What is a Lute?

     The lute is a plucked-string musical instrument.  The lute was popular and widely used in Europe from about the twelfth century AD until well into the eighteenth century.  After a period of disuse lasting more than a hundred years, interest in it slowly revived during the twentieth century.  Some audio and video examples of lute playing are available on our "Downloads" page.

Table of Contents

Structure of the Lute

     The construction of a lute features a deeply rounded, ovoid body fabricated out of thin strips of wood glued together edgewise.  The body is closed by a wooden soundboard or table to which the bridge is glued.  The strings are tied through the bridge and stretch along a neck, across a fingerboard, which is fitted with a number of tied frets, over a nut and into one or more pegboxes, where they are tuned by adjusting the tension. The strings are stopped or fretted with one hand while plucking with the other.  On most lutes, the strings are in pairs, except for the highest-pitched string, known as the chanterelle, or the top two strings on later (Baroque) instruments, although on a theorbo or chitarrone all the strings may be single.  Each single string or pair of strings is called a course.  The pair of strings within a course may be tuned to the same pitch (unison), but the pairs in the lower-pitched courses are often tuned an octave apart.  The upper courses are normally tuned with the interval of a fourth or third between them, but on instruments with more than six courses, those beyond the first six may be tuned stepwise.

     Building a lute requires a large amount of very careful manual work by a highly skilled woodworker, so the instruments are expensive and are usually made individually, to the specifications of the buyer.  As indicated below, there is no standard instrument (as there is in the world of the classical guitar), and an advanced or professional player often owns several very different instruments.

Brief History

     During the 500-year period of its historical popularity, the European lute underwent a considerable evolution.  No instruments have survived that were built in Europe during the middle ages, but a certain amount of information can be obtained from paintings, sculpture and written descriptions from that time.  It is likely that most lutes during that period were relatively small, were strung with four courses and were usually plucked with a quill or plectrum (pick).  Attempts at reconstructing medieval lutes necessarily involve a significant amount of speculation, as do performances of music of that period.

     Again based on secondary evidence rather than surviving examples, it seems that the lutes made in Europe during the fifteenth century were predominantly five-course instruments.  Late in that century we also see the lute played more commonly directly with the fingers instead of using a plectrum.

     The oldest examples of lutes that exist in museum collections date from early in the sixteenth century, and by that time they were made with six courses.  The first book of printed music for lute, published by Petrucci in Venice in 1507, is also for an instrument with six courses, and the music contains multiple independent melody lines, so it cannot be played with a plectrum.  By that time the tuning had been standardized to the "fourth, fourth, major third, fourth, fourth" interval pattern that was commonly used for more than a hundred years.

     During the course of the sixteenth century, the lute grew into a family of instruments of various sizes, as did other instruments of the period such as the recorder and viola da gamba.  Surviving Renaissance lutes (indexed in the Lautenweltadresssbuch on another page of our site) range in string length from about 44 cm to around 90 cm. During this period the size of the instruments most frequently used for solo performance ranged from about 54 cm string length to around 66 cm. The lutes of other sizes were clearly employed for accompanying singers or instrumentalists (as a way of adapting to different pitch ranges or tonalities while remaining within a technically comfortable area of the fingerboard), but they also were played together in ensembles of two, three or four instruments.  A quartet of late Renaissance lutes of different sizes can be heard on the recordings, “Sweet Division” and “Palestrina Lute,” available from the Lute Society of America.

     Near the end of the sixteenth century three new trends made their appearance.  The first was the addition of one or more courses to the bass of the instruments.  The regular use of a seventh course by about 1590 was then followed fairly quickly by adding an eighth, then a ninth and a tenth course.  The tuning of these additional bass strings on seven-, eight- or nine-course instruments was not strictly standardized, and it seems that they may have been frequently retuned between pieces, according to the requirements of the music.  On ten-course instruments, enough pitches are available that a simple scalewise tuning of the basses became the norm; for a lute in G, then that meant, from the bottom up, C, D, E (or E-flat) and F.  Since all of the commonly-used notes of the scale are then playable, it is generally not necessary to change the pitch of these strings by stopping or fretting them, so most music for ten-course lute employed the added basses only as open strings.

     The fact that the added bass strings need not be fretted, and thus do not need to pass over the fingerboard at all, combined with the inherent deficiency in the tone quality of relatively short strings made of gut and tuned to low pitches, led to another trend.  Lute-makers began adding a second pegbox for the unfretted bass strings on an extension of the neck of the instrument.  This modification was initiated in Italy, where a large lute made with this long neck extension was given the name chitarrone or tiorba. In English, the latter term was adopted and adapted, and such an instrument is usually called a “theorbo.”  A related instrument, the archlute, normally has a shorter neck extension while retaining the double stringing and the tuning scheme of the Renaissance lute.

     The third new direction taken at the beginning of the seventeenth century, particularly in France, was toward experimentation with different tuning patterns for the six fretted courses.  The period of experimentation lasted for more than 50 years, but by the last quarter of the seventeenth century, players had generally fallen into one of two camps, depending largely on geography.  In England and the Italian peninsula, the “Renaissance” tuning scheme (4th, 4th, major 3rd, 4th, 4th) was usually maintained, though normally on extended instruments with eight unfretted courses, for a total of fourteen.  In France and northern continental Europe a “d-minor” tuning system was most commonly used.  For this the fretted strings are tuned ADFadf (4th, minor 3rd, major 3rd, 4th, minor 3rd).  Initially, these d-minor Baroque lutes were built with five additional unfretted courses tuned scalewise down below the lowest fretted course for a total of eleven.  Before 1720 two more courses had been added, and these 13-course Baroque lutes are required for most lute music of northern Europe from the mid and late 18th century.

     Interest in the lute and its music died out fairly quickly after 1700 in France, England and the Italian-speaking states, but in German-speaking areas and some parts of eastern Europe, the 13-course lute in d-minor tuning was cultivated by a number of talented players and composers until near the end of the eighteenth century.  Johann Sebastian Bach designated a few pieces for this instrument, but the majority of music written for it was by specialists like Silvius Leopold Weiß who played the lute themselves as their primary occupation.

     Probably the most important pioneer in England in the revival of interest in the lute and other early instruments was Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 – 1940).  Starting already near the end of the nineteenth century, he began collecting the antique instruments, teaching himself and his family to play them and presenting performances in his home. He built his first lute in 1893 and founded the Haslemere Festival, an annual event for the study and performance of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music, in 1925.  In Germany, also in the 1920s, Walter Gerwig (1899 – 1966) began building his own instruments, copies of historical designs, and learning to play them.  Both of these men then mentored a number of talented and enthusiastic students who sparked a renewed interest in the lute throughout Europe and North America, although it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the number of lute enthusiasts was substantial, resulting in the founding of the Lute Society in England in 1956 and the Lute Society of America in 1966.

Musical Context

     In the field of organology, the systematic study of musical instruments, the term "lute" is broader and more generic and includes, for example, the oriental p’i p’a and biwa, the arabic ’oud and gourd-based instruments of sub-Saharan Africa.  The activities of the Lute Society of America focus primarily on the historical European lute and its music.  There is also considerable interest among LSA members in fretted, plucked-string instruments that are related to the European lute in a musicological sense in that they coexisted chronologically, overlapped geographically, and shared some repertory and playing techniques.  These instruments include Renaissance and Baroque guitars, the vihuela, gittern, cittern, bandora, orpharion, mandolino, mandora and mandolin.

Composers and Musical Repertory

     Historically, lutenists clearly played compositions drawn from the general musical repertory of the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods, music written for unspecified instruments or for voices.  However, the unique musical capabilities and limitations of the lute led to the creation of a body of musical literature specific to the instrument, primarily by composers who were themselves players first and perhaps solely of the lute.  The best of the lutenist composers, such as Francesco Canova da Milano, John Dowland and Silvius Leopold Weiss, certainly earned reputations during their lifetimes to rival those of, for example, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, William Byrd or Johann Pachelbel; however, the lutenists are much less well known today.

     The music played by lutenists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods falls generally into one of five broad categories:  free-form pieces, either written down or improvised; dances; transcriptions of vocal pieces; song accompaniments or ensemble music.

     The free-form pieces that appear in manuscript or printed collections bear titles such as Ricercar, Fantasia, Fancy, Prelude, Toccata or Tiento (all with a number of spelling variations).  The name Ricercar is related to the word “research,” and the form may have arisen out of the practice of testing the tuning of the strings and frets in a particular tonality before launching into a serious piece.  However, Ricercars and Preludes quickly became very serious pieces in their own right, occasionally being based on musical material taken from a vocal conposition, with which they might be associated in a print or manuscript.

     Early in the Renaissance, the dance pieces for lute generally were written, and apparently were frequently played, for dancing.  As the musical style developed during the Baroque period, the lute dances, like the dances written for keyboard or for instrumental ensemble during the same time, became gradually more stylized and more appropriate for passive listening rather than for dancing.  Sometimes dances appear singly, but starting from some of the earliest sources they often appear in pairs or groups of three.  Early Germanic sources have a Tanz in duple time (1, 2, 1, 2 beat) followed by a Nachtanz, Proporz or Hupfauf in triple time (1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 beat) usually employing the same melodic and harmonic material.  In Italian or English sources it would be a Pavan followed by a Galliard, for example.  Attaingnant’s 1529 Parisian dance collection usually combines a Basse danse (which may be in duple or triple time) with a triple time Recoupe and sometimes also a Tourdion.  These early small groupings developed during the Baroque period into suites of from four to seven or eight or even more different dance movements, usually preceded by a Prelude and related only in that they are based on the same tonality.

     Transcriptions of polyphonic vocal music appear in many of the printed and manuscript sources for lute from the sixteenth century.  They are frequently called intabulations because the process consists of writing down all 3, 4, 5 or 6 vocal parts in the special lute notation called tablature so that they can be played conveniently by a single player.  The vocal lines might be transcribed quite literally, but more commonly they were ornamented and altered to take into account the capabilities and limitations of the lute.  Before about 1500 the form was unknown, because the lute played with a plectrum was not capable of performing polyphony effectively.  As the style of vocal writing changed in the years around 1600 to a melody + harmony model, intabulations vanished from the repertory of lutenists.

     Some of the earliest printed sources of lute music include vocal pieces with lute accompaniment.  These early arrangements may consist simply of strict intabulations of two parts taken from a three-part polyphonic composition, with the remaining part written out in pitch notation to be sung.  By the 1520s and 1530s, the accompaniments, now often incorporating three parts of a four-part composition, tended to be filled out with embellishments, similar to the way intabulations of complete pieces were done at the time, while one or more of the voices could be sung.  This general model was followed through much of the remainder of the sixteenth century, and to some extent into the beginning of the seventeenth.  However, in the late 1580s in Italy, a new style of music known as monody was created, based on the idea that a single voice could express a text most clearly, and that it was best done while singing over a relatively simple harmonic support.  The lutenist then, instead of being provided with a completely worked out accompaniment, was given only a melodic bass line, written in pitch notation, from which he was expected to improvise a full harmonic structure.  This new framework for the construction of musical compositions, with one or a small number of important melodies supported by vertical harmonies, quickly took over instrumental writing as well, and accompaniment from a basso continuo line became a required skill for lutenists from that time through the middle of the eighteenth century.

     From the earliest time of the lute’s history in Europe, lutenists probably enjoyed playing in small ensembles together.  Literature from the fifteenth century describes duets in which one player provided a slow-moving chordal accompaniment to another player’s very rapid melody, which may have been improvised during performance.  Artworks from the sixteenth century depict groups of three or more lutenists as participants in festive events.  Nicolaes Vallet had a quartet of different sized lutes available for hire in Amsterdam in the early part of the seventeenth century, and some of their dance charts were published in Vallet’s second volume of the Secretum Musarum in 1616.  Lute duets continued to appear in manuscripts until the mid-eighteenth century, when the lute fell out of fashion and only a very few isolated players remained.

     During the second half of the twentieth century and now in the beginning of the twenty-first century, a relatively small but growing number of composers have once again been producing original compositions and arrangements for the lute, either as a solo instrument or as part of a small ensemble.


Acknowledgements:  We appreciate the contributions of digital photographs provided for this page by Kenneth Bé, Dick Hoban and Ed Martin.


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Last updated 23 May AD 2015 – DFH.