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Scandinavian Fiddling and Related Instruments

August 2010 2 Comments

Carl Rahkonenby Carl Rahkonen

The first time someone hears Scandinavian fiddling they may be struck by its unique sound, which can be as beautiful and austere as the Scandinavian landscape.  Together with incredible rhythmic complexity, this music can sound as exotic as any music on the earth.  It is a sound that can be particularly addicting!

The sound of Scandinavian fiddling can be traced to the influence of older instruments in the culture, representing a “parallel” tradition:  In Norway it’s the hardingfele and in Sweden the nyckelharpa.   Many North American Scandinavian fiddlers also play these instruments.

            The hardingfele (also call the Hardanger fiddle) is shaped like a regular violin, but is more arched, so much so that looking from the side of the instrument you can see the soundpost through the f-hole.  Norwegians call regular violins “flat fiddles.”   The hardingfele is often highly ornamented with etched designs and inlaid mother of pearl.  The fingerboard is shorter and flatter and the bridge is flatter than a regular violin, making it easier to play the multiple lines and double stops that the music calls for continually.  The overall shape is moreTwo Hardingfele closely related to a Baroque violin.  The contemporary hardingfele has eight strings, four that are played and four that that run under the fingerboard and through the middle of the bridge for sympathetic resonance.  Every note played on a hardingfele produces a proliferation of resonant sounds.  The strings are also unique, being wound differently than standard violin strings.  It is typically tuned at least a half step higher than standard violin tuning, making the sound even brighter.

Two hardingfele belonging to Karen Solgård, Minneapolis, author of “The Strange Fiddle in the Attic.”  Photograph © 2006 Karen Solgård.

            The nyckelharpa, or “keyed fiddle” is long and narrow, with a structure closely related to the hurdy-gurdy.  There are rows of keys with vertical tangents that the player pushes to stop the stings, so there is no vibrato in the usual sense.  It is played with a much shorter bow than a regular violin bow.  The modern chromatic version has sixteen strings: three melody strings and one drone, plus 12 strings for sympathetic vibration. The sound of a nyckelharpa, like the hardingfele, is very resonant with multiple harmonies.  When you play one pitch on either of these instruments, you hear multiple pitches from the sympathetic strings.


Nyckelharpa belonging to Cheryl Pastiche, Minneapolis. Photograph © Glenn Kujansuu, taken March 28, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan.

Thus the overall sound of Scandinavian fiddling favors resonant harmony.  For the regular fiddle player this means using little or no vibrato, playing with flawless intonation, and obtaining harmony by playing in ensembles with multiple parts (stemma), or with double stops in solo playing.  In addition, Scandinavian music can be highly ornamented, adding an additional layer of complexity to the sound.

There are two North American Societies devoted to players of the hardingfele and the nyckelharpa:  the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America, and the American Nyckelharpa Association.  These associations provide a primary means for all players of these uniquely Scandinavian instruments to come in contact.  They have extensive web-sites, journals, and meetings and clinics where players can meet and trade information.  Not all Scandinavian fiddlers play hardingfele or nyckelharpa, but many do, so these associations bring together many Scandinavian fiddlers as well.   There is currently no national association in North America just for Scandinavian players of the standard fiddle.

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About the author

Carl Rahkonen is a Music Librarian and Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  In 2001-02 he held a sabbatical to study American fiddling styles, including Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish, and old-time styles, primarily in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

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  • acoustic violin said:

    Being familiar with the kinds of strings and how they can have an effect on your performance will be extremely useful to you.

  • Jerry Hobbs said:

    I happend to be watching PBS where 5 choirs were performing and a full orchestra was playing. An elderly lady of scsndinavian decent was playing this weird looking violin. After all was said and done I went on line to Google & typed in scandinavin stringed instruments & up poped a picture of this instrument with inlayed Mother Of Pearl so I knew I had hit pay dirt. I read about the # of strings & tuning & was blown away. I was a Tympany player in HS in both band & Orchestra. Fascinating instrument, thanks for sharing it on line. Hope you can email me more info on it. Jerry