Cittern: Plucked Strings Resonating Through History

The cittern is a stringed instrument that belongs to the plucked lute family and is played by strumming or picking its strings. With a long and rich history, this instrument has evolved and been used in various musical genres and cultures throughout the centuries. Today, it remains a popular instrument among music enthusiasts and is known for its unique sound and beautiful design.

The cittern originated in Europe during the Renaissance period and is believed to have developed from the medieval citole. In this era, it was a popular instrument among court musicians and was known for its bright, ringing tone. As music evolved during the Baroque period, the cittern’s popularity increased, and it became a staple in many compositions of the time. However, it gradually declined in the 19th and 20th centuries and was mostly replaced by other stringed instruments.

There are three main types of citterns – English, Irish, and Italian, each with its unique design and playing style. The English cittern is the most common and is known for its D-shaped soundhole and flat back, while the Irish cittern is larger and has a round soundhole. The Italian cittern has a distinctive pear-shaped body and is often used in classical music.

Playing the cittern involves various techniques such as strumming, flatpicking, or fingerpicking. These techniques produce different sounds and are used in different musical genres. Today, the cittern is still used in folk music, early music ensembles, and even contemporary music.

When choosing a cittern, factors such as sound quality, construction, and design should be considered. It is also essential to properly care for the instrument by keeping it in a controlled environment and regularly changing its strings to maintain its sound quality.

In conclusion, the cittern is an instrument with a vibrant history and unique sound that continues to be cherished and played by musicians worldwide. Its versatility and beautiful design make it a valuable addition to any musical ensemble and a must-try for any music enthusiast.

What is a Cittern?

What is a Cittern? - Cittern: Plucked Strings Resonating Through History

Photo Credits: Goldenscissors.Info by Randy Rodriguez

A cittern is a stringed musical instrument that originated in Europe during the Renaissance period. It has a pear-shaped body and a flat back, similar to a lute. The cittern is played by plucking the strings with the fingers or a plectrum. It has metal strings that produce a bright and vibrant sound. The cittern was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries and was commonly used in folk music. Today, it is still played by musicians who specialize in early music and historical performance.

So, what is a cittern? It is a unique and distinctive instrument with a rich history.

The History of the Cittern

The History of the Cittern - Cittern: Plucked Strings Resonating Through History

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The cittern has a rich and diverse history that spans centuries, evolving and adapting with the changing musical landscape. Its origins can be traced back to the Renaissance period, where it first emerged as a plucked string instrument. In this section, we will explore the cittern’s journey through time, from its rise in popularity during the Baroque period to its decline in the 19th and 20th centuries. Join us as we delve into the fascinating history of this unique instrument.

Origins in the Renaissance Period

The cittern has its origins in the Renaissance period as a plucked string instrument. It gained popularity in 16th and 17th century Europe and evolved from earlier medieval instruments such as the gittern. Known for its unique sound and versatility, the cittern was commonly used in courtly and folk music during this time. Although its popularity declined in the 18th century, it experienced a revival in the 19th and 20th centuries and is still played today in various musical genres. The cittern has a fascinating history that continues to resonate through time.

One of the most renowned cittern players of the 16th century was John Johnson, whose beautiful compositions captivated the English court. His music showcased the unique qualities of the cittern and demonstrated its versatility. In fact, his playing was so moving that Queen Elizabeth I was brought to tears during one of his performances. The queen was so moved that she requested an encore, solidifying Johnson’s cittern melodies as an integral part of the royal court’s entertainment. This true story exemplifies the profound impact that the cittern had during its Renaissance origins. You might also like this article on the Dan Nguyet

Evolution and Popularity in the Baroque Period

The cittern’s popularity and evolution were greatly influenced during the Baroque period. Structural changes, such as the addition of extra strings and a longer neck, allowed for a wider range of notes and increased resonance. As a result, the instrument became increasingly popular among musicians and composers, featuring prominently in Baroque music compositions. Its bright and lively sound made it suitable for both solo performances and accompaniment.

Although its popularity declined in the following centuries, the cittern experienced a revival in the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks to the growing interest in historical music. For a better appreciation of its unique sound and role in that period, consider exploring Baroque pieces specifically written for the cittern.

Decline and Revival in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The decline of the cittern in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a result of the rise of other instruments, changing musical tastes, and the decline of traditional folk music. However, there has been a recent revival of interest in the cittern. Musicians and enthusiasts have come to appreciate its unique sound and historical significance, leading to the creation of modern replicas and its incorporation into contemporary music.

Thanks to the efforts of dedicated individuals and organizations, the cittern is once again gaining recognition and being appreciated for its beauty and versatility. Its revival is a testament to the enduring appeal of this ancient instrument.

Types of Citterns

Types of Citterns - Cittern: Plucked Strings Resonating Through History

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The cittern is a plucked string instrument with a long and rich history. Originating in Europe in the 16th century, it has evolved into various forms across different regions. In this section, we will delve into the different types of citterns and their unique characteristics. From the elegant English cittern to the traditional Irish cittern and the ornate Italian cittern, each one offers a distinct sound and style that reflects its cultural origins. Let’s take a closer look at the diverse world of citterns.

English Cittern

The English cittern is a plucked string instrument that originated during the late Renaissance period. It gained popularity in England during the 16th and 17th centuries and was commonly used in both courtly and folk music. The English cittern is known for its flat back, pear-shaped body, and metal strings. It can be played using various techniques, including strumming, flatpicking, and fingerpicking.

Today, the English cittern is still utilized in traditional and early music ensembles, as well as in contemporary music genres. When selecting an English cittern, it is important to consider factors such as sound quality, craftsmanship, and playability. Regular maintenance and proper care are crucial for preserving its condition.

Irish Cittern

The Irish cittern, a variant of the cittern, is a plucked string instrument that gained popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It is characterized by its flat back, double courses of strings, and distinctive sound. In traditional Irish music, the Irish cittern is often used for its unique tuning and adds a rich, resonant quality to the melodies. It is typically played with a pick or using fingerpicking techniques. Just like any other instrument, it is crucial to select a well-crafted Irish cittern and properly maintain it to ensure optimal sound and longevity.

Fun fact: Due to its similar playing technique and sound, the Irish cittern is sometimes referred to as the “cittern guitar.”

Italian Cittern

The Italian cittern is a plucked string instrument that originated in Italy during the Renaissance period. It is characterized by a pear-shaped body, a flat back, and metal strings. The instrument was highly regarded for its bright and resonant sound, making it a popular choice for both solo and ensemble performances. Different playing techniques, such as strumming, flatpicking, and fingerpicking, were utilized to create music with the Italian cittern. Today, this instrument is still used in early music ensembles and occasionally in contemporary music. It is crucial to select a well-crafted and well-maintained cittern to ensure the best sound quality and longevity.

Fun fact: During the Renaissance period in Italy, the Italian cittern was also referred to as the “cetra.”

Playing Techniques for the Cittern

Playing Techniques for the Cittern - Cittern: Plucked Strings Resonating Through History

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The cittern, a stringed instrument with a rich history, offers a variety of playing techniques for musicians to explore and master. From strumming to flatpicking to fingerpicking, each approach offers a unique sound and style. In this section, we will take a closer look at the different techniques used to play the cittern, their distinct characteristics, and how they have evolved over time. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced player, there is always something new to discover with the cittern.


Strumming is a popular technique used to play the cittern, a plucked string instrument. Here are steps on how to master the strumming technique:

  1. Position your hand: Hold the pick between your thumb and index finger, allowing the other fingers to rest lightly on the strings.
  2. Strumming motion: Using a downward motion, brush the strings with the pick, allowing it to glide smoothly across the strings.
  3. Rhythm and timing: Maintain a steady rhythm, strumming in time with the music. Practice various strumming patterns to enhance your versatility.
  4. Dynamics: Experiment with different levels of force to create dynamics and add expression to your playing.
  5. Accents and accents: Add accents to emphasize certain beats or notes. Use upstrokes, downstrokes, or a combination of both to create a variety of accents.
  6. Syncopation: Explore syncopated strumming patterns, incorporating off-beat accents for a more complex and rhythmic sound.


Flatpicking is a popular technique used to play the cittern. Here are a few steps to get started with flatpicking:

  1. Hold the pick between your thumb and index finger.
  2. Rest your hand on the bridge for stability.
  3. Start by practicing basic strumming patterns with downward strokes.
  4. Gradually increase speed and accuracy with practice.
  5. Experiment with different rhythms and dynamics to add variety to your playing.

Fun Fact: Flatpicking is also commonly used in bluegrass music, showcasing the versatility of the cittern.


Fingerpicking is a popular technique used to play the cittern, a plucked string instrument with a rich history. Here are the steps to master fingerpicking on the cittern:

  1. Start with the basic fingerpicking pattern, using your thumb to strike the lower strings and your fingers to pluck the higher strings.
  2. Practice alternating between different fingers, such as using your thumb and index finger for a steady rhythm.
  3. Experiment with different finger combinations to create complex melodies and harmonies.
  4. Gradually increase your speed and accuracy by practicing scales, arpeggios, and challenging fingerpicking exercises.
  5. Study fingerpicking patterns from traditional cittern music and adapt them to your playing style.
  6. Listen to recordings of experienced cittern players to gain inspiration and learn new techniques.
  7. Continue practicing regularly to refine your fingerpicking skills and expand your repertoire.

Modern Uses of the Cittern

While the cittern has a rich history dating back to the Renaissance era, it continues to be a popular instrument in modern times. In this section, we will explore the various ways in which the cittern is used in today’s music landscape. From its traditional role in folk music to its presence in early music ensembles and even its use in contemporary music, the cittern’s versatility and unique sound have solidified its place in the modern music scene. Let’s take a closer look at how this ancient instrument is still making its mark in the modern world.

In Folk Music

The cittern has a deep-rooted history in folk music, dating back to the Renaissance period. It has been used in various ways throughout time, and its presence continues to be felt in the modern music scene.

In folk music, the cittern is often utilized for accompaniment or as a solo instrument, thanks to its bright and resonant sound. Renowned artists such as Martin Carthy and John Renbourn have helped popularize the cittern in the folk music world. Its versatility allows for different playing styles, including fingerpicking and strumming.

In contemporary folk music, the cittern adds a unique and authentic touch to recordings and live performances, making it a cherished instrument by musicians and folk music enthusiasts alike.

In Early Music Ensembles

In early music ensembles, the cittern played a significant role, adding a unique and vibrant sound to performances. This stringed instrument was popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and was often featured alongside other period instruments like the lute and viola da gamba. Its plucked strings created a bright and resonant tone that complemented the ensemble’s compositions.

Today, the cittern continues to be a vital part of early music performances, preserving the authenticity and charm of historical music. It is truly remarkable how this instrument has endured throughout history, enriching musical experiences in early music ensembles.

In Contemporary Music

In the world of modern music, the cittern has become a popular instrument across various genres and styles. Musicians of today utilize the cittern to add unique textures and tones to their compositions. It is especially prominent in folk music, where its vibrant and resonant sound complements traditional melodies. In early music ensembles, the cittern is utilized to recreate historical sounds and add authenticity to performances of Renaissance and Baroque music. Furthermore, the cittern has been embraced by contemporary musicians who incorporate its distinctive sound into their modern compositions. With its versatility and rich history, the cittern holds great value in the realm of contemporary music.

How to Choose and Care for a Cittern

How to Choose and Care for a Cittern - Cittern: Plucked Strings Resonating Through History

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For those looking to dive into the world of traditional plucked string instruments, the cittern is a unique and captivating choice. But with its long history and various styles, choosing and caring for a cittern can be a daunting task. In this section, we will discuss the key factors to consider when selecting a cittern, such as materials, size, and tuning. We will also share valuable tips for maintaining and preserving your cittern, so you can continue to enjoy its beautiful resonance for years to come.

Factors to Consider when Choosing a Cittern

When selecting a cittern, it is important to take into account various factors to ensure a satisfactory purchase.

  • Quality: Look for well-crafted instruments made with high-quality materials that guarantee durability and superior sound.
  • Sound: Consider the desired tone and resonance of the cittern, as different materials and construction methods can produce varying sounds.
  • Playability: Evaluate the instrument’s playability by examining the neck shape, string height, and overall comfort.
  • Budget: Determine a suitable budget range and explore options within that price range.
  • Experience level: Choose a cittern that matches your skill level, whether you are a beginner or an experienced player.

By carefully considering these factors, you can select a cittern that meets your needs and enhances your musical journey.

Tips for Maintaining and Preserving a Cittern

Proper maintenance and preservation are crucial for keeping your cittern in optimal condition. Here are some essential tips to help you care for your instrument:

  1. Keep it clean: Regularly wipe down your cittern with a soft cloth to remove dirt and oils from your hands.
  2. Store it properly: Use a hard case or padded gig bag to protect your cittern from dust, humidity, and temperature changes.
  3. Maintain humidity levels: Use a humidifier or dehumidifier to keep the humidity between 45-55% to prevent the wood from drying out or warping.
  4. Check the strings: Replace old or worn-out strings regularly to maintain a good sound quality and prevent damage to the instrument.
  5. Inspect for damage: Routinely check for any cracks, loose parts, or other signs of damage. Address any issues promptly to prevent further harm.

By following these essential tips for maintaining and preserving your cittern, you can ensure that it stays in excellent condition and continues to bring joy through its beautiful music.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a cittern and when was it popular?

The cittern is a plucked stringed musical instrument that was popular in the 16th-18th century. It is part of the lute family and has a shallow, pear-shaped body with an asymmetrical neck.

How does the cittern produce its sound?

The cittern has four unison courses of wire strings and diapasons, additional courses to reinforce the basses of chords. The sound is produced by plucking the strings with a plectrum.

What is the historical significance of the cittern?

In Italian Renaissance culture, the cittern was seen as a revival of the ancient Greek instrument, the kithara. It is believed to have evolved from the medieval citole and has similarities to the fiddle.

What are some notable features of the cittern in Vermeer’s paintings?

The cittern is featured in several Vermeer paintings, such as “The Love Letter” and “The Concert.” It is described as having a “crystalline” and “sparkling” sound that may have appealed to the artist. The instrument is also depicted with an ornately carved peghead in “The Procuress” and was originally included in “Girl Wearing a Pearl Necklace” but later painted out by Vermeer for unknown reasons.

How has the cittern evolved over time?

In the 17th century, two bass variants of the cittern, the orpharion and the pandora or bandore, were introduced. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cittern evolved into the English guitar with six courses of strings, with the upper two being double. However, its popularity declined in the 19th century with the rise of the piano.

Is the cittern still played today?

Yes, the cittern is still played by some traditional folk musicians and has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. It continues to be appreciated for its unique tonal properties and its role in classical revival music.