Throughout history, the image of the lyre has been a symbol of music and musicians for centuries. The symbol of the lyre is used by Steinway Pianos as their logo, a large gold lyre sits atop the music hall in Amsterdam, numerous coins have been struck with its image and even the rate chevron I wore as a guitarist in the US Navy Band had a lyre. The lyre is an icon familiar to most of us and is one of the instruments depicted on the coins of the bar Kochba revolts, ca. 132 CE. Referred to in Hebrew as the kinor, (Heb. ke-nor', che-nor') and translated herein as lyre, this string instrument was at the heart of the musical system of the Levites.
From the construction and functionality of the instrument, the lyre was most likely used as a chording instrument much like a modern rhythm guitar, providing the harmonic background and chords over which the singers sung and the harps played. In addition to being easily played and tuned as a chording instrument, the unique setup of the lyre also enabled it to be used as a solo instrument. In the hands of a skilled player, the lyre was not only able to play single note melodies like a harp (Psalm 98:5), but also complex combinations of chords and melodies like a classical guitar.
As far as the number of strings used found on the lyre, there two possibilities: a seven-string model or an eight-string instrument. In the Hebrew texts there are three references that relate to "lyres on the eight" or "over the eight" or "in front of the eight" (Heb. al hä-sha-me-net') (1 Chronicles 15:21, Psalm 6 and 12). Taken one way, this could refer to the number of strings used on the lyre. Taken another way, it might refer to the fact that the tones of the lyre were an octave (eight diatonic tones) higher than the harps. Taken still another way, it could refer to the physical location of the lyres in relation to the harps (i.e., in front of the eight - refering to the eight harp players spoken of in 1 Chronicles 16:20). The later Hebrew writings of the Talmud relate in their dialogue that the lyres of the Levites had seven strings, but would have eight strings when the Messiah comes.1
From the instruments depicted on the coins of bar Kochba both a seven and an eight string instrument were possible. If you look carefully at the traditional images of the lyre and compare them to the lyres depicted on the coin of bar Kochba, you might notice something different between the two, the position of the three columns. Unlike traditional representations of the instrument, the three columns of the instruments depicted on the coins were roughly centered to the horizontal crossbar, but were always offset in relation to the center of the back (two columns to the left of center and one to the right of center). The offset columns in relation to the center of the back may have been an indication that the eight-string configuration was utilized as a model for the coins. For the purposes of our discussion, I have elected to use the eight-string scenario. As we shall see, the only difference between the an eight-string and a seven-string model is only the lowest string D.
Whether a seven or an eight string instrument was utilized, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Hebrew lyre was the its tuning. At first take, an eight-string instrument without a finger board of some sort can generally only play eight individual notes. Like the harp, each string is tuned to a specific pitch and can only play one note. On an eight-string instrument, only a few chords would be playable and only melodies consisting of no more than eight notes would be possible. We know from the reconstructed Psalms that the melodies and harmonies of the Psalms were far more complex than this permitted. So how was an instrument like the lyre able to play numerous chords and complex melodies with only seven or eight strings?
Unlike its modern cousin, the guitar, the Hebrew lyre employed some real 'old-school' technology. By 'old school' technology I am referring to some of the basic principles discussed in the Pythagorean theories. The later students of Pythagoras even had a special teaching and test instrument known as a monochord to demonstrate this and some of the more complex technology employed in the lyre technology (Fig. 1.2).
As a basic fundamental principle of all string instruments, it is a prerequisite that in order for a string to create sound it must be tensioned between two points and plucked or bowed. If you look at a guitar, those two points are generally the nut and the bridge. Between these two points the string is able to vibrate freely, thus creating a sound (Figure 1.1).
If however, you place a secondary bridge directly in the center of a string, the resulting effect is that there are now two tones playable from one string - one tone above the center bridge and one tone below. If this secondary or center bridge is placed exactly in the center of the string, each section of the string is identical in length and exactly one octave higher than the open string without the secondary or center bridge (Fig. 1.3).
A more complicated principle in this scenario is that as the center bridge is moved closer to the heel of the instrument (away from the tuning keys), the pitch of the lower section of string becomes higher and the upper section of the string lower. This is simply because by shortening the length of the string by moving the bridge closer to the heel, the sound becomes higher in pitch. Conversely, as lower section of string becomes shorter and higher in the pitch, the section of string on the opposite side of the bridge becomes proportionality longer and in turn lower in pitch (Fig. 1.4). There is one point as the bridge is moved towards the heal of the instrument that the two tones become a perfect 5th/perfect 4th apart, a placement that is easily tuned by ear and located on the string.
Relating this back to the physical appearance and construction of the lyre, we find that the largest part of the body/sounding chamber is located towards the top of the instrument and not the bottom as on a guitar or violin. It in this section of the top that the lyre utilized a series of eight individual off-center center bridges that were placed on each string to create the perfect 5th/perfect 4th division of each string discussed.
The real beauty in this is setup is that the utilization of these center bridges permitted the instrument to be tuned and played as a chording instrument, with one complete set of chords below the center bridges and another complimentary set of chords above the center bridges. Basic chords were easily played in both the upper and lower sectors by simply playing three or more consecutive stings, a technique easily learned and utilized. This type of bridge and tuning configuration also permitted a skilled played to play complex melodies along with combinations of melodies and chords much like a modern classical/jazz guitarist. A technique however, much more difficult to learn and execute than merely playing chords. By alternating between the upper and lower sections, the instrument was able to play linier melodic lines much like the harp.
Depending on the exact pitches of the tuning references (see melodic cymbals, the lyre was a key specific instrument. If the pitch references were around an A and C as shown in our discussions, the keys would be A minor for the lower sector of chords below the center bridges and E minor for the upper sector of chords above the center bridges.
In addition to the open notes of the upper and lower tones, three additional tones were also playable on the lyre by depressing a string to one of the three columns with a finger of the left hand, functionally increasing the tension of the string, raising it by one-half to one whole tone. The three columns served not only as position markers for the player, enabling the musician to see which string to play, but were also a rudimental type of finger board on which three of the strings could be consistently raised - a situation that could not only be applied to playing chords, but also melodies.
1 Talmud - Mas. Arachin 13b - Midrash Rabbah - Numbers XV:11 - TAKE THE LEVITES (VIII, 6)