Musical instruments vary greatly from cultural to culture and throughout time. They can be classified in a variety of categories similar to the system used to classify living organisms. Perhaps one of the most recognizable families of musical instruments is the bowed lute family, which includes violins, cellos, double basses, and an incredibly beautiful and obscure Norwegian instrument called the Hardanger fiddle.
Called the hardingfele by its creators, the Hardanger fiddle is, as I said early, a type of bowed lute similar to a violin or fiddle. The term “lute” refers to any string instrument with a neck and strings that run parallel to a sound board, while “bowed” means that the instrument is played by running a bow across the strings to create sound through vibration. The Hardanger fiddle looks very similar to a violin — it is essentially the same size and shape, though it is made with slightly thinner wood. The major difference between a Hardanger fiddle and a standard fiddle or violin is the number of strings. A violin (also called a fiddle) has four strings which are all bowed one or two at a time by the musician. The Hardanger fiddle has eight or nine strings — four that a bowed by the musician and five or six others, called understrings or sympathetic strings, that lie beneath them and resonate with the vibrations produced by the bowed strings, creating an echo effect.
In addition to being unique and beautiful in its sound, the Hardanger fiddle is also very beautiful to look at. They are typically decorated with black rosemåling, an ornate style of floral painting common in Norwegian art. The tailpiece and fingerboard are often inlaid with extensive, ornate, mother-of-pearl designs, as are the tuning pegs. The scroll at the top of the pegbox is often in the shape of hte head of a woman, a dragon, or the Lion of Norway as seen on the Norwegian Coat of Arms.
First crafted in 1651 by Ole Jonsen Jaastad in Hardanger, Norway, the Hardanger fiddle is a transposing instrument, meaning that the key the sheet music is written in and the key in which the instrument sounds are not the same. Unfortunately, this also means that someone who plays violin cannot just pick up a Hardanger fiddle and play it exactly like a violin (for those of you who are well-versed in music, the violin is a C instrument and the Hardanger fiddle is a B♭instrument, generally tuned A-D-A-E with the understrings tuned B-D-E-F♯-A instead of the standard G-D-A-E tuning of a violin). The Hardanger fiddle also has a flatter bridge than a violin, meaning the musician can bow two or three strings at a time rather than one or occasionally two as with a violin. Since the strings of a Hardanger fiddle are also thinner and lighter, like the strings of a baroque violin, the bowing style used with the Hardanger fiddle is lighter and bouncier; this fits well with the typical using of the Hardanger fiddle, which is for playing traditional Norwegian dancing music and wedding tunes.
There are a few tunes you might recognize that use the Hardanger fiddle. It features prominently in a lot of the work of Edvard Grieg, especially in his score for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. In recent years, it was used in the main romantic theme in the film How to Train Your Dragon and in the Rohan theme from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, its echoing Norse sound providing the perfect haunting melody.