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Origins of the Violin - The Rebec

As a result of the European crusades, an instrument called the rebec based on the rabab appears first in Spain during the middle 11th century. The rebec differs from the rabab only slightly: The rebec has three strings instead of two, the body is made of wood rather than gourd, and the instrument is placed at the shoulder to play rather than on the lap.

Life in the Medieval era was pretty different than life now. They ate different foods, talked differently, and listened to different music. In fact, most of what we think of as traditional Western music wasn't actually developed until the end of the Italian Renaissance or later. So, what made medieval music so different? For one, they used different instruments, like the rebec. A rebec is a stringed instrument common to the Medieval era and the Renaissance. It was an important part of medieval life, giving a unique sound to a unique period in history.

The rebec was small, carved from a single block of wood into a shape sort of like a stretched-out pear. From the neck to the body stretched between one and four strings. The most common version features three strings, each tuned in increments of fifths on the musical scale. It was played sort of like a fiddle, with one hand passing a bow drawn across the strings, and the other pressing the strings against the neck at various positions to change the notes.

The rebec produces a unique sound, which may come off somewhat sharp and crass compared to the softer sounds of modern violins and fiddles. It is able to sustain long notes, like most bowed instruments, and does not strictly adhere to what is now the Western set of musical notes.

So where did this unique instrument come from, and why does it have such a distinct sound? The rebec may sound familiar to anybody who has experienced music of the Middle East. That's because it has its roots in Islamic traditions. Like a great number of things in medieval Europe, the rebec originated in the Middle East and made its way into Europe during the high amounts of cultural contact in the Holy Crusades.

In roughly the 10th century, there was a small stringed instrument popular in Arabian music called the rabob. Many scholars believe that the rabob entered Europe through Spain, which at the time was partly occupied with Islamic Moors from Northern Africa. The rabob first appeared in Europe around the 10th century, taking on the name of rebec and adapting to local needs. Generally, a rebec has more strings than the Arabic rabob, and is held on the shoulder rather than the thigh or lap as in Arabic traditions. Although the instrument developed a following in Spain early on, its popularity remained limited in the rest of Europe until the later medieval era between the 13th and 15th centuries. At this point, it seems to have become a commonly used instrument.

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