The nyckelharpa is a traditional Swedish musical instrument of the viol family.



The nyckelharpa is an instrument with both strings (harpa) and keys (nyckel). This is called a key viol, based on the principle of the hurdy-gurdy. The keys, equipped with perpendicular jacks that touch the strings, affect the sound of the strings rubbed by the bow. In addition, the melodic strings are supported by so-called sympathetic strings that resonate to the sound of the former, thus adding more specificity to the nyckelharpa’s peculiarity. The scale of sounds to be produced is therefore very wide and makes it possible to play both old traditional old songs and modern melodies.




The nyckelharpa dates from the 14th century and seems to originate from Uppland, a historic province of Eastern Sweden where you can often find the instrument in churches. This remains only a hypothesis, but it is still commonly accepted, since the nyckelharpa has become the typical instrument of Sweden. Over the following centuries, copies or representations of it were to be found in Sweden, Norway, Finland and even Denmark and Germany, although there were periods when its use seemed to be limited only to Sweden.

Location of the region in Sweden where the nyckelharpa originates.

The medieval nyckelharpa has only one row of keys, few strings (not even sympathetic strings) and a different shape, with a rounder and shorter shape. Three copies are still preserved today.

At the end of the 16th century – early 17th century – sympathetic strings are added to the instrument, in the English style of the time, based on the importation of sympathetic stringed instruments from India (an English colony at the time). A new type of nyckelharpa called Enkelharpa appeared, considered innovative. Based on this, other variations were created, each with more or less notes and with more or fewer posterity. One of the most famous models still used by contemporary musicians is the Kontrabasharpa, played by Bysse-Calle (1783-1847), one of the most famous nyckelharpists in the world.

The modern nyckelharpa is an evolution of this instrument which dates only from the 20th century, especially under the influence of Eric Sahlström who developed three rows of keys for the instrument. He also played a major role in the conservation of the instrument and the development of the musical compositions. Finally, he contributed to the renewal of the instrument in the 1970s, at a time of renewed interest for traditional music, by teaching the art of playing it and the art of lute making. Despite the existence of a four-row nyckelharpa, the three-row nyckelharpa remains to this day the most popular.

Different kinds of nyckelharpa. (Source: Creative commons)


Current use:

Thanks to the variety of sounds produced by nyckelharpa, you can listen to traditional Swedish musicians such as Väsen, Erika and Cecilia or Olov Johansson as well as, in a completely different register, heavy metal music like the German band In Extremo.

In France there is now an expert stringed instrument maker in the Vosges, Jean-Claude Condi, the only manufacturer of nyckelharpa in the country who also provides training sessions to learn how to play it.


Author: Estelle Pautret

Translated by: Laurane Mandin


For further documentation:


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