T is for Tone

Lute, oud what’s in a name?

The oud, the chant, the guzheng, and the morin khuur. There aren’t many stories of medieval bards out on the Silk Road, but there must have been. Even the conquerors appreciated art and music. The cities of Baghdad, Samarkand, Constantinople, and Hangzhou were considered the happening places to be back in the day. Marco Polo weaves music in and out of his stories of Cathay and of Alaoudin.

When any one of them opened his eyes, saw this delightful spot, and heard the delicious music and songs, he really believed himself in the state of blessedness.

Marco Polo, “On the Old Man of the Mountain”
Wikipedia shows range of medieval lute players.

Here’s a quick spin through some medieval instruments, with their links (sorry in advance if you run into a Youtube ad, but wait for the music!)

The Oud

The lute came out of Persia, an instrument with a neck, strings, and a rounded bowl for good sound. The Arabs called their version the oud. Apparently, it belongs to a class of instruments called chordophones, whose sound comes from vibrating strings. The singer Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965–1040) was known for his expertise.

Here is Naochika Sogabe, showing you what an oud sounded like:

Youtube song with an oud.

Gregorian Chants, Tibetan Chants

The music out on the deserts seemed to be a step ahead of what the folks were listening to back west. Music was a sacred part of church, so other than what the washer women might hum, a lot of the formal written music of Chartres or Salisbury might have sounded more like a Gregorian Chant:

Youtube rendition of Gregorian chants.

Not much of a beat, can’t really dance to it, as the kids used to say. But the surly priest would have responded that was the point.

Meanwhile, the Buddhist monks also developed their own ancient sound. They have their own manner of diagramming the music as well:

The Guzheng & the Morin Khuur

The Chinese had their own kind zither. Zithers are stringed instruments like lutes but they don’t have a neck for playing chords, so they are plucked. The Guzheng was played flat rather than being held.

Here is a traditional song called “The Fisherman’s Song at Dusk.”

Youtube rendition with a guzheng.

Last, but not least, is the traditional Mongolian instrument called the morin khuur. It’s played between the knees like similar stringed violin instruments of the east. It has that distinctive eastern sound to it:

Morin khuur photo, wikipedia.

The top has a “headbox” which one site describes as known for its distinctive “horse head” shape. Well, nomads … horses, of course. This photo of a gentlemen in Mongolian dress is obviously modern, since the medieval Mongolians rarely wore clothes made of cloth (like satin banked). Prior to the 13th century, they would have dressed almost exclusively in felt or fur because that’s what their animals produced. Any cloth textiles were acquired through trade or stolen. In fact, they had a special word tono just for stealing clothes tona.

However, the instrument hearkens back to the nights on the steppes, listening to the wind, chewing a bit of mare’s milk cheese curds, and drinking fermented mare’s milk. Anyone got a little ditty to share?

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