The first row of instruments in the picture below share many more similarities than the second row. They all consist of a sound-box, two ‘arms’, and a crossbar (or ‘yoke’) which connects the two arms at the top. The strings were strung from the bottom of the soundbox, over a bridge, and onto the crossbar, where they were fixed by strips of leather (kollopes). This is unlike modern string instruments, which use tuning-pegs. The strings themselves were of equal length, but varied in thickness and tensions, they were normally made of gut. This meant that when each string was plucked or strummed, it sounded a different pitch.

The second row of instruments share this last feature. Since all of these instruments are sounded by the reverberations of their strings they all belong to this ‘string’ family of instruments. However, the harp, the monochord, and the lute were less commonly played than the top row of instruments, and the way they were made and played differs slightly to the above description.


Images of String Instruments

kithara a string instrument
NY Met, 56.171.38. Musician singing and playing the kithara.


chelys lyre a string instrument
BM 1816,0610.501. Tortoise-shell (chelys) lyre., restored from remains.


barbitos a string instrument
Boston MFA 13.186-13.245. A youth squats down and plays the barbitos.


Cycladic harp a string instrument
Getty 85.AA.103. Cycladic male harp player.


monochord a string instrument
“Illustration depicting Pythagoras performing harmonics experiments with stretched vibrating strings. From Franchino Gafori, Theorica Musice (Milan, 1492).”


lute a string instrument
Athens, NAM, 216. Detail showing a Muse playing a lute.


Click on the links above to explore the differences between these instruments in more detail, including how they are represented in art, society, literature, and myth!