Known in France as the 'vielle a roue', or 'vielle', the hurdy-gurdy is an ancient musical instrument whose creation is rumoured to date back as far as the 10th Century. Although its exact origins are quite obscure, one theory suggests that the vielle a roue was brought into Spain when the Moors invaded. Although there is little evidence of this, the possibility exists that the Moors introduced this musical device, and it was dispersed throughout Europe by travellers and pilgrims. By the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy had become a very popular musical instrument, and was widely used both within religious psalms and by 'common folk'. Its popularity was immense, and by the 18th Century the hurdy-gurdy was being played by the fashionable upper classes. The instrument reached new heights of development and design at the hands of the leading craftsmen of the time, and forms of the instrument have been found not only in France and Spain, but also in Germany, Italy, Britain, Russia and Hungary.
Consisting of one or two melody, or 'chanter' strings and two or more 'drone' strings, the hurdy-gurdy produces an almost bagpipe-like sound. Strapped to the midriff of the musician, the hurdy-gurdy requires the operating crank to be turned by the right hand of the player, and the left hand is used to create the melody via the strings. The operating crank turns a rosin-coated wheel mechanism mounted within the instrument, and rubs against the strings to create an almost continuous circular 'bowing' action. Many hurdy-gurdies have a drone string which rests on a 'loose-footed' bridge called a 'chien' or 'dog'. Collectively called the 'trompette', when skilfully adjusted and played, this arrangement can create a buzzing rhythmic accompaniment unique to this instrument. Unlike fingering the fret board of many other stringed instruments, the hurdy-gurdy player use their fingers to operate sliding keys which cause the melody string(s) to shorten, thereby increasing the pitch of the note.
In France, the hurdy-gurdy continued to be a widespread folk instrument throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Eventually, though, it started to give way to newer popular instruments such as the accordion. Over a number of years, there has been a growing revival of interest in the hurdy-gurdy throughout Europe, with modern craftsmen perfecting design and construction, and modern musicians exploring wide ranges of musical possibilities beyond its traditional folk music role. By the addition of electronic pickups, the hurdy-gurdy is gradually joining rock-and-roll, jazz and many other music genres, and are now commonly available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from traditional period designs to modern 'electro-acoustic' machines, many of which challenge the traditional musical and visual aesthetics.
Contrary to popular belief, the hurdy-gurdy was not the instrument played by organ grinders - they used a music box which was also operated by a crank; the main difference being that the hurdy-gurdy is an instrument, and requires a musician to play in order to produce a sound - a music box plays only the tunes it has been pre-programmed to play.