Meet the Nyckelharpa

We're always delighted when we see Lisa Horngren at the door on jam night, especially when she brings her Swedish Nyckelharpa along! A Nyckelharpa is a chromatic instrument played with a short bow across strings stopped by means of keys. It is likely the predecessor of the Autoharp.

Murals, stone carvings and documents show that a form of the instrument has been around since the Middle Ages and was used for church music, festivals, and dancing. The instrument at that time had only 3-4 strings, 5-14 keys and either guitar or lute type body styles.

The body style of the Nyckelharpa and string combination seen today emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries for better performance. This ordinarily would have brought great growth in the instrument's popularity except that church authorities at that time banned any form of dancing and music other than offically recognized hymns.

Lucky for us, the Keyed Fiddle was still played by a small group of people from the area of Uppland, Sweden, who kept the spirit alive. Then, years later -- as in America -- the 60's brought on a new interest in folk music and dance in Sweden. Enthusiasm grew for the Nyckelharpa so much that there are several thousand in existence today. Craftsmen are still making them; you can buy plans to make one yourself or take a course to do so.

The usual design today has 12 resonant strings, 37 keys for the three melody strings, and one drone string. Some harpas have as many as 54 keys for four melody strings.

For the musical reader, although the Nyckelharpa can play many of the tunes a violin or fiddle can, there are certain keys that are more comfortable to play. Those are C, Am, G, Em, F, Dm, Bb and Gm. The sound is enormous and etheral.

Many Swedish bands have Nyckelharpa in them, the most famous of which is Vasen. Their harpa player, Olav Johansson, has won numerous world Nyckelharpa and similar instrument competitions. Other noted harpa players are Eric Sahlstrom, Leif Alpsjo, Asa Jinder, Ceylon Wallin and others.

Click here to listen to Lisa play her Nyckelharpa at the Pegram Jam:

To learn more about the Nyckelharpa, check out the American Nyckelharpa Association.