We don't know much about how Viking music sounded, but we do know some of their musical instruments based on archeological finds. The dig at York, England uncovered a set of wooden pan-pipes that still played once the mud was removed. They also found bone whistles made from the leg bones of birds and a bridge for a 1yre, though there were no other remains of the instrument itself. Here are a few easy-to-make instruments from Viking times, which were also probably used by most early cultures.
The pipes found at the York dig were made by drilling holes in a block of wood and filing the top of the block to make it more comfortable to play. The block is approximately 3 ¾ inches high and about ¾ of an inch thick. The holes were bored into the block with a spoon bit, which makes a beveled hole. (see Figure 1)
The holes varied from 3 ½" to 1 ½" in depth. Then the top was shaped as shown in the illustrations. A hole was drilled through the block toward the bottom, presumably to allow a cord to be attached for carrying. The pipes were incomplete, but played a five-note scale from A to E.
Another type of pan-pipes can be made from plastic tubing or copper pipe . You will need a total of 41 inches of either. If using plastic, try for an opaque white (you can apply a little ochre-colored paint to make it look like bone) or an opaque black . You will also need some plasticine clay or wax, some strong cord or waxed linen thread and some wooden sticks about the thickness and width of ice cream sticks if you are using the fastening technique in Figure 3.
Cut the tubes to length using a saw, knife, or pipe cutter. For tubing with an outside diameter of 1/2", the following lengths give you the notes plus a little room for tuning:
If you are using copper, you want to file the mouthpiece ends to smooth any sharp edges. Lay the tubes side by side with one end even (this is the top) and wrap with plastic tape to hold them together. You can now tie the pipes together using one of three methods.
Figure 2 shows the traditional Chinese method of tying pipes. Wrap string around two adjacent pipes and tie then wrap the second pipe to the next pipe in the series. When completed, wrap all the pipes together at the top. you want to be careful and make sure all the pipes are even at the top.
Figure 3 shows another traditional method used in Europe with the pipes lashed to a wooden stick. Tie the diagonal stick first and then the top one.
Figure 4 shows the African method of wrapping pipes, by far the most simple to wrap, but harder to play.
Now you need to tune them. Insert clay or wax plugs in the bottom end of each pipe. Blow across the top of the pipe and add or subtract clay or wax until you get the note you want. An easy way is to take a wooden dowel that fits inside the tube, and push the clay from the inside to change the pitch. If you are using wax, you will have to warm it to make it pliable, and keep it warm through the tuning process.
Play the pipes by holding in the hand and blowing across the open ends of the tubes.
The bone whistle from York was incomplete. It was approximately 7 inches long and had one finger hole, but since it was broken off at the open end, it is difficult to tell if it had more.
To make a bone whistle you will need a raw turkey wing or drumstick. Boil the piece until the meat falls away. If you use a bone from a roast turkey, the bone may be crumbly. Scrape the bone with a knife to remove the rest of the meat . Saw off the ends as shown in Figure 5 to set as long and straight a tube as possible, then with an ice pick or awl hollow out the bone. Soak the bone in lemon juice or bleach to whiten .
Measure 1" from the blowing end and cut an air hole ½" square. Note that the side away from the mouthpiece is sharp and slanted. (Figure 6)
Now measure and cut a wood or cork plug, making sure it ends at the beginning of the air hole and that it fits tightly into the bone tube. Cut a slanting air passage 3/16" to 1/8" along the top edge of the plug. (See Figure 7).
Insert the plug into the bone. Test by blowing gently through the air hole to make sure the air will blow against the sharp edge of the air hole. If the sound is weak, make the air passage larger. Blow gently and keep trying. When you set it to sound the way you want it to, glue the plug in place. Then you can bevel the mouthpiece as shown in Figure 8.
Add finger holes by drilling through one side of the shaft. This requires some experimentation. Try using the measurements from a penny whistle of about the same size. Raise the pitch of a note by enlarging that hole slightly on the mouthpiece side and lower the pitch by enlarging it slightly on the opposite side.
Cow Horn Bugle:
Here is another documented instrument, although it was probably used more for signaling than for music. Prepare the horn as described in the article on horn in this issue. Saw off the sharp point of the horn and drill a hole from the end to the open portion of the horn (see Figure 9). The hole should be the same diameter as the mouthpiece pipe. Insert a metal trumpet mouthpiece and glue it in place .
You can make a natural mouthpiece IF you have a very thick cow horn. Saw off the tip of the horn until the flat edge is 1" in diameter. Drill a hole 5/8" in diameter and at least 5/8" deep in the end of the horn. Drill a ¼" hole in the center of the 5/8 hole that reaches the interior of the horn. (See Figure 10)
To play: Hold the lips straight and tight and close together. Blow hard and the vibration of the lips in the small chamber of the mouthpiece will make the sound. (Buzz your lips.)
To my knowledge, Viking drums cannot be documented, but drums were used in one form or another by almost all cultures. You will need a large wooden or ceramic bowl and a piece of rawhide at least 5" larger than the top of the bowl. You can purchase rawhide from Tandy Leather.*
Place the bowl upside down on the rawhide and draw around it . Draw another circle 2" out from the first. Place the rawhide in cool water until soft (about 1 hour). Dry the rawhide with a towel and cut out the large circle, leaving the remaining rawhide in one piece, or punch a hole on the outer circle line with a razor blade and cut out the circle with scissors. **Punch holes around the edge about 1" from the edge. (see Figure 11). ***Cut the remaining rawhide into 8 long strip by cutting in a spiral as shown in Figure 12. Run the lacing from one hole to the hole on the opposite side, and continue around the bowl being is decorative are possible. When all the holes have been laced, pull the lacing as tights as you can and allow it to dry.
To play: Beat on the drum with your hands, a stick or other available implement. You can tune the drums by moistening or drying the head.
Addyman, P.V., ed. The Archaeology of York, Volume 17: The Small Finds. Council for British Archaeology, 1982.
Hall, Richard The Viking Dig: The Excavations at York. The Bodley Head, 1984.
Hunter, Ilene and Judson, Marilyn Simple Folk Instuments to Make and Play. Simon and Schuster, 1977.
Keynton, Tom Homemade Musical Instruments. Drake, 1975.
*Note: Tandy Leather does most of its business either online or via other stores now that they have closed most of their local stores. There are still many other leather suppliers, though; just ask around. For a drum, the thinnest hide you can find works the best. Goatskin is generally used for drum heads.
**Note: If the holes are too close to the edge, they will tear out.
***Note: You can also purchase pre-cut leather lacing from your leather supplier. Spiral cutting can be tricky.