Authentic Viking Music
by Master Orrick of Romney
Winter holds the land in its icy grip and the seas are no longer fit to go a-Viking. How is the 'early period' Scandinavian to pass the long days” One solution, in addition to the time-honored saga-tradition is music, universal to the human species.
Unfortunately, we know pitifully little about Viking music. No Scandinavian equivalent of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, with its wonderful lyre and harp, has been found. No record of song, however poorly understood, survives. Are then, the harmonies that filled the mead-halls of Frodi and Harald Fairhair forever stilled?
Fortune has allowed a few clues, but no more than clues, to Viking-era music to survive. There is one (and only one) nearly complete Viking instrument. Excavation of Hedeby, a Danish Viking trading center has produced a set of 5-holed pan pipes carved from a single piece of wood.
Four of the pipes still sound, producing the four notes a-b-c#-d. The fifth and final note was probably an e but due to the imperfect preservation of the instrument, this remains conjectural. The thin tone and limited range suggest that the instrument may have been a toy.
There is one tantalizing bit of physical evidence of Viking music, conjectural though it may be. At the time of the Viking raids on England, symbols of evil were sometimes carved on the western faces of gravestones, where they would be forever denied the beneficent rays of the rising sun. These figures are often armed men, believed to be Vikings. If this be the case, it is conceivable that the square-framed six-stringed harp pictured on certain gravestones is Viking in origin. No information concerning the tuning of this instrument, if it existed at all, is available. Reasonable, if hypothetical, answers are 'e-g-a-b-d-e' and 'g-a-b-d-e-g”.
Our knowledge of vocal music is both less and more complete than that f instrumental music. While no physical evidence exists, folk memory is long and through the folk music of Scandinavia we may obtain a distant view of Viking music.
A style of folk singing has been preserved in the more remote regions of Norway that sounds (if not as Viking vocal music really sounded) as it 'should' have sounded. In this style, three or more voices sing in parallel intervals. One singer carries the melody, while the next singer matches the first, in parallel fourths or fifths. Subsequent singers, as ability allows, match one of these two, either an octave up or down, producing a spine-chilling blend of parallel fourths and fifths, ending each verse with an inarticulate grunt. Surely this is a sound worth of accompanying feasting in Odin's halls.
Native Isles were selected by Vikings and have traditions of singers accompanied by the jews-harp. While this particular instrument may or may not have been used during the Viking age, it was certainly widely distributed within a century of the close of the era. Its ease of play and portability have long made it a favorite of travelers, including perhaps those who took the dragon-prowed ships of the seas. Perhaps in this common novelty instrument, we have our closest tie to the music that would have been heard on those dragon ships.
Diagram Group, Musical Instruments of the World, 1976, Facts on File, Inc., Toppan.
Brynhildr Kormaksdottir (Sandy Strubhaar), Viking Musical Culture: Part II. Tournaments Illuminated No. 68, Fall 1983, pg.6.
Magnuson, Magnus Vikings, 1980, Elsever-Dutton.
Wilson, David, The Northern World, 1980. Thames and Hudson.
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