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The rebec in "Virgin among Virgins" (1509), by Gerard David.
String instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification321.21-71
(Bowl lyre sounded by a bow)
DevelopedMiddle Ages
Related instruments

The rebec (sometimes rebecha, rebeckha, and other spellings, pronounced /ˈrbɛk/ or /ˈrɛbɛk/) is a bowed stringed instrument of the Medieval era and the early Renaissance. In its most common form, it has a narrow boat-shaped body and one to five strings.


Popular from the 13th to 16th centuries, the introduction of the rebec into Western Europe coincided with the Arabic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. There is, however, evidence of the existence of bowed instruments in the 9th century in Eastern Europe. The Persian geographer of the 9th century Ibn Khurradadhbih cited the bowed Byzantine lira (or lūrā) as a typical bowed instrument of the Byzantines and equivalent to the pear-shaped Arab rebab.[1][2][3][4]

The rebec was adopted as a key instrument in Arab classical music and in Morocco it was used in the tradition of Arabo-Andalusian music, which had been kept alive by descendants of Muslims who left Spain as refugees following the Reconquista. The rebec also became a favorite instrument in the tea houses of the Ottoman Empire.

The rebec was first referred to by that name around the beginning of the 14th century, though a similar instrument, usually called a lira da braccio (arm lyre), had been played since around the 9th century.[5] The name derives from the 15th century Middle French rebec, altered in an unexplained manner from the 13th century Old French ribabe, which in turn comes from the Arabic rebab.[6] An early form of the rebec is also referred to as the rubeba in a 13th century Moravian treatise on music.[7] Medieval sources refer to the instrument by several other names, including kit and the generic term fiddle.[8]

A distinguishing feature of the rebec is that the bowl (or body) of the instrument is carved from a solid piece of wood. This distinguishes it from the later period vielles and gambas known in the Renaissance.


The number of strings on the rebec varies from 1 to 5, although three is the most common number. Early forms of the instrument commonly had 2. The strings are often tuned in fifths, although this tuning is not universal. Many depictions of the rebec show its bridge as flat, which would mean that several strings were bowed at the same time. This suggests that the strings would likely be tuned in fifths and fourths similar to the fiddle and mandora.[9] The instrument was originally in the treble range, like the violin, but later larger versions were developed, so that by the 16th century composers were able to write pieces for consorts of rebecs, just as they did for consorts of viols.

In use[edit]

The rebec was often played by professional minstrels and musicians at feasts. In northern Europe, musicians typically held it at the shoulder, while musicians in southern Europe and northern Africa held it down in the lap and gripped the bow from below.[8]

The use of frets on the rebec is somewhat ambiguous. Many scholars who have written about the instrument have described it as fretless. However, some illustrations from the 13th century onward depict frets on the rebec. It is possible to attribute this discrepancy to the fact that frets on bowed instruments appeared in Europe in the early renaissance, but not in England until the 15th century.[10]

In time, the viol came to replace the rebec, and the instrument was little used beyond the renaissance period. The instrument was used by dance masters until the 18th century, however, often being used for the same purpose as the kit, a small pocket-sized violin. The rebec also remained in use in folk music, especially in eastern Europe and Spain. Andalusi nubah, a genre of music from North Africa, often includes the rebec. Chilote Waltz (a variation of traditional waltz, played in Chiloe Island, Chile) also uses the rebec.[11]


In popular culture[edit]

Hugh Rebeck is a minor character in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, one of the musicians called by Peter in an oft-cut scene. Presumably, he is named for the instrument that he plays.

In a scene in Don Quixote, a goatherd entertains Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by playing a rebec and singing a love song.

A rebec featured prominently in one of Ellis Peters' (12th century) Brother Cadfael stories: Liliwin, the title character of The Sanctuary Sparrow, earned his living by playing that instrument. His rebec was damaged by a mob that accused him of murder, but one of the monks repaired it and returned to him at the end of the story.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Margaret J. Kartomi, 1990
  2. ^ Farmer, Henry George (1988), Historical facts for the Arabian Musical Influence, Ayer Publishing, p. 137, ISBN 0-405-08496-X
  3. ^ For a possible etymological link between Arabic rebab and French rebec see American Heritage Dictionary
  4. ^ Panum, Hortense (1939), The stringed instruments of the Middle Ages, their evolution and development, London: William Reeves, p. 434
  5. ^ Bachmann, Werner (1969). The origins of bowing and the development of bowed instruments up to the thirteenth century. Oxford University Press. p. 35.
  6. ^ Harper, Douglas. "rebec (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 5 October 2015.
  7. ^ Stainer, J.F.R. (1900). "Rebec and Viol". The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular. 41 (691): 596-597.
  8. ^ a b Stowell, Robin (2001). The Early Violin and Viola: A Practical Guide. Cambridge University Press. p. 174. ISBN 9780521625555.
  9. ^ Remnant, Mary (1968). "Rebec, Fiddle, and Crowd in England". Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association. 95: 15-28. doi:10.1093/jrma/95.1.15.
  10. ^ Remnant, Mary (1968). "The Use of Frets on Rebecs and Mediaeval Fiddles". The Galpin Society Journal. 95: 15-28.
  11. ^ Millacura, Matías (2019-01-24). "Rabel Chilote". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ Have One On Me album booklet

External links[edit]