A hurdy gurdy is a very interesting instrument where a hand cranked wheel is used to rub strings like a violin bow.

Now I understand that the hand crank is important to this instrument and that by stopping, starting and reversing it you can make interesting variations in the sound.

Playing skill comes from both the handle and playing the keys.

There is also a lot of music where the crank is turned continuously. For that restricted case of the skill comes from playing the keys alone.

An obvious 'innovation' would be to replace the hand crank with a continuously turning wheel powered by a motor or even a foot pedal like a potter's wheel. This would free up the other hand to operate even more keys (or for a one handed player to play an ordinary hurdy gurdy).

Since nothing is new under the sun, this must have been tried long ago. So my question is: What are such instruments called and are there any examples of them in use?

  • I'm not convinced, that there are many pieces requiring the crank to be turned continuously. One would mostly turn faster to give a slight emphasis to beat one of each bar and in Renaissance pieces (the flowering time of this instrument) I remember quite irregular cranking, to trigger the bordun/drone strings.
    – guidot
    Jan 5 at 15:59
  • You are most likely correct. I have heard only a small sample of hurdy gurdy music and such subtleties would not be immediately obvious to my untrained eye. Jan 6 at 0:16

This is indeed a very old idea. Perhaps the first proposal of such an instrument, called a bowed clavier, viola organista, or Geigenwerk, was by Leonardo da Vinci. Praetorius mentions and illustrates it in Syntagma Musicum II, and one example of it made in 1625 in Portugal still exists. There have been a few modern reconstructions as well, which sound a great deal like a consort of gambas.


  • I had a comment here mentioning also the wheelharp but it seems to have been removed somehow Jan 4 at 12:40

Well, you probably were not thinking of mechanising more than the bow, but there are orchestrions featuring violins as well. The principle of the rotating bow is applied in there.

  • Indeed. I saw one of these in the Oakland Museum years ago. Very impressive. Jan 4 at 12:58
  • I’m hearing vibrato but I can’t figure out how it does the vibrato. It’s fascinating Jan 4 at 16:37
  • 1
    @ToddWilcox: If I had to guess, I'd say that it's accomplished via the motion of the metal bar at the top of the violin (near where the chinrest would be), visible at about 1:20. Not sure where it's attached to the violin itself, but I suspect it varies the tension enough to accomplish the vibrato. Jan 4 at 18:39

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