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The Enchanting Mandolin

Updated on April 2, 2017
Seafarer Mama profile image

Seafarer Mama is a musician and loves to write about her favorite instruments and the music she loves to make with them.

My mandolin and pick

my Kentucky mandolin
my Kentucky mandolin | Source
flat pick
flat pick | Source

Love is a mandolin in the moonlight ~

On a patio lit by candlelight, starlight, and moonlight sits a figure cradling a stringed instrument shaped like a gourd. He plays a progression of tremulous notes that vibrate in the air of the warm summer night like the call of a love bird to its mate. The longing in its voice is palpable. The music of the mandolin is made for the moonlight.

No matter where you may be, there is a place for the music of the mandolin. The instrument has a part in the history of many lands. It is such a versatile instrument because it can be played in a variety of musical styles. In this hub, I weave together early historical background about the instrument, its place in American history, its cross-cultural value, and the types of music it is most used for today.

What is a mandolin?

A mandolin is a stringed instrument in the lute family, fashioned in the shape of a gourd. This shape has since been refined to look more like a pear, with abundant variations. Those variations include fancy flourishes such as latticed wooden rosettes, or inlaid abalone, pearl, etc. A person who makes mandolins is known as a luthier. When the instrument was first invented in Italy, gourds were carved and set with strings to create the mandolin. It has a thick, resonant body and a fretted neck, with pegs to adjust the pitch created by each of its 8 strings. There are 4 sets of two strings, with each set producing an identical pitch that is a fifth apart from the sets that are above and below it. The musician may use a pick to make a rich sound by alternating the vibration of each string of a set with a series of up-down motions, to create the classic tremolo effect. A softer sound is created by a softer, slower motion, or by plucking the strings with bare fingers.

What does a mandolin sound like?

The notes made by a mandolin when its strings are plucked or strummed range from deeply sonorous low notes worthy of a cello, to higher pitches that are close in range to a fiddle or violin. There are many instruments in the lute family that are a variation of the mandolin in shape and character, and played for their unique resonance in a small chamber group, orchestra, or folk band. For example, a mandola has a lower, or deeper, range than the mandolin. The bazouki has its roots in Greece and is often used in Middle Eastern folk music.

The mandolin can make the type of sound you intend, whether solo or with accompaniment. Lively fiddle tunes are often played as harmonic accompaniment to the fiddles themselves. Folk ballads, dances, and lullabies, even Christmas carols, sound beautiful on the mandolin. The classical, nylon-stringed guitar is another instrument played as accompaniment to the mandolin, as is the mountain dulcimer and banjo. Antonio VIvaldi's Mandolin Concerto is one example of classical music that has been composed especially for the mandolin.

"Greensleeves/What Child is This?" on the Mandolin"

A Cross-Cultural Instrument

Though the mandolin has its origins in Italy, music from other lands sound equally compelling when played on it. Below is a description of several types of dances that are fun to learn and have accompanied by a mandolin.

Italian - Tarantella

The (Sicilian) Tarantella is a classic Italian tune created to accompany the dance that mimics the feverish movement of a victim of a tarantula bite. When this piece is played on the mandolin, the musician who plays it is giving a deep bow to its cultural origins.

Irish/Celtic - ballads and jigs (The Rakes of Mallow)

Since the dawn of the 20th century, Irish/Celtic dance music has been played well using a mandolin. The sound of the instrument is very dramatic and contributes to the festive air of each piece played for happy occasions. The quick pace at which a mandolin is played by a skillful musician lends itself to traditional Irish dance, and makes the heart race just to hear it. The Rakes of Mallow is one example of such a dance tune. Others include Star of the County Down and The Ballad of St. Anne's Reel.

Spanish - Recuerdos de la Alhambra

"Recuerdos" is a lilting melody written by Francisco Tarrega in 1896, as a dedication to the grand architectural character of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Spanish love songs were composed with the mandolin in mind. The melodious notes produced by the master musician on a mandolin caress the heart and add an extra glow to the face of everyone in the hall.

Let the Feast Begin - A Short History of the Mandolin

Medieval Court Musicians

In Medieval times, a stringed instrument shaped like a mandolin was named a lute. The lute was played by court musicians, thespians, and those who wrote psalms. When King David was a boy, he played a lute to cheer up King Saul.


No celebration is complete without dancing, and the mandolin brings a unique sound to dance to, particularly with a partner. American Bluegrass, Cajun and Zydeco music feature the mandolin when played live at festivals and jams. The mandolin has also been recently included in arrangements of jazz classics, too.

Birthday Songs

Singing "Happy Birthday" to a friend or family member is not complete without the sound of the mandolin. Its notes are cheerful and welcome the combination of many voices singing to the "guest of honor." I have been playing the familiar Birthday Song to my daughter for the past 6 years.


Mandolins may be played softly, without a pick. I manage to play quietly with a pick as I sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and All Through the Night to my daughter after I tuck her in, with a finale of an instrumental Lullabye by Johannes Brahms.

Christmas Carols

What merrier way to sing to the newborn Savior than with the mandolin? Deck the Halls and Good King Wenceslas are two of my favorites. I also play an Italian carol called Tu Scendi dalle Stelle . One year, I accompanied a friend with my mandolin when she sang the song at a concert.

The mandolin has gained popularity in the 21st century. It can make you happy or sad, it definitely makes the feet want to dance when rhythmic chords are played on it near or far. Let it live a full life for many more decades....centuries....millennia. Viva la mandolin!

How do I love thee...?

Have you developed a greater appreciation or affection for the mandolin because of this hub?

See results

© 2010 Karen A Szklany


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    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 6 years ago from New England

      Thank you for stopping by and reading, Wesman, and for your encouraging comments. Glad you enjoyed my writing about my beloved instrument. I am looking forward to reading your mandolin hub.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      I'm a huge acoustic music fan. I found your hub because I'm working on one about the Gibson F5 mandolin. Great job!

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 7 years ago from New England

      @ LeanMan: Glad you enjoy the mandolin, and my hub. Hope you pick it up and try to play soon. Do you live in an area with a "folk scene"? If so, there are sometimes people around who give lessons...affordably. Folk musicians are always ready to earn some cash, but in a way that is accessible for the student. :0) Do you have a good "ear" for pitch? You may be able to work out some melodies "by ear." Thank you for writing. :0)

      @ Denise Handlon: Glad you enjoyed my hub, and share my love of the mandolin. :0) Thank you for your kind words. I encourage you to try again to take lessons for playing the mandolin. The right teacher makes a difference. I learned from people named Joel Mabus, David Surrette (the celtic music musician, not the poet, and John Kirk. I hope you find a folk musician near your home to learn from.

      In love and music


    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 7 years ago from North Carolina

      I am in love with the mandolin and bought one years ago to learn to play. It has been much more challenging and I have yet to play a single note. But, I love it's sweet sound and am still determined one day to play it. What a great hub!

    • LeanMan profile image

      Tony 7 years ago from At the Gemba

      Have always loved the sound, I just wish I could play!

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 7 years ago from New England

      Thank you, Wendy. :0)

    • Wendy Krick profile image

      Wendy Krick 7 years ago from Maryland

      I love the Mandolin. Beautiful Hub.

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 7 years ago from New England

      Welcome to that happy place. I totally fell in love with Nicholas cage as Captain Corelli in "Corelli's Mandolin", and had read the book before I saw the movie. Glad you enjoyed this hub. Thanks for writing. :0)

    • Cheeky Girl profile image

      Cassandra Mantis 7 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

      I love the Mandolin and indeed any guitar like music, as it is the romantic sound that sends me off to that happy place. There is just something about this instrument that woos me so much. Love it. Thanks for this great hub.

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 7 years ago from New England

      Thank you, christopheranton. :0) Can't live a day without making or listening to some type of music.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      It must be nice living in your house. All that lovely music. Thanks for the interesting article.