The Lute and Mandolin: Ancestors of the Guitar

One of the most popular and ever present instruments in our youth culture today is the guitar.  We all know what a guitar sounds and looks like, but have you ever wondered where they came from?  The guitar, through quite a few permutations, is a distant cousin of the lute.

The Lute

In the Middle Ages the lute was a very popular and ubiquitous instrument.  It was most popular between the years 1400 and 1700. The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines the lute as “a plucked string instrument with a round body in the shape of a halved pear, a flat neck with seven or more frets and a separate peg-box set perpendicular to the neck.” The lute is played by plucking the strings with the fingers or plectrum (pick).

There are two main types of early lutes: the long neck, with a neck longer than the body, and a short-neck, that is shorter than the body.  The lute first appeared around 2,000 BC on Mesopotamian figurines. 

The European style lute descended from the Arabian Ud (an ancient and modern lute, of the near east). It was present in Europe during the Moorish occupation of Spain from the years 711-1492 AD. Illustrations demonstrate that non-Moors were playing it from the 13th Century on.

“During the Renaissance, the lute, like other instruments, evolved into a family of different sizes and pitch ranges, corresponding to those of the human voice,” wrote John Stanley in his book, Classical Music.

Lute Music

The sound of the lute is similar to the guitar. This music, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, was of paramount importance as it was secondary instrumental music only to the organ and harpsichord. During the 16th century the lute was the most popular instrument played in the home, much like the piano is today.

In the late Baroque period the renowned composer, J. S. Bach, wrote pieces for the lute.  In 1530 and beyond there was a large number of printed lute books and manuscripts written by many European composers.

John Dowland (1563-1626) from England was a virtuoso lutenist, song composer and singer, whose works were harmonically advanced for their time.  In the late 16th Century the lute was a favorite instrument to accompany songs.  In England a distinctive song was developed: The Ayre – a song for solo voice, lute, and other instruments. Dowland excelled in writing Ayres. His four books of Ayres (1597-1612) were widely published and became extremely popular. Dowland reached star-status in his day.

Troubadours, Trouveres & Minnesingers

They were important groups of itinerant musicians who spent their lives traveling and roaming all over Europe during the Middle Ages. The Troubadours were poet-musicians who belonged to the nobility. They flourished in southern France from the 11th to the 13th Century.

They primarily performed songs about courtly love and everyday issues of politics and morals. The Troubadours were pioneers in Western European history and established a tradition of performing songs in their native language. Most of the music was monophonic (a single line of melody with no harmony) as opposed to Polyphony (with two or more independent melodic lines).   

The Trouveres were much like the Troubadours except they were from northern France and flourished in the 13th Century.

The Minnesingers were German singers of aristocratic noble birth.

They were poet musicians who flourished in Germany during the Middle Ages.  Quite similar to the French Troubadours, they sang of courtly love and romance.  Some of the texts differ in content from the Troubadours and are more narrative than amorous.

The Minnesingers became the leading performers of German music in the Middle Ages. The singers were superseded by the merchant-class Meistersingers of the 15th and 16th Centuries.  All three of these poet-musician groups used the lute as one of their instruments.

The Mandolin

The newest instrument of the lute family is the mandolin; interestingly it is the only one in wide use in circulation today. The mandolin’s construction is similar to the lute. It has a round back that is characteristic of the lute. Some say it has a “pot belly.”

The instrument is sometimes called the “Neapolitan mandolin” because it is often used in southern Italy. It has four double courses (eight steel strings) that are tuned in pairs.  It is played with a plectrum made of shell or other material that is somewhat flexible. Compositions for mandolin appeared around 1700.

On rare occasions the mandolin is used in the symphony orchestra.  Many notable composers have written for mandolin.  George Frederick Handel included it in his oratorio Alexander Ballus; Wolfgang Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Verdi’s Othello; Beethoven’s Four Pieces for Mandolin & Piano; and more recent works by Schoenberg’s Serenade and Stravinsky’s Agon.

The mandolin is used extensively in folk music, blue grass, country and other indigenous music of the people. The sound of the mandolin is somewhat similar to today’s banjo.

Today, it is very rare to see the lute being played, except in small ensembles that specialize in music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  These groups use authentic instruments of those eras. 

In some universities a group called Collegium Musicum within the department of music, has an ensemble devoted to the preservation and cultivation of ancient music.  Locally, my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, has such a group.

It is very interesting to see and hear ancient music played on authentic instruments from this period; an uncommon sound in today’s world.

Don’t miss “Fifteen” the Danville Community Band’s Annual Spring Concert,

Saturday, June 10 2017, 3 p.m. at the Lesher Center for The Arts, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek.  Celebrating our 15th Anniversary, this delightful event will present a music mix for everyone’s taste. Go to our website, for information, selection titles and ticket sales. Tickets on sale now! Call Lesher Box Office, 943-7469 noon-6:00 p.m. Please submit your questions and comments to Visit our website at for up-to-date information about the Danville Community Band.






Hidden Figures

I’m a native Californian.  I live in a “nice” area of California.  I have only experienced a race riot on television.  I will admit to not truly understanding being a minority. I did live in Louisiana for a very short time in 1967; still no riots, just a surreal feeling. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now. I do have friends who are African-American and I love them dearly.

Hidden Figures is a slice of history.  Virginia in the early 60s.  NASA. A slice of history from a different perspective; racism is front and center, yet all are working hard to contribute to their country, in spite of the barriers of race and gender.

John F. Kennedy was President and we were in a race for dominance in space. NASA was newly formed and didn’t even know what they didn’t know. Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three African-American women. All three had brilliant minds and ended up being critical in the quest for space travel.  It wasn’t easy in 1961. 

These ladies worked in the West Computing Group, an all “colored” group of ladies known as Computers—as in, “they compute.”  Computers (machines) were just starting to be introduced into the workplace. Educated to as high a level as they were allowed, these ladies got dressed up and went to work, all using not just separate bathrooms and lunch rooms, but in fact, working in an entirely different building form their white co-workers. When their computing skills were needed, a white woman entered their building with an assignment. 

Al Harrison, NASA Director, was played by the one and only, Kevin Costner. I don’t know him, only saw him once, but he seems like someone I’d invite to a backyard BBQ.  I loved him in this movie. He has scenes that make you want to jump up from your seat and cheer! When on assignment, the ladies of the West Computing Group had to return to their own building a half mile away to use the Colored Ladies facility. My favorite Harrison quote is, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”

The casting is excellent.  Along with Costner we have Oscar winning, Octavia Spencer playing Dorothy Vaughn, as well as Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, and Janelle Mona’e as Mary Jackson.

Kirsten Dunst does well as Vivian Mitchell, the woman in charge of the “Computers.”  Toward the end of the movie she tells Dorothy, “Despite what you may believe, I have nothing against y’all.”  Dorothy simply answers, “I know that, I know you think that.” Somewhere in that statement is the truth about racism.

I love true stories, even if they are only ‘based’ on the truth. This film certainly did not disappoint.  The story line is both insightful and redeeming and with this talented cast it is a home run. 

The music is inspiring and upbeat.  There are actually lyrics to the songs that fit perfectly with the story. It certainly adds one more dimension to the film and scored (pun intended) it a Golden Globe nomination!

I would definitely recommend this movie to anyone. Three Oscar nominations as well as other accolades were well deserved. Hidden Figures is fun and you actually get a history lesson. This trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big!

As usual, I would love to hear your thoughts at