Stemming from Sweden, the nyckelharpa (Swedish: [ˈnʏ̂kːɛlˌharːpa], plural nyckelharpor), meaning "keyed fiddle" or "key harp"(lit.), is a bowed chordophone, similar in appearance to a fiddle or violin, which employs key-actuated tangents along the neck to change the pitch during play, much like a hurdy-gurdy. The keys slide under the strings, with the tangents set perpendicularly to the keys, reaching above the strings. Upon key-actuation, the tangent is pressed to meet the corresponding string, much like a fret, shortening its vibrating length to that point, changing the pitch of the string.[2][3] It is primarily played underarm, suspended from the shoulder using a sling, with the bow in the overhanging arm.

Nyckelharpa 0930 (cropped).jpg
Nyckelharpa being played
String instrument
Other namesEnglish: Key harp
Danish: Nøgleharpe ("key harp")
Finnish: Avainviulu ("key violin")
German: Schlüsselfidel ("key fiddle")
Italian: Siena-Harpa ("Siena harp")
Italian: Viola a chiavi ("keyed viola")
Italian: Viola a chiavi di Siena ("Siena keyed viola")
Italian: Viola d'amore a chiavi ("keyed Viola d'amore")
Polish: fiddle klawiszowe ("keyboard fiddle")[1]
Classification Bowed string instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification321.322-71
Inventor(s)Folk instrument
Developed12th century
Related instruments
Nyckelharpa with bow on white background

The origin of the instrument is unknown, but its historical foothold is much larger in Sweden than other countries. Many of the early historical depictions of the instrument are found in Sweden, the earliest possibly depiction found on a relief located on a 14th century church portal. While historically not too common of an instrument in Sweden, the violin outshining it in usage among spelmän (players of Swedish folk music), the nyckelharpa became a popular folk instrument in the Swedish province of Uppland during the 17th century, subsequently leading to its popularization and spread throughout Sweden the following centuries. By the 19th century it had become a "fine" instrument, being played at concerts in Stockholm,[4] and by the early 20th century it had become an archetypal instrument alongside the violin for Swedish folk music. Today it is considered by many to be the quintessential national instrument of Sweden.[5] The oldest surviving nyckelharpa is dated 1526 and is part of the Zorn Collections in Mora Municipality, Sweden.[4]

Besides Sweden, early depictions of nyckelharpor can also be found in Denmark and Italy, among other potential early depictions in Europe. The earliest of these is found in a 1408 fresco by Taddeo di Bartolo at the Palazzo Pubblico chapel in Siena, Italy, which depicts an angel playing a "keyed viola". Dubbed Viola a chiavi di Siena (Italian for "Siena keyed viola"), or simply Siena-Harpa ("Siena harp"), relating to the Swedish name (also styled sienaharpa), there has recently been interest by enthusiast to resurrect this Italian depiction of the instrument. Such a reconstruction was produced as part of an international research project around 2021 by professional luthier Alexander Pilz, a seasoned maker of nyckelharpor working out of Leipzig, Germany,[6] which has led other luthiers to start producing the design as a result.[1]


The earliest possible, but not confirmed, depiction of nyckelharpor known can be found in a relief on one of the portals to the Källunge Church, located on the Swedish island of Gotland. Dating from c. 1350, it depicts two musicians with bow stringed instruments suspiciously looking like nyckelharpor. The relief is however eroded and damaged from time, making it impossible to confirm them as nyckelharpor.[7][8] Early church paintings of nyckelharpor are found in Siena, Italy, dating to 1408 and in different churches in Denmark and Sweden, such as Tolfta Church, Sweden, which dates to c. 1460–1525. Other very early pictures are to be found in Hildesheim, Germany, dating to c. 1590.[citation needed]

Schlüsselfidel (lower right) shown in Michael Praetorius' Syntagma Musicum, 1619.

The german term, Schlüsselfidel ("key harp"), is mentioned in Theatrum Instrumentorum, a famous work written in 1620 by the German organist Michael Praetorius (1571–1621). The Swedish province of Uppland has been a stronghold for nyckelharpa music since the early 17th century, including musicians like Byss-Calle (Carl Ersson Bössa, 1783–1847) from Älvkarleby.[8]

Changes by August Bohlin (1877–1949) in 1929/1930 made the nyckelharpa a chromatic instrument with a straight bow, making it a more violin-like and no longer a bourdon instrument.[8] Composer, player and maker of nyckelharpor Eric Sahlström (1912–1986) used this new instrument and helped to re-popularize it in the mid-20th century.[8] In spite of this, the nyckelharpa's popularity declined until the 1960s roots revival.[citation needed]

The 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence in the popularity of the nyckelharpa, with notable artists such as Marco Ambrosini (Italy and Germany), Sture Sahlström, Gille, Peter Puma Hedlund and Nils Nordström including the nyckelharpa in both early music and contemporary music offerings. Continued refinement of the instrument also contributed to the increase in popularity, with instrument builders like Jean-Claude Condi and Annette Osann bringing innovation to the bow and body.[9]

In 1990s, the nyckelharpa was recognised as one of the instruments available for study at the folk music department of the Royal College of Music in Stockholm (Kungliga Musikhögskolan). It has also been a prominent part of several revival groups in the later part of the century, including the trio Väsen, the more contemporary group Hedningarna, the Finnish folk music group Hyperborea and the Swedish folk music groups Dråm and Nordman. It has also been used in non-Scandinavian musical contexts, for example by the Spanish player Ana Alcaide, the English singer and multi-instrumentalist Anna Tam, and Sandra Schmitt of Storm Seeker, a Pirate Metal band from Germany.[citation needed]

The first World Nyckelharpa Day[10] took place on the 26th April 2020 just as the world had gone into lockdown. All the events took place online, either as livestreams or pre-recorded videos in Youtube. This now is a yearly event taking place on the Sunday closest to the 26th April - this being the birthday of the great nyckelharpa player Byss-Calle. The event is co-ordinated by British/Swedish nyckelharpa player Vicki Swan.[11][12]


Traditional method of playing

The nyckelharpa is usually played with a strap around the neck, stabilised by the right arm. Didier François, a violinist and nyckelharpist from Belgium, is noted for using an unusual playing posture, holding the nyckelharpa vertically in front of the chest. This allows a wider range of motion for both arms. It also affects the tone and sound of the instrument. Some players may use a violin bracket to keep the nyckelharpa away from the body so that it can swing freely, causing it to sound more "open" as its resonance is not damped.[citation needed]


Common variantsEdit

There are four common variants of the nyckelharpa still played today, differing in the number and arrangement of keys, number and arrangement of strings, and general body shape. The predominant type is the three-row so-called "chromatic nyckelharpa", with the melody strings tuned A1 - C1 - G, a drone C (from the highest to the lowest string) that is only touched occasionally, and 12 resonance strings (one for each step of the chromatic scale).

The other three variants are:[13][14]

  • Kontrabasharpa ("double bass harp") – most popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. Typically the top has a high arch, and there are two oval-shaped soundholes in the lower bout called oxögon. The name "Kontrabasharpa" refers not to the pitch being any deeper than a standard nyckelharpa's (it isn't), but to the unstopped drone string which always resonates below the melody strings during regular play. The two melody strings are set up on either side of the drone string, such that melodies can be played as double stops between a single melody string and the open drone string without the two melody strings ever clashing.
  • Silverbasharpa ("silver base harp") – most popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so named because of the bass strings which are traditionally wound with silver. It is the immediate predecessor to the modern nyckelharpa, and the string configuration is identical, however it retains the older top with a more pronounced arch as well as the two oxögon. The main difference is that only the top two strings are stopped, meaning that the bottom C and G strings cannot play any other notes, and so nearly all of its repertoire is in the key of C. In addition, some silverbasharpor may be diatonic and not chromatic, and some keys may stop both melody strings at once.[15]
  • Oktavharpa ("octave harp") – invented by Lennart and Johan Hedin in 1996. It is essentially a modern three-row nyckelharpa tuned an octave down, almost identical to a cello. It is the lowest-pitched variant of the nyckelharpa.

The resonance strings, or sympathetic strings, which were added to the instrument during the 2nd half of the 16th century, are not bowed directly but resonate with the other strings. There can be anywhere from six to twelve of them, depending on the construction and tonality of the instrument. Some modern nyckelharpor have been made with four or even five rows of keys, however they have not been popular enough to replace the three-row nyckelharpa as the standard.


Beyond the four common variants there are a variety of derivative nyckelharpa designs being produced today. Some examples include:

  • Moraharpa ("Mora harp") – is the most common nyckelharpa derivative, based on a unique nyckelharpa found in the Swedish town of Mora Municipality, Sweden, dating to 1526 (although pressumed to be from the later 17th century). This design has a straight bridge, one melody string, two drone strings, and one row of keys.
  • Viola a chiavi di Siena ("Siena keyed viola") or Siena-Harpa ("Siena harp") for short – is a nyckelharpa derivative based on the previously mentioned 1408 fresco by Taddeo di Bartolo at the Palazzo Pubblico chapel in Siena, Italy, featuring an angel playing a nyckelharpa. As part of reconstructional archaeology, this recreated design has three melody strings, one drone string, and one row of keys.[6][1]
  • Viola d'amore a chiavi ("keyed Viola d'amore") – is a nyckelharpa derivative seemingly invented by professional luthier Alexander Pilz, a seasoned maker of nyckelharpor from Leipzig, Germany. It has gut strings and is specially built for renaissance-baroque music. It has a different sound than traditional swedish Nyckelharpor, closer to the Viola Da Gamba, and therefore has the name "keyed Viola d'amore".[16]


Contemporary applicationsEdit

English composer Natalie Holt used nyckelharpa for background score of the Disney+ series Loki.[17]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c "fiddle klawiszowe". (in Polish). Retrieved 2023-05-01. Rekonstrukcja instrumentu z fresku znajdującego się w Palazzo Pubblico w Sienie we Włoszech, namalowanego przez Taddeo di Bartolo w 1408 roku. Instrument sopranowy o skali skrzypiec w pierwszej pozycji.
  2. ^ Ternhag, Gunnar; Boström, Mathias. "The Dissemination of the Nyckelharpa - The Ethnic and the non-Ethnic Ways". STM-Online vol. 2 (1999). Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  3. ^ "A Brief History of the Nyckelharpa". Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  4. ^ a b "Nyckelharpan som nationalinstrument". Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  5. ^ "National Instruments of Sweden". Retrieved 2022-09-13.
  6. ^ a b "The "Siena-Harpa" Project". Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  7. ^ Brashers, Bart. "A Brief History of the Nyckelharpa". American Nyckelharpa Association. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  8. ^ a b c d Broughton, Simon; Ellingham, Mark; Lusk, Jon (28 September 2006). The Rough Guide to World Music Vol. 1: Africa and the Middle East. Rough Guides. p. 299. ISBN 978-1-85828-635-8.
  9. ^ "Nyckleharpa History". Retrieved 2022-09-13.
  10. ^ "World Nyckelharpa Day – Sunday 23rd April 2023".
  11. ^ "The Nyckelharpa Effect – Virtual and in Real life Nyckelharpa Learning".
  12. ^ "2020 – World Nyckelharpa Day". Retrieved 2022-09-15.
  13. ^ "Nyckelharpa History".
  14. ^ "Nyckelharpa – olov johansson".
  15. ^ "The Nyckelharpa". Retrieved 2022-09-13.
  16. ^ "Viola d'amore a chiavi". Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  17. ^ Burlingame, Jon (2021-07-01). "The Weird, Unsettling Music of Loki: Composer Natalie Holt Breaks Down the Marvel Series' Score". Variety. Retrieved 2022-09-15.

External linksEdit