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What is that? Meet the Nyckelharpa

There’s always a great variety of music at the Rochester Public Market on Saturday mornings. One of the people who is a regular there is my friend Alyssa Rodriguez, a fiddler who plays Swedish, Irish, and American tunes (she also works at WXXI and teaches music at The Kanack School).

A few Saturdays ago when I was hanging out at the market watching Alyssa play, people kept stopping to ask her: what is THAT?

THAT is a nyckelharpa, or Swedish keyed fiddle. 

It has been played in Sweden since the 17th century, according to an account of its history by nyckleharpa player and maker Esbjörn Hogmark. Earlier versions of the instrument have been traced to central Europe, where they appeared alongside the more standard fiddle. Dive into this article to see more of how the instrument developed over time.

There are at least four different variants that are still played today, but here are some of the basics: the nyckelharpa is held across the body, supported by a neckstrap, and it has a much shorter bow than that of a violin/fiddle.  You don’t put your fingers directly on the strings; you press the keys to change the notes, there are around 37 of them. As for the strings: there are 16 of them, but melodies are only played on three of the strings. One is a drone string and the other twelve are “sympathetic” strings that are not played directly, they vibrate in resonance with the other notes. 

Check it out: 

You can see Alyssa Rodriguez playing the nyckelharpa in person in her upcoming show at The Kanack School on September 13th at 8pm. She is also planning shows at Small World Books and The Spirit Room, with dates to be announced.

Mona Seghatoleslami is the host and producer on WXXI Classical 91.5 FM weekdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. She also hosts the lunchtime concert series Live From Hochstein Wednesdays at 12:10 p.m., interviews musicians, produces special programs, and works on any project she can find that helps connect people and music in our community through WXXI.