mute all of the strings other than those that form the desired chord. Despite its name, the autoharp is not a harp at all, but a chorded zither. Today's autoharps tend to have 36-37 strings although some examples with as many as 47 strings, and even a rare 48-string model exist. They can be tuned either diatonically (1-3 chords) or chromatically (up to 11 keys). Standard models have 15 or 21 chord bars, or buttons available, that enable to produce a selection of major, minor and dominant seventh chords.
The origin of the autoharp is still a subject of a debate. In 1882 Charles F. Zimmermann, a German immigrant in Philadelphia was awarded a patent for a design of a musical instrument that included mechanisms for muting certain strings during play. He named his invention the "autoharp". However, the design of the instrument was different from today's autoharp - the shape of the instrument was symmetrical, and the felt-bearing bars moved horizontally against the strings instead of vertically. It is not known if Zimmermann ever commercially produced any instruments of this early design. German Karl August Gütter built a model that he called a "Volkszither," which most resembles the autoharp played today, and obtained a British patent for his instrument between 1883-1884. Zimmermann, after returning from a visit to Germany, began production of the Gütter design in 1885 but with his own design patent number and catchy name. As a result, Gütter's instrument design became very popular, and Zimmermann has often been mistaken as the inventor.
Although the autoharp is often thought of as a rhythm instrument for playing chordal accompaniment, modern players can also perform melody lines on the instrument.
The origins of the concert cimbalom can be traced back to the Orient and Middle East history. Its predecessors had trapezoid shape and were known in many countries under different names such as kanun, santur etc. During great migrations it was introduced in Europe where it became especially popular in 14th-16th centuries and took a variety of different shapes. In Germany it is known as "hackbrett", in England, Ireland and America "hammered dulcimer", in France "tympanon", in Italy and Spain "salterio". The largest of these instruments is the cimbalom (also cymbalom, cembalom, cymbalium and czimbalum). In most of the countries the instrument was played with mallets or plucked, in Hungary both ways were used. In the 18th and 19th century cimbalom was included in a gipsy band which resulted in a birth of the wrong idea of the "typical Hungarian folk music" as well as of the gipsy origins of the instrument. In reality the "genuine" Hungarian folk music was played in remote villages where the cimbalom was also used.
After the war of independence in 1848 the cimbalom became one of the Hungarian national symbols.
Modern concert cimbalom was developed by József V. Schunda in 1874 who increased its range from 2,5 octaves to 4,5 (125 fully chromatic strings) and added the sustain pedal. With all its features it was more of a small piano than the various folk hammered dulcimers had been. The Schunda cimbalom was equipped with a heavier frame for more stability and dynamic power and four detachable legs were added to support this much larger instrument. The concert cimbalom continues to be played primarily with beaters although other playing techniques are used. Since then more and more composers became interested in writing for the cimbalom. In 1897 it was included into curricula at the Academy of the Music in Budapest and by the end of the century was taught all over Hungary. Stravinsky's encounter (Maxim, Geneva, 1915) with the legendary gipsy cimbalom virtuoso, Aladár Rácz resulted in buying himself a cimbalom, learning to play it a little, and writing important parts for it in Renard and Ragtime, Valse and Polka. In addition to Stravinsky, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók also included cimbalom in their works. In the 20th century because of historical reasons the Hungarian cimbalom practically disappeared, with the only exception in Budapest.
In the 1960s the cimbalom music was reborn - more and more Hungarian and later foreign composers started to write for this instrument. Now the Hungarian cimbalom is taught at variety of music schools, music colleges and the Ferenc Liszt Conservatory of Music in Budapest. The Hungarian cimbalom is also used in the neighbouring countries - Slovakia, Czech Republic, Moldavia, Romania and Ukraine.
Dan Tranh is a Vietnamese plucked zither which is similar to Chinese guzheng, Japanese koto and Korean kayagum. Dan Tranh derived from China during the Ly Dynasty in the 10th or 11th century. The early versions of the instrument had 9, 15 and 16 strings that were made of silk, later copper and now steel. During seven or eight centuries of using it, Vietnamese people created specific characteristics in fingering techniques, pressing and releasing, as well as scale types.
110-120 cm body of dan tranh is made from wu tong wood and its sides are decorated with various designs, either lacquered and, or inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
The bridges of the instrument are adjustable and are used for tuning. When playing, the artist usually wears finger plectrums on the thumb, forefinger and middle finger that can be made of metal, horn or tortoise-shell.
There are three different types of đàn tranh. The ancient đàn tranh, or the dan thap luc, has 16 strings. The đàn tranh most used today has 17 strings and is slightly larger than its prototype. This instrument has a three-octave range, from C to C3. A newer model was developed by Nguyen Vinh Bao, a former professor at the Saigon Conservatory of Drama and Music. These instruments usually have 22 strings and are used for pieces requiring a wider range.
With its bright and clear sound dan tranh is used as a solo or ensemble instrument, to accompany poetry, singing and take part in Tai Tu orchestra, Bat Am company, Nha nhac orchestra and general traditional orchestras.

Kantele is a Finnish member of Baltic psaltery family which origins dates back to 1000 or even 2000-3000 years ago. The earliest mention about the kantele in literary documents dates back only to the 16th century, but up to the 18th century there are no precise descriptions of the instrument. The first archaeological evidences were found during excavations in Novgorod - those were lyre-shaped (with a playing window) instruments with 5-9 strings from the ground layers of the 11th-13th centuries.

Mythological birth of kantele

Kantele is mentioned in 2 poems of Kalevala, Finnish national epic, where the main character Väinämöinen builds the first kantele out of a jawbone of a giant pike and its strings out of horse tail hair. He enchanted the entire mankind and the creation with his kantele playing. Once Väinämöinen lost his kantele made of pike bones in a battle and made a new one out of birch tree and strings out of hair of a young maiden.

Sound chamber carved from one piece of wood

The oldest kanteles were hollowed out of a single piece of wood and usually had 5 strings that were originally made of horsehair, later of copper and steel metal wire. There was no bridge to support the strings which were attached to wooden pegs at one end and to a metal rod at the other. The 5-string kantele was tuned to a major or minor pentachord (according to the five first notes of diatonic scale). The kantele player held the instrument in his lap or on a table, with the shorter side towards him and plucked the strings. Each string was played with a particular finger - usually the shortest string was played with the thumb of the right hand, and the forefinger of the left hand was used for the next shortest string.

Further development and the increase of strings amount

Around two hundred years ago the kantele underwent a major transformation when builders began to make instruments out of separate pieces of wood. Instead of a metal rod to which the strings were attached, each string now had its own tuning peg and at the other end the string was attached to a metal pin. In the mid 19th century there were kanteles with 10 to 14 strings and by the end of the 19th century the amount of strings increased up to 20-30. At this point playing style also changed. The instrument was turned so that the longest strings were closest to the player; the melody was always played by the right hand, and the accompanying chords by the left.

Kantele types

Small kanteles usually have less than 15 strings and are played by plucking the strings up with both hands or strumming with the plectrum while the left hand dampens unwanted strings. In addition of traditional small kantele's Koistinen Kantele introduced 2001 modern small kantele models with new features and design. Today both types are living next to each others.

Saarijärvi kantele has typically 18-21 strings and is played by damping unwanted strings with the left hand fingers while the right one strums the strings with a matchstick or a plectrum. The instrument is mainly used as an accompaniment for singing.

Kotikantele (home/diatonic kantele) is a big diatonic kantele (how many strings?) with no tuning mechanism or levers for separate strings. It is mainly used to perform traditional music. This is an ancestor instrument type for concert kantele. When performing, a player puts the kantele on the table and plucks strings up with both hands. The right hand usually plays the melody in the higher register while the left one plucks the bass and the chords.

Concert kantele

The instrument that we now know as a concert kantele was developed in 1927 by Paul Salminen (1887-1949). A former student of St.Petersburg Conservatory and a trombonist at St.Petersburg Imperial Orchestra he came back to Helsinki permanently after the 1917 revolution and became a trombonist at Helsinki Philharmonic orchestra. Having being interested in various kantele types since his childhood, Salminen came up with an idea based on the concert harp pedals and applied it to the kantele - the result was the first concert model with a lever mechanism. The concert kantele had 36 strings and 7 levers that enabled to switch a tone half-step up or down. The changes affected all the range of the instrument.
Salminen's development became the turning point in the history of the kantele - it symbolized the transition of a folk kantele into a fully developed concert instrument. However, it was still a quiet instrument with the sound suitable for small rooms but not enough for concert halls.

If in the first half of the 20th century the repertoire was mostly based on Finnish folk songs arrangements and national romanticism pieces, in 1980s composers started to write original music for kantele. In 1975 the kantele was introduced at Sibelius Academy first as a special subject at music education department, later in 1983 as a part of curricula at folk music department. In 1987 it entered soloist department when Ritva Koistinen joined teaching staff.

With the development of kantele education in 1980's there appeared a need to improve the quality of instruments. After Lauri Kellokumpu developed a new exact lever mechanism for concert kantele, his idea became the basis for modern instruments. In 1993 Hannu Koistinen introduced the first generation of modern professional concert kantele models. Innovations included higher string tension, bigger sound chamber size and louder sound. Modernized kanteles soon came into wide use by leading artists and a new generation of kantele students. In 1993 at blind test hold in Ikaalinen Koistinen concert kanteles got 1st and 2nd prize. Introduction of high quality built-in pickup systems in late 1990's solved the problem of kantele's audibility and opened new opportunities of playing on bigger venues and even with orchestras. Simultaneous development of both the instrument and kantele education helped to bring kantele outside folk and classical music genres.

Modern professional concert kanteles usually have 39 strings. There are several sound types and stringing available for different music genres. Brilliant upper register sound and deep and rich bass tone make the modern kantele so recognizable and unique among other instruments.

Concert kantele with a built-in microphone system finally fulfills a dream shared by Salminen and Koistinen about kantele as a versatile instrument which can be equally used in a variety of music genres.

Electric kantele

The next significant step in the history of kantele happened in 1999 when the first fully developed electric kantele was introduced in Finland. The instrument with 39 strings was built by Hannu Koistinen of Koistinen Kantele and has 2 built-in pickup systems, piezo and magnetic, that enable a player to produce a wide variety of sounds from "clean", or natural kantele sound to the world of effects used on other electric instruments.
The invention of the electric kantele opened up a new page in the history of the instrument. The image of kantele has changed a lot since then. Modern design and powerful amplified sound open new doors to a musician. Now, when there is no longer a problem of poor audibility the kantele started to find its place in bands playing various music styles- from folk to pop, rock and jazz.

Gesle is a plucked string instrument of Tatars similar to Chuvash kesle and Mari kusle. Gesle of ethnical Volga region culture had 12-15 strings made from gut or horse hair. Later in the 20th century they were substituted by metal ones of different thickness that enabled to create louder sound. Gesle has a diatonic tuning. The length of gesle is 100-120 cm. In the 20th century the instrument is almost extinct, only a few villages still have gesle players. However, because of the traditional culture revival movement in Tatarstan the future of gesle still has hopes.
Gusli is the oldest Russian string instrument. In accordance to some researchers' opinion gusli was first mentioned in the 6th century in historical documents written by the Byzantium historian Theophylaktos Simokatta. In his work he referred to 3 Slavs that were imprisoned by the Avars and, when questioned about their background, told they played kitharas since they live peaceful life, aren't used to the guns and don't play trumpets. Since gusli is the oldest among Russian string instruments, it became common to consider it under the name "kithara". However, the first archeological evidences date back to the 11th century when during excavations in Novgorod in 1957 remains of 11 guslis were discovered. The ancient instruments had a playing window, reminding of a strong connection to the antique lyres, and were played in a vertical position. However, by the 14-15 centuries the size of the window gets smaller and finally this type of the instrument completely disappears giving place to a commonly known "wing-shaped" gusli that has been existing up to these days.
The earliest gusli were made from fir or sycamore maple and had 5-6 gut strings that were later substituted with metal ones. Gusli was played with fingers and with a pick made of wood or bone. As the centuries passed by, the amount of the strings was increasing and different types of the instrument appeared. Until these days, there are 3 main types of gusli:

- Wing-shaped gusli
The origin of wing-shaped gusli dates back to the 11th century. Ancient instruments had 5-9 strings, but as the centuries passed by the amount of strings increased to 11 and more. The instrument that we now know as a modern wing-shaped gusli was developed in 1900 by O.Smolensky and N.Privalov. With its different stronger construction, high strings tension and bright, rich sound the instrument was supposed to be played in concert halls. Based on this model, the other types of wing-shaped gusli were developed such as piccolo and alto - for the use in ensemble playing. In late 1970s-1980s semi-tone levers were added to gusli that made it possible to perform music beyond diatonic scale.

- Helmet-shaped gusli
Helmet-shaped gusli has been known since 12th century and is believed to derive from the medieval psaltery. This type of gusli had up to 36 strings and was played by plucking. A musician performed with the instrument on the laps, but unlike psaltery keeping the wider side down. Helmet-shaped gusli was popular in 14th-15th centuries but gradually disappeared by the 20th and nowadays is rarely played.

-Rectangular (clavichord) gusli
Two types of rectangular gusli exist - chromatic and keyboard versions. The chromatic gusli was widely popular in Russian imperial circles in 1730s-1850s . Despite the lack of historical evidence, there are a few theories about the emergence of the instrument. It might have derived from the diatonic rectangular gusli that was known in the beginning of the 18th century and had 2 octaves range. Under profound influence of Western music this version later developed into a chromatic one with 4-5 octaves. On the other hand, the helmet-shape of the playing area suggests the connection with the helmet-shaped gusli type. The chromatic gusli occupies a very special place in the history of the instrument which made its way from traditional music idiom to the imperial circles. The strings of the chromatic gusli were made of bronze which allowed to produce very soft, intimate sound ideally suitable for chamber music environment.
By the 2nd half of the 19th century, with virtuosity and passionateness of romanticism and the dominance of piano chromatic gusli gradually went out of fashion and was almost forgotten. Instead, in the beginning of the 20th century a new "modernized" type was constructed with the steel strings and iron frame so the weight could well be up to 110-115 kg. Another profound change touched the range of gusli - instead of C major formed by the upper row of strings now there was A major to meet the needs of Russian folk orchestra that used mainly sharp keys.

Along with the modernized chromatic gusli the orchestras included also a keyboard gusli. This instrument was constructed in 1914 by N.Fomin and was supposed to provide an accompaniment role in folk orchestras. In order to play it, a musician presses the keys on the keyboard on the left side of the instrument, and with the right hand runs over the strings with the firm leather pick.

Zheng (guzheng) 古筝 is an ancient Chinese zither-type instrument which history embraces over 2500 years. Japanese koto, Korean kayagum, Mongolian yatga and Vietnamese dan tranh are all descendants of the Qin zheng which originated from the Qin State during the Warring Period (450 - 221 B.C.).
In the early times the zheng had 5 strings and quite probably a bamboo sound body; later on the amount of strings increased up to 12 to 13 in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907AD), the 16-string guzheng appeared around the 19th century. The present day zheng usually has 21-25 strings, however, customized versions with more than 44 strings also exist. The guzheng's strings were formerly made of twisted silk though by the 20th century most players used metal strings. Since the mid-20th century most performers use steel strings flatwound with nylon. The bridges on the guzheng - in ancient times made from ivory, nowadays from rosewood or zi-tan - serve for the tuning purpose, thus making it different from any other zither type instrument.
The guzheng has a large resonant cavity made from wu tong wood (Paulownia tomentosa, named after Anna Pavlovna Romanov, the Queen of Netherlands and Grand Duchess of Russia). Other components may be made from other woods, usually for structural and decorative purposes.
There have been many attempts to modernize the guzheng by adding more strings, tuning devices, and pedals like those on the concert harp, but few of these "improvements" have taken hold. The guzheng is traditionally tuned to a pentatonic scale, but in modern music a combination of multiple tunings is widely used. In its early history, the zheng was documented to have multifunction as early as the 1st century. It was a popular solo instrument for female musicians in the Tang court. The so called "traditional" zheng as we know today, primarily utilized in small ensembles in rural regions, however, is rooted in vocal traditions. In traditional guzheng playing right hand plucks the strings to produce sounds while the left one adds certain color by touching the string on the other side of the bridge. As a renowned ethnomusicologist Prof. Tran Van Khe once said: "The right hand gives the sound, the left hand gives the soul to the music" (see http://www.philmultic.com/liufang/interviews/world_music.html)

The modern guzheng playing has been very much influenced by western music; It is now common among the younger generation for the fingers of both hands to wear small plectrums to pluck the strings in order to play a variety of textures (right hand plays the melody, and the other one accompanies). As a matter of fact, to be able to play with a super speed and precision has become the necessary condition to win a competition nowadays. As a result of this new development, the guzheng playing appears (and sounds) like playing harp or piano. Therefore, the guzheng is sometimes also referred to as "Chinese harp" or "Chinese piano".

Hammered dulcimer probably originated in the Middle East about 900 A.D. and is related to the much older psaltery. However, the strings of the dulcimer are struck by two, hand-held, wooden, spoon-shaped hammers whereas the strings of the psaltery are plucked. The action of striking strings with hammers makes it possible to consider the dulcimer an ancestor of the pianoforte. Furthermore, the dulcimer is positioned on the knees or an appropriate flat surface while the psaltery is held upright against the chest. The Dulcimer spread from the Middle East across North Africa and was brought to Europe during the Crusades in the 12th century A.D., and similar instruments have spread around the world. Throughout the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the dulcimer remained a popular instrument in both eastern and western Europe. It was known by different names in different countries. In Greece it is called santuri, in Iran the name of instrument is santur and in India, santoor, and Chinese call it yangqin. In Central Europe cimbalom and derivatives of that name are used. The Appalachian (Mountain) Dulcimer, a three-stringed American folk instrument is, in fact, more related to the psaltery since it's played by plucking, without hammers.

The essential difference between dulcimers of different countries is the way the instruments are made and tuned, this combination is what gives each member of the family a different voice. In late 17th century Western Europe, advances in the technology and popularity of keyboard instruments prompted a decline in the use of the dulcimer though, to this day, it maintains an important role in Eastern European folk music. In the Old World, the dulcimer experienced a strange revival in the year 1697 when a fellow by the name of Pantaleon Hebestreit invented an improved version of the medieval instrument and called it the pantaleon. It reportedly had 186 strings and was in evidence as late as 1767 when performances were given in England by George Noel on an instrument having 276 strings.


Jetigen is an ancient Kazakh seven-stringed plucked instrument similar to the Mongolian yatga. In accordance to the legend, during the famine the old man lost his 7 sons, one by one. After each son's death he set a new string on the hollowed piece of wood and performed a sorrowful melody known as a kyi (күй). Nowadays they are called as "7 kyis for jetigen" («Жетыгеннын жетеуы»).

The length of the early jetigen was about 1 m. Its strings were made of a horse hair and the tuning bridges were carved out of animals' bones. The ancient instrument had 7 strings but as time passed by it was going through development and the amount of strings reached 13. Jetigen has a soft, deep, singing sound and is widely used in national orchestras as well as folk ensembles. The player plucks the strings with 4 fingers of the right hand while the left hand is used for bending.

Lithuanian member of the Baltic psaltery family, kankles, is the oldest Lithuanian folk string instrument. First mention about kankles dates back to the 16th century historical documents, however it is believed that the instrument originated much earlier. Legends and old stories assert that the Lithuanian vaidilos, or bards, once sang about heroic feats to the accompaniment of kanklės; they played kanklės during sacrifices to the gods, sacred rituals and as protection against evil spirits or death. Stories told by old people associate the kanklės with death. When making kanklės, the best wood was believed to come from deep forests, and the best time for cutting the tree was thought to be between a person's death and funeral. If the deceased were greatly mourned, the kanklės was thought to have a sorrowful, bitter voice. Playing kankles was very much like meditating and was thought to protect the musician from death, disease and accidents. Originally, it was men's occupation.

Traditional kankles can be classified into three types according to the number of strings, playing technique and repertoire: northern east Aukstaitija, northern west Aukstaitija and Zemaitija; northern west Zemaitija and Suvalkija.
Depending on a type it belongs to, the number of strings on the kankles can vary from 5 to 13. The body of the kankles has a trapezoidal form and is carved from a single piece of linden, maple, ash or alder wood. The instrument's wider end is cut diagonally. A fir wood top decorated with four-pointed, five-pointed or six-pointed stars and other patterns is fastened to the body. A metal bar to which metal or catgut strings are anchored was set in the narrow end. Wooden pegs fitted in the wide end regulate the tension of the strings.
Traditional kankles is played with the fingers or with a pick made of wood, bone or feather.

In the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century during the national romantic movement the kankles became a symbol of national identity and recovery. A kanklist singing with the accompaniment of kankles was one of the most important symbols of that time which later resulted in further kankles culture spread in Lithuania.

In the first half of the 20th century with the development of kankles pedagogy and repertoire a process of instrument's modernization began. In 1940 the instrument was included into Lithuanian Conservatory curricula. Finally, in 1954 a 29-string kankles with semitone levers was created thus symbolizing the transition of a traditional instrument into a concert one. At the same time bass and contrabass kankles were constructed for the use in ensembles. This all led to the emergence of new original repertoire that explored a variety of playing techniques on the kankles.

Kannel is an Estonian member of Baltic psaltery family which history dates back over 2000 years. The earliest kannel had 5, later on 6-7 strings and its construction varied from one area to another. Thus, the soundbox on some instruments were undercut from the top, bottom or even from the side; different types of wood have been used for making kannels, most commonly fir, pine, lime, alder and birch. Some kannels were made of logs from old wooden log houses, since the material was well dried up and had no inner tensions. The early instruments had copper, horsehair or lamb gut strings. Originally wooden pins were later substituted by metal ones.

Throughout the centuries, kannel has been going through many stages of development that resulted in increase of number of strings (up to 12) and also appearance of different models. Every now and then some extra strings, so called bourdon strings, were added - this helped to widen the melodic scheme and enriched the dynamics of playing style. In 18th-19th centuries under the influence of German and Austrian zithers a new type of kannel called simmel or simbel emerged. It was a diatonic instrument of trapezoid or half-trapezoid shape, with a body made of boards and metal pegs holding about 20 to 30 strings.

Rahvakannel is another type of kannel with bourdon strings that form 3-5 chords and 24-25 metal strings and is used both in solo and ensemble performances.

Harmony kannel (saatekannel, akordkannel, duurkannel) with strings grouped into major chords spread in Estonia in the end of the 19th century and was used to provide accompaniment.

Finally, in 1952 the first chromatic kannel with the range reaching almost 4 octaves was built by Väino Maala, symbolizing the transition of the folk instrument into a concert one. The strings on the chromatic kannel are placed under a slight angle so that on the right side of the instrument the strings corresponding to the "white" keys on piano are a little bit higher, on the left side vice versa. In the middle of the instrument the strings are approximately on the same level. In 1953 kannel was included into the curricula at Tallinn Music School. Since 1953 until 1990s chromatic kannels with 46 strings were manufactured by Tallinn Piano factory. After its production stopped, Otto Koistinen, a renown kantele builder from Finland undertook kannel development work which resulted in a number of construction improvements and sound characteristics. The first chromatic kannel was built by Koistinen in 1953. Kannel is nowadays a sophisticated concert instrument with up to 61 steel strings that produce beautiful and resonating sound, making it possible to play a wide repertoire from baroque to contemporary music.

The origins of kanun goes back to the ancient civilisations of Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt where Egyptian and Babylon harps appeared. The name kanun was first used during the Abbasids period in the 10th century, where it was mentioned in the famous tales of "The Arabian nights". Later on around the 12th century the kanun was taken by the Andalusians to Europe, specifically Greece, Armenia, Romania and then, all Eastern Europe. It was given its present shape by the philosopher and the scientist Abu Nasr Al Farabi (870-950 AD) who was a multi instrumentalist and wrote a lot of material about the theory of music.Throughout its long history the kanun has undergone a number of changes, although its main structural features are today the same in all countries.
The kanun is made from the plane, plum and linden tree, with the rosewood used for the surface. The earliest instruments had gut strings that in the 20th century were replaced by nylon ones. By the end of the 19th century the tuning pegs made of silver or brass were added. Kanun's strings are arranged in groups of three called courses, each of which is tuned to one pitch. The Turkish kanun has 25 triple nylon strings for a total of 75 strings.
It is played with picks made of tortoise shell attached to rings on the forefinger of each hand.

The instrument also has special latches for each course called mandals that were added by Turks in the first half of the 20th century. These small levers which can be raised or lowered quickly by the performer while the instrument is being played, serve to change the pitch of a particular course slightly by altering the string lengths. Before that, the pitches were adjusted by pressing the fingers down the chords. If the Arabic music is based on quarter tone intonation and Armenian music employs half-tones, the Turkish "flavor" can have as many as the full 8 commas (octave division) to express microtonal subtleties. Thus, the Turkish kanun can have as many as 12 levers per course of strings. The Arabic version of Kanun may have up to 27 courses or 81 strings and fewer levers to change the pitch than their Turkish relatives.
In the 20th century the Turks created many new techniques like using all ten fingers for playing arpeggios.
With its 3,5 octaves range the kanun is used both as an accompanying and solo instrument that is characterized by its virtuosic nature.

The earliest instruments were hollowed and had five strings made of horsehair. When performing, a musician held it on the laps and played kantele by plucking. The body of the instrument was made of alder and the pegs of birch. Throughout the centuries with the development of musical culture the instrument faced many constructional changes. Thus, the top deck was now made of the fur-tree plate, and originally horsehair strings were substituted by gut and later metal ones. The number of strings also increased. The most common kanteles had 5-, 10-, 12- and 16-strings and were tuned diatonically. In nowadays Karelia there are both diatonic and chromatic versions of kantele. The diatonic kantele is used in folk music. In order to perform more versatile repertoire it was important to get an instrument with the chromatic tuning.

In the 1930s V. Gudkov, a Karelan folklorist, built a chromatic kantele with 36 strings which could be used for performing both folk and classical works. During playing the kantele is held on the knees in a horizontal or in a slightly inclined position with the narrower side tilted towards a musician's chest. The instrument is played by plucking with the fingers of both hands. In following years other models of kantele were constructed, such as piccolo, alto, bass and even contrabass.
In 1936 the State ensemble "Kantele" was created under the leadership of V.P.Gudkov.


Kayagum, or gayageum is a traditional Korean zither-like instrument which is similar to Chinese guzheng, Japanese koto, Mongolian yatga and the Vietnamese đàn tranh. According to the Samguksagi (1145), a history of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, the kayagum is supposed to have been developed around the 6th century in the Gaya confederacy by King Gasil (also known as Haji of Daegaya) after he observed an old Chinese instrument. He then ordered a musician named Ureuk to compose music that could be played on the instrument. The kayagum was then further improved by Wu Ruk during the reign of Jinheungin the Silla Dynasty.
There are two types of kayagum that differ in size, construction and context of use: popkum (lit. "law zither") and sanjo (lit. "scattered melodies") kayagum.
The popkum has a 160 cm long body is also called p'ungnyu (lit. elegance) kayagum or jeong-ak (lit. right music) kayagum. It provides accompaniment in court music, chamber music, and lyric songs. Its body is made from a single piece of paulownia wood and the twelve strings are made from raw silk.This type of kayagum has a wider spacing between the strings and plays slower tempo music such as Yeongsan-hoesang and Mit-doduri.

The sanjo kayagum, which is about 142 cm, is associated with folk music genres and thus is believed to have evolved in the 19th century with the emergence of sanjo music (improvisation based on scattered melodies). Unlike popkum, the sanjo kayagum has the soundboard of paulownia and has a harder wood such as chestnut for the sides and the back. The closer spacing of the strings and the shorter length of the sanjo kayagum facilitates the technique required for the faster passages of sanjo. The sanjo kayagum is now the most wide spread form of kayagum.
Kayagum is played by plucking and flicking the strings with the index and middle fingers, and the thumb of the right hand, while the left one presses down the strings to the left of the movable bridges producing various sound effects.While other Asian zithers such as the Chinese zheng, Japanese koto, Mongolian yatga, and Vietnamese dan tranh are played with the picks or plectra, the wide vibrato and pitch-bending characteristics of kayagum are achieved by pressing and pulling the string with the bare fingers.
All traditional kayagums use silk strings, although, since the late 20th century, the silk strings may be replaced with nylon strings.
Modern versions of the kayagum, which have a greater number of strings, often use nylon-wrapped steel strings, similar to those used for the Chinese guzheng. Brass strings have also been introduced to produce a louder sound, which is preferred for accompanying dance. To play modern music,kayagum with a greater number of strings have been developed, increasing the instrument's range. Kayagums are available with 13, 17, 18, 21, 22, or 25 strings, although instruments with more strings are also available on custom-made basis.
The 21 string kayagum is normally found in North Korea.

Kesle is a plucked string instrument, identical to the helmet-shaped gusli and related to zither or psalterium. By its construction and playing technique it is different from wing-shaped gusli with a "fan-like" location of the strings. Until the 20th century it was widespread among the peoples of the Volga Region: it is called kusle or kesle by the Chuvash, kiusle by the Mari, kyrez orkrez' by the Udmurts, and guslia by the Tatars.
Modern kesle has a large body (depth no less than 10-15 cm, sometimes more than 20) made from spruce, maple, aspen and other wood. Kesle has 15-30 metal (earlier gut) strings that are placed parallel to each other and tuned diatonically. Its sound is not loud and because of the size of the soundhole it has a rich timbre. Kesle is played on the lap with the oval side placed in the middle of the chest. When playing, a kesle musician plucks strings up with both hands fingers: the right plays the melody in high or mid register, left one plays accompaniment in low register. While playing, strings are not dampened but are left ringing, sometimes plectrum is used.
The origins of kesle is still debatable. In the 14th century psalterium was used by clergy and skomorochs in Russian musical life, but in the 17th century it disappeared from the musical scene because of the skomorochs' persecution. In the historical document of the 16th century it says that some special type of gusli existed in Kazan chanstvo. Predecessor of modern kesle might have been borrowed by huns from chinese. In Chuvashia kesle has been known since the 18th century and was actively used in burying, wedding, funeral repast and other ceremonies.
In 1990s kesle class was opened at Cheboksary music school, a kesle ensemble was formed and school for kesle was written.
Kokle is a Latvian member of Baltic psaltery family. The history of the kokle most likely dates back over 2000 years, but the earliest archaeological testimony of kokle-type instruments in Latvia dates to the 13th century. Traditionally, two different types of the instrument are considered: western Latvian or the small kokle and eastern Latvian or the big kokle. Both types are made from hollowed out fir, birch, pine, willow or oak tree and have a hollow trapezoidal body, topped with a thin wooden soundboard. The eastern Latvian instruments are significantly bigger than their western Latvian counterparts, and they have a characteristic extension of corpus beyond the peg line - the wing. Wooden tuning pegs are set into the wide tip of the body, while at the narrow tip is a metal rod upon which the strings are secured. The strings may be of brass, or steel, until present no evidence is found if gut or natural fiber strings were used. Traditionally, the amount of strings of the small kokle was 5-9, while that of the big kokles was 9-12. Kokles has been a solo instrument. While playing, the small kokle is held horizontally on the lap or put on the table, the big is held in the lap with the shortest side resting against the player's belly; they are played with fingers or a plectrum- a tiny piece of wood, goose feather or a piece of leather.
At the end of the 19th century kokle traditions were influenced by the construction of zithers imported from Germany and Central Europe. Instrument makers began to build kokle-like instruments with up to 30 strings, double strings, metal pegs, bridges, larger bodies and other modern touches. Different playing techniques were developed, to enable play dance music with all three musical lines - melody, accompaniment and bass. Zither-type kokle was played both solo and in ensemble where it accompanied violin, trumpet and button accordion.

In 1940s and 1950s with the development of kokle playing and widening of the repertoire process of instrument's modernization began. Thus, appeared a concert kokle with a bigger range (25-33 strings) and half-tone levers first enabling a player to switch half-tone up, later the so-called double switches were invented that worked in both directions. In addition to that, a large family of kokle instruments was created, including piccolo, soprano, tenor, bass and even double-bass - to meet the needs of the folk instruments orchestra or kokle ensemble. Thus, this modernization gradually created a chromatic concert instrument that was adapting to the contemporary music culture. It was introduced to the music schools, colleges and conservatories. Nowadays some promising developments of concert kokle occur, and the instrument exists in parallel to the revived traditional kokles.

Koto [琴], a type of Japanese zither, is the most popular Japanese musical instrument. It originated in China and during the Nara Period in the 8th century a 13 string version was introduced to Japan. Aside from the standard 13 string koto there is also a 7 string kin (chinese "qin") and a 6 string koto called yamatogoto or wagon.

In general, 13 strings of the same thickness are used, and mobile bridges called kotoji are arranged under the strings for tuning with the instrument tuned in accordance with the piece of music to be played. 180 cm long body of koto is made of paulownia wood (kiri). Originally the strings were made of silk, but nowadays nylon and tetron are more common. The koto is played with tsume, small plectra or picks, attached to three fingers on the right hand. In gagaku, traditional Japanese court music, the koto was played as part of an ensemble, after that, as an accompaniment for temple ballads, and actively came to be performed solo during the Edo period (1603-1868).
For a while, it was an official occupation for blind men, and was apparently limited to this group. Yatsuhashi Kengyo, a gifted blind man from Kyoto, is widely recognised as the founder of modern koto. Nowadays the Yamada School (Yamada-ryu) and The Ikuta School (Ikuta-ryu) are the two major schools that dominate the koto world. The koto actively features in ensembles with shamisen, a type of traditional Japanese lute, and shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute (and at one time also the kokyu, or Japanese fiddle).
During Meiji Period (1868-1912) Western music was introduced in Japan, and consequently the existing koto music did not fit in with the new spirit of modernism and fell out of use. Since then some serious attempts have been made to change or modernize the traditional system. Following the Taisho period (1912-1926), the 17 string bass koto, the 20 string, 25 string, and 30 string koto that further broadened the range, were also created. Miyagi Michio (1895-1956) was the first Japanese composer to combine Western and traditional koto music by using the diatonic scale instead of modes, triple instead of the customary duple meter, and a thicker, orchestral texture. He also modernized traditional kotos, experimenting with the number of strings and construction a lot which resulted in appearance of the most innovative instrument with 80 strings.

Krez (or krez', krezh) is an ancient musical instrument of the Udmurt people of the Russian Urals. It is a type of zither similar to the Russian gusli, however, it has a special inner resonator that creates very unique sound. The mythical origin of the krez is detailed in the Udmurt national epic, the Dokjavyl.
There are 2 types of krez - the large krez (bajym krez) and pukich krez. As the legend says, the first one was made from the spruce tree with the lightning strikes. It has diatonic tuning and the amount of gut strings varies from 14 to 24-32-38. Some strings were placed inside the body thus making sound even louder. Bajym krezh was used during the holiday of Bulda and had a certain magical role in ceremonies underlining its important meaning for Udmurtian peoples.
Pukich krez had different functions and lacked a resonating string. It was used to accompany weddings, during holidays and later came into daily use.
The bajym krez was traditionally kept in kualla, ancestral sanctuary of Udmurts, and was hidden from outside eyes while pukich krez was stored in a hut so it could always be near.

Krez is played on the lap with the semi-circle side turned upwards, the strap is placed around the neck or on the shoulder. Krez player plucks the strings up: right hand plays the melody, and the left one plucks basses.

Narkas-jukh (nars-yukh) and sangwyltap are box-lyre instruments played by Uralic peoples from Khanty-Mansi Autonomous okrug in Siberia. Narkas-jugh (nars-yukh), meaning "musical wood" or "singing tree" is an instrument of Khanty. Mansi version of this instrument is known as sangwyltap. The main difference between those two is that nars-yukh has 5 strings while sangwyltap is a 7-string instrument.
However, they both sound quite much the same as sangwyltap has both lowest and highest strings doubled so both instruments have only 5 sounds.
The psaltery is an ancient stringed instrument that is related to the zither and harp family and that is known in a variety of shapes (trapezoidal, wing-shaped and hog-nosed to name a few). Originating in the Middle East, the psaltery enjoyed widespread use and popularity in 14th and 15th century Europe. Early versions were simply a wooden board with gut strings stretched between pegs. Later instruments included the hollow box or soundboard with sound holes and metal strings. The strings are normally plucked with a plectrum, pick, or the fingernails. The player performed with the instrument on the lap or on a table, with the wider side turned upwards - or in front of the chest held with a strap around his neck if movement was needed. The name of psaltery entered Christian literature in the 3rd century B.C. translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint where, in the Psalms, nevel was translated psalterion. The book of Psalms has also become known as the Psalter (or psalterium), from the hymns sung with this harp by the king David. Southern Europe, influenced by Moorish Spain, preferred the trapezoidal psaltery with three or four strings to a note. Northern psalteries tended to be triangular or wing-shaped and single or double-strung. Like most other instruments of the time, the psaltery had no specific repertory, but was used to play whatever music the occasion demanded. It was referred to frequently in lists of musicians and instruments and in the art of the time. The psaltery was widely used until about 1500. After the 1500's it could not cope well with the chromaticism of the Renaissance era, so was used less as time passed. It is thought that the psaltery evolved into the harpsichord, zither, and other instruments.
Swarmandal or surmandal is an Indian zither that is today most commonly used as an accompanying instrument for vocal Hindustani Classical music (the classical music of North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). The swarmandal is similar to the autoharp or zither in many respects.The name combines swara (notes) and mandal (group), representing its ability to produce a large number of notes.
Swarmandals measure from twenty-four to thirty inches in length and twelve to fifteen inches in width. The most peculiar thing that sets swarmandal apart from other Indian musical instruments is that there is no such thing as a standard tuning for Swarmandal. The musician may use any number of strings from 21 to 36 depending on a raga he is playing. There is also no standard swarmandal tuning - different individuals can sing the rag from a different key so the tuning issue becomes a matter of personal taste. The strings are hooked in a nail lodged in the right edge of the swarmandal and on the left are wound around rectangular pegs which can be tightened with a special key. Wooden pegs were used instead of metal ones in the medieval period. A sharp half-inch ridge on both sides of the swarmandal stands a little apart from the nails on which the strings are tightened. This ridge functions as a bridge on both sides.
As swarmandal is used as an accompaniment to singing, the technique of playing involves the thumb that glides the strings producing arpeggios.
Kantele is a Vepsian traditional instrument similar to Karelian kantele. However, it has slightly "thinner" sound because of the resonance holes. Vepsian kantele has 10 strings that are tuned diatonically.
Yatga is a traditional Mongolian plucked zither, related to the Chinese guzheng, Japanese koto, Korean kayagum, Mongolian yatga and Vietnamese dan tranh.
The traditional Mongolian epic Janggar tells the story of a young princess who once played upon an 800-string yatga with 82 bridges; she is supposed to have only played on the seven lower bridges. According to historical sources as early as in the 12th century yatga was mainly used as a court music instrument in the residence and palaces of Mongolian rulers and nobles at their feasts and banquets. The usage of the 12 or more stringed version was reserved for the court and monasteries - the twelve strings corresponded to twelve levels of palace hierarchy. The commoners played a 10-stringed yatga which was also used for interludes during recitations of epics. Since the 17th century it has been used in monasteries and temples and later widely entered theatrical stage and music bands.
In the beginning of the 20th century, with the development of new instrument's types, the art of playing also changed. Now yatga players could play solo or in duo, trio and quartet, as well as in orchestras. Yatga may vary widely in size, tuning, and number of bridges and strings. The body is a long wooden box, one end of which is angled downward. The performer plucks the strings with the fingernails of the right hand; the left hand is used to put pressure on the strings, producing bending. The left hand can also be used to play the base strings without plucks. Depending on style the higher strings are picked by fingers or by picks.

Originally Yatga was played in the Western Mongolian and later on in the Central Asia as well as in the Eastern Mongolia. The type of Yatga used varies depending on whether it is used for folk, classical or traditional music, played for entertainment of children or as an accompaniment to folk songs and dances. Mongolians traditionally play three types of this zither, differentiated by their resonators or hollow bodies in which the sound is amplified: the master yatga; ikh gariing yatga, the national yatga; akhun ikh yatga, and the harp, called the bosoo yatga.

The concert zither is a relatively modern instrument although the name has been applied to many other instruments through the ages. The zither evolved as a folk music instrument in Bavaria and Austria and, at the beginning of the 19th century, was known as a Volkszither. Its relatives, among others, are the hummel in Sweden, the langeleik in Norway and the Noordsche balk in Holland.
The zither may be best described as a combination of harp, guitar and bass. It features from 32 to 42 strings. The concert zither is an instrument which consists of a fingerboard containing five strings (a a d g c - so called "normal tuning" and a d g1 g c, or "Viennese tuning") and thirty-six strings beyond the fingerboard which serve primarily as accompaniment. The melody is produced by the fingers of the left hand pressing down on the strings in the spaces between the frets of the fingerboard while the thumb of the right hand, which is fitted with a metal pick, strikes the string. The accompaniment is produced by the remaining fingers of the right hand as they pluck the so-called "accompaniment" strings.
Johann Petzmayer (1803 - 1888), a native of Vienna, became the first virtuosi on this instrument. After Duke Maximilian of Bavaria got enchanted by Petzmayer's playing and decided to take lessons with him, Petzmayer became a court musician and together with Duke Maximilian toured Europe and the Near East where both performed together. The result was a rapid increase in the popularity of this instrument among all strata of society, not excluding royalty. Elizabeth, empress of Austria, Marie, queen of Naples, Crown Princess Alexandra of England, Princess Beatrice of Wales, were among those who became enthusiastic performers on the zither.
Carl Ignaz Umlauf invented the Viennese family of zither instruments in 1856 and became also the first zither-player to give full-scale concerts at the Musikverein in Vienna. As a result, this multi-purpose instrument earned a place of its own in the repertoire performed in classical concert halls. Many aristocrats were stimulated to learn to play the zither, which led to commissions for zither compositions and to concerts being put on.

It was Nikolaus Weigel (1811-1878), a native of the Palatinate and subsequent resident of Munich, who conceived the stringing of the zither (1838) that converted it into a concert instrument. It was he who introduced the chromatic scale onto the fingerboard and arranged the accompaniment strings in the sequence of fifths. However, his reforms were not universally accepted until considerably later. Max Amberger, an instrument maker in Munich, fabricated the first concert zither in 1862 based on Weigel's revolutionary design. It is this instrument with its 5 melody strings (a, a, d, g, c) covering 29 frets along with 37 accompaniment strings that constitutes the concert zither. Based on its shape, there are also harp zither and psalteria zither - however, with all the differences all the types have 29 frets and 37-42 accompanying strings and can be tuned into "normal" or "Viennese" ways.
The older forms of the zither were limited to 2 or 3 key signatures and as a result were never taken seriously as concert instruments by the serious composers. But this late maturation of the zither did not prevent the creation of a body of classical music specifically composed for the instrument by virtuosi who had mastered its techniques. These composers, called the "Altmeister", flourished from 1870-1910 and by their creativity developed the full potential that lies within the compass of this instrument.
Even though the zither is primarily known as a folk music instrument, these days a big amount of young people in Germany find it suitable for performing classical music too. One of the leading Zither orchestras is the Zitherorchester Muenchen-Pasing.
The zither became world famous for the solo in "Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald" by Johann Strauss and the film music for "The third man" where it was performed by Anton Karas.

I would like to thank for their kind help and contribution into this project:

Liu Fang http://www.philmultic.com/ http://www.liufangmusic.net/
Mei Han
Masako Hazata 
Viktoria Herencsar http://viktoriaherencsar.com/
Kristina Kupryte
Cornelia Mayer
Regina Maroziene
Valdis Muktupavels http://www.music.lv/mukti/valdis.htm
Kristi Myhling 
Hedi Viisma 
Timo Väänänen


Editor of the article:

Olga Shishkina