Music of the Vikings in Time for the Asheville Viking Festival

Apr 29, 2016

If you've seen the History Channel series, Vikings, you probably have some idea of the brutality and curiosity of the Vikings and Norsemen. Although it is less prominent in the show, their music was just as integral to their rich culture.

Here's a snapshot of the music these legendary Norsemen and women created just in time for the Ashville, Ohio Viking Festival, this weekend. 

Archeomusicology might be the coolest branch of musicology in my humble opinion. Many studies and archeological digs across the world have gathered ancient musical instruments, fragments of early music notation, and descriptions of the purpose and enjoyment of music. So, what could be cooler than the music of the most rebellious and radical cultures; the Vikings?

 (PS: Vikings and the Norse were the same people, the names vary depending on an individual's occupation.) The time period depicted in the show lies just between the Late Iron Age (400- 1050 AD) and the Viking Age (800- 1050 AD). 

A 14th-Century Danish wooden carving shows a traditional Viking Age tune which translates to: "I Dreamed A Dream."

Very early Vikings and Norsemen didn't make music as we typically think of it, but the sounds they created are actually closer to what we would hear at an experimental music concert these days. They combined sound and music. The primary concern of their music seems to have been story-telling, since that was an easy way to pass on oral histories.

Norse and Viking Vocal Music

These sound-stories were accompanied by traditional yoic singing. But there was a wide range of music even within the yoic singing style; pasture songs sung by shepherds, Icelandic duets, Karelian songs of mourning, Norwegian heroic ballads, and Faroeic dancing ballads. 

Norse and Viking Instruments

Some of the first Norse instruments are known as Idiophones​, this group includes noise-making, un-pitched instruments like rattles or percussive instruments that could be scraped or hit to produce sound. In particular, early Vikings made many types of rattles; everything from pig jawbones to circular bronze pieces could be used as a rattle.

Unique, brass circular rattles were an important part of Viking and Norse music.
Credit The Archaeomusicology of Scandinavia Cajsa Lund World Archaeology Vol. 12, No. 3, Archaeology and Musical Instruments (Feb., 1981), pp. 246-265

One other strange tidbit is the fact that many of these rattles were used largely by musicians on horseback or they were simply attached to horse carts. Likewise, other riders may have used their weapons as makeshift percussive instruments, as depicted on Möjbro Runestone. 

Norse Drums and Membranophones 

Norse drums are a little different than one might expect; most were made from hollow, clay pottery with tanned animal skin stretched across it. It's funny to note that no intact clay drums have been found in Scandanavia, because their players seem to have purposefully broken them as part of their use. It looks like Pete Townsend was not such an iconoclast musician, after all. 

Norse and Viking String Instruments

Among the many drums and rattles, archeologists and musicologists have unearthed the remains of lyres and similar stringed instruments. Most often, the bridge of the instruments (think of the bridge of a guitar) is found since these were made of sturdy materials such as bone, horn, or even solid amber. Some musicologists and historians also suggest that archers would use their bows as mono-stringed instruments as well... I don't think I'll be trying that with my recurve bow any time soon, though.

Another popular stringed instrument was even described by the famous Arabic traveler Ibn Fadlan in his description of the burial of a Swedish Viking chieftan in modern-day Russia. The deceased was buried with a lute-like instrument called a tanbura

Flutes, Trumpets and Horns

Viking horns made from cow and ram horns have been found across Sweden, but there is also evidence of metal horns and trumpets as well. In particular, the Kivik grave carvings and illustrations from the Upsala burial mounds depict bronze lurs, or tuned horns. Nearly fifty bronze trumpets and lurs have been unearthed in various parts of Denmark. These lurs were also made of wood, but fewer of these have been found due to their shorter "shelf-life." 

This wooden lur was found near Oseberg and represents the music from the exact time period depicted in the popular History Channel show, 'Vikings' since it was buried with a Norwegian princess in 834 AD.

Flutes were also popular instruments made from found materials such as horn and bone. Many remnants have been found across Scandanavia, but interestingly, some of these artifacts could have either been flutes or pieces of bagpipes! 

Here is a replica of a recorder made from sheep's bone. However, it is remarkable similar to the hornpipe or bagpipe chanter from Lund, Sweden.

If you've enjoyed looking at a few of these ancient instruments, I hope to see you in Ashville this weekend for the Ashville Viking Festival... Just don't share any spoilers for the Vikings show, I'm only on season two.