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Psaltery, built Venice in the 1700s
Psaltery 1700 – Venetian school
plucked string
Classification Chordophone
Hornbostel–Sachs classification314.122
(Box zither. Chordophone with one or more strings stretched between fixed points, a board for a string bearer, parallel to the plane of the strings, with a resonator box)
Related instruments

A psaltery (Greek: ψαλτήρι) (or sawtry, an archaic form) is a fretboard-less box zither (a simple chordophone) and is considered the archetype of the zither and dulcimer. Plucked keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord were also inspired by it. Its resonance box is usually trapezoidal, rectangular or in the form of a "pig's head" and often richly decorated.


Psalterion harp vs Psaltery and rote
Art from Greek vase: a woman plays a psalterion harp
A woman playing a triangular harp, which was called by "Jewish, Christian and Greek sources" a psalterion.[2] Ancient Greek red-figured pelike from Anzi, Apulia, circa 320–310 BCE.
Image of a King playing a triangular psaltery
Triangular psaltery. Not a harp, as the sound-box blocks the viewer from seeing through the instrument; also it has sound holes.
print of musician playing a harp-like psaltery
Resembling a harp, this was identified as a psaltery.[2] Print detailed enough to show bridges on the instrument's bottom and strings running in courses.
Psalteries in a triangular shape were confused with harps at times.[1] They used the top-horizontal side used to hold the tuning pegs.[1] These psalteries were known as the "rote" or a variation of that name.[1] The three sided instruments were popular in parts of the church for their symbolic three sides, reminder of the Trinity.[1]

The psaltery of Ancient Greece (epigonion) was a harp-like stringed instrument. The word psaltery derives from the Ancient Greek ψαλτήριον (psaltḗrion), "stringed instrument, psaltery, harp"[3] and that from the verb ψάλλω (psállō), "to touch sharply, to pluck, pull, twitch" and in the case of the strings of musical instruments, "to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, and not with the plectrum."[4] The psaltery was originally made from wood, and relied on natural acoustics for sound production.

In the King James Bible "psaltery", and its plural, "psalteries", are used to translate several words from the Hebrew Bible whose meaning is now unknown.[5]


While the Greek instruments were harps, psaltery came to mean instruments that were strung across a resonating wood box.[1] The box-zither psalteries may have a Phoenician origin.[1] The strings of the medieval instrument were usually made of metal, unlike the finger-plucked harp, strung with catgut, and played using a plectrum or “pick.” The harp is strung with a single string for each tone, open to be plucked from either side of the instrument; a psaltery may have multiple strings for each tone, strung across a soundboard. The psaltery has been compared to the harpsichord[6] and dulcimer, though some forms of the latter are not plucked, but struck with hammers.[7]

Medieval and Renaissance psalteries[edit]

From the 12th through the 15th centuries, psalteries are widely seen in manuscripts, paintings and sculpture throughout Europe.[8][2] Examples found in one reference book, the Groves New Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments, show examples in paintings from the 9th century Carolingian Empire Benedictine Psalter, in 13th century Spain (in the Cantigas de Santa Maria), in Bohemia in the 14th century, in Italy in the 14th century, and Germany in the 15th century.[2]

Shapes included "triangular, trapezoidal, semitrapezoidal, wing shaped, or harp shaped".[1] The psalterion decacordum was shaped like a square and had ten strings strung vertically.[1] Stings could run in courses, as viewed in the middle-ages artwork.

Modern psaltery[edit]

While psalteries had largely died out in Europe by the 19th century, the salterio remained common in Mexico well into the twentieth century and is still played in some regional styles.

The hammered dulcimer and related instruments, such as the santur, cimbalom, yangqin, and khim, appear very similar to psalteries, and it is often hard to tell which one historical images represent. They differ in that the player strikes the strings with small hammers rather than plucking them. As a result, they have much higher string tension and heavier frames.

In the 19th century, several related zithers came into use, notably the guitar zither and the autoharp. In the 20th century, the bowed psaltery came into wide use. It is set up in a triangular format so that the end portion of each string can be bowed.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Marcuse, Sibyl (1975). A Survey of Musical Instruments. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-012776-7.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Sadie, Stanley, ed. (1984). "Psaltery Frame zither". The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. pp. 39, 151–154. Volume 3.
  3. ^ ψαλτήριον, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  4. ^ ψάλλω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  5. ^ These words are the Hebrew keli (כלי) in Psalm 71:22 and I Chronicles 16:5; nevel (נבל) in I Samuel 10:5; 2 Samuel 6:5; I Kings 10:12; I Chronicles 13:8; 15:16, 20, 28; 25:1, 6; II Chronicles 5:12; 9:11; 20:28; 29:25; Nehemiah 12:27; Psalms 33:2; 57:6; 81:2; 92:3; 108:2; 144:9; and 150:3; and the Aramaic pesanterin (פסנתרין) in Daniel 3:5, 7, 10, and 15.
  6. ^ Bucur, Voichita (29 August 2016). Handbook of Materials for String Musical Instruments. Springer. p. 51. ISBN 978-3319320809. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
  7. ^ Jackson, Ronald (2013). Performance Practice: A Dictionary-Guide for Musicians. Routledge. p. 322. ISBN 978-1136767692. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
  8. ^ Anon. (15th century). "Roi David jouant du psaltérion". (Chambéry, Savoie, France: manuscrit 4, fol. 319 v., Bréviaire franciscain, initiale B, psaume 1, Beatus vir) (archive from 17 November 2018, accessed 15 June 2020).


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