Vikings and their Music

By Mogens Friis

In ancient times, common man didn't posses the education of the written language. What little we about the Vikings and their music has been passed down through the generations. The information indicates that music was used for a variety of reasons. Sombre chants were used for sermons and sacrifices, while a livelier tune were played at festivities; then there were the bawdy tunes sang while drinking mead. For obvious reasons, CD's, tapes, or sheet music sang or played during this era are unavailable.

Viking Music and the Changes through the Years

As with any recount of information, Viking music also evolved through the years. With each passing, the music was altered slightly-to what extent is unknown. At the beginning of the 7th century, Bishop Isidorus, an old theologian of Sevilla, wrote in Latin; the language used by scholars:

"Nisi enim ab homine memoria teneantur soni, prereunt, quia scribi non possunt "- meaning:

("If tones cannot be remembered by man in his memory they will vanish because they cannot be written down." )

Music was not transcribed until the 16th century. It's important to remember that before this time, and with each verbal passing, music lost some of it's originality, and was influenced by the evolving culture.

Other sources for Viking Music

Besides the natural transgression of music passed by word of mouth, there are other sources where we can research to also find facts. Information about Viking music has been discovered in archaeological finds, sagas, chronicles, and journals kept by foreign visitors to Scandinavia during 900-1200.

The Instruments

Archaeological digs have revealed quite a variety of instruments dating back to Viking times.
bulletPan flutes made from cow's horns, bones of sheep and other animals.
bulletHorn pipes, similar to a bagpipe without the bag.
bulletStringed instruments:
bulletOne like the lyre was played by snapping the strings similar to a guitar.
bulletThe rebec - a violinish looking instrument.
bulletHarp - used most during the Viking era.
bulletLur- a piece of wood parted, carved out, then joined together again. Birch bark secured the instrument. Illustrations of this instrument have been found in stone carvings, runic stones and manuscripts. If you'd like to hear the Lur, listen to the CD "DrÝmte mig en drÝm", (I dreamt a dream), published by SKALK, a Danish archaeological magazine.

What did the Music sound like?

An Arab merchant visiting Hereby, Denmark, in the 10th century had this to say about the Viking's singing:

"Never before I have heard uglier songs than those of the Vikings in Slesvig (in Denmark). The growling sound coming from their throats reminds me of dogs howling, only more untamed."

Another visitor compared their singing to the sound of a heavily loaded cart rolling down a hillside. The storyteller explains the sound was a result of lack of moderation in contact with alcohol. (Obviously, even back then, beer and brass music obviously went well together.)

MUSICIANS

There were two kinds of musicians known to the Vikings, Jesters and Skalds. Jesters were held in low regard, and only the very best were accepted. One could in fact kill a jester and not received punishment for their action. Skalds travelled the lands entertaining the courts of important Viking chiefs and kings of the realms. They would sing to the great leaders their KVADs or poems.

Viking Music is Experimental Music

Though little is known about how Vikings played their music or even what instruments they preferred. What we do know is the Vikings, through their travels, were exposed to many cultures and their traditional music. A few include Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and English. We could easily discerned that then as now, Viking music could have been sang and played on an international level.

For more information about the music of the Vikings please contact

Mr Mogens Friis, Denmark, Tel & Fax +45 86 12 41 72.
- 14. august 2004 -