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Folk instruments of Greece: The lyras

Updated on May 22, 2013


........and the king had three beautiful daughters, whose voices competed those of the nightingales. One day they left the palace to travel to foreign countries to offer people the soul of their voice.

The first one went to the rich and cosmopolitan Constantinople, and her name was The Politiki Lyra.

The second one, whose name was Kemence, traveled to Pontos of Asian Minor, a small piece of land by the shores of the Black Sea, where the Greeks had immigrated thousands of years ago.

And the third one, the cretan lyra, reached the land of Crete, the island of the joy of life.

They stayed there ever after, to sing and dance with the natives their joys and sorrows.

Cds with the greek lyras

The Greek Folk Instruments: Lyra
The Greek Folk Instruments: Lyra

Here is a beautiful Cd from the series Greek folk instruments by Petros Tabouris, that contains all three types of Greek lyras.




The lyra played by the Greeks of the Pontus (by the Black Sea) and Cappadocia is arc-shaped, with bottle-shaped soundtable, short arm without frets, and three single strings.

The whole instrument is made of a single piece of wood, like plum wood, mulberry, ivy, etc. Two holes are made on either side of the soundtable, while two long, narrow and slightly convex openings (the "nostrils") are made on the lid.

The Pontic lyra is tuned in fourths and the strings are pressed with the flat of the fingers, as with the violin.



The musician plays either seated, with the instrument on his lap, or standing up, usually moving in thime with the dancers; steps and calling out to the dancers.

The pontian lyra can be played in the following ways:

a) The melody is played on the first string, the second string playing an accompaniment with a drone.

b) The melody is played on both strings, with variations of 4ths.

c) The melody is played on the second string and accompanied by the first string with a drone.


Kemenche, 3-string with Rosin & Bag
Kemenche, 3-string with Rosin & Bag

I was surprised to find a real pontian lyra on the Amazone. And with a good description too.




Politiki lyra (lyra of Constantinople)

Like a lament for things lost and forgotten, this scarcely known instrument seems to draw deep feelings from the heart transforming them into a peaceful melody. Tears are shed invisibly in one's secret, internal world, acting as a balm.

Thanks to contemporary musicians who have been attracted by its wind- like sound and they have studied and played it, I discovered this precious instrument, that is perhaps one of my favorites among the folk instruments of Greece

It whispers things in my ears and I respond in silence.

Name, origins, construction, playing technique

There is not much information about the Politiki lyra (lyra of Constantinople) . It's name comes of course from the ancient Greek lyra.

Like the cretan one, It's shape is pear-like . It has three strings and it's playing technique differentiates it from the other types of lyras, like the cretan one, the lyra of the Dodecanese the Bulgarian one etc.

Until the beginning of the 20th century it was played by famous Greek and Turkish musicians in the tavernas of Constantinople but then, thanks to the Greek virtuoso Vasilakis it was introduced to the houses of the upper class and its music was upgraded to a masterly art, replacing the rebab.

Musicians playing the politiki lyra


Cretan lyra


A pear-shaped instrument with a short arm , without frets, extending from the soundtable. Cretan lyra has three strings -like the violin ones- and it is played with a bow. It is usually made by the musician himself and can be of various sizes, according to the type of sound required, whether deep or high and piercing.

Cretan lyra is usually constructed from a single piece of wood of various types, like mulberry, ivy, oleander, etc. The lid is slightly convex, made of well dried wood that has straight, thick grains and no knots. Two semi-circular holes ("the eyes") are always made on the lid.

The column of the instrument is considered the "soul" of the instrument. One end is supported on the base of the soundtable and the other on the base of the bridge and not on the lid, as is usually the case in the violin family. The three tuning kees are of various sizes according to the musician's preferences and style of playing.

Some lyras - Cretan ones or lyras from Dodecanesos - have small bells hanging from the bow, which provide rythmic accompaniment to the melody as it is moved back and forth.

The lyra is usually only decorated on the sides of the soundtable and on the hand in front with geometrically carved vand rosettes and other raised designs (such as anchors, birds, flower pots, et.) and heads of birds or animals.

Playing technique

The pear-shaped lyra is tuned in 5ths.The strings are not pressed with the flat of the fingers, as with the violin, but with the fingernail, which presses the strings from the side.

The melody is usually played on the first, highest string, the secong string is not often used for the melody, and the third string rarely so. However, during the playing, the bow often scrapes the second string along with the first, on which the melody is being played, or the second and third strings together, thus accompanying the melody with a rudimentary "harmony".

When the musician is seated, the lyra rests on the left thigh, or between the legs. When he is wandering around, he rests the lyra on his chest.

Cretan lyra accompanies songs whose lyrics are often self-improvised. They are called "mantinades". It also accompanies the energetic and joyful Cretan dances.

Musician playing the cretan lyra



My source of information have been:

-The CDs by Petros Tabouris "GREEK FOLK INSTRUMENTS"

- The book by Fivos Anogianakis "TRADITIONAL GREEK INSTRUMENTS"

Do you enjoy the sound of these instruments? How does it make you feel?

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    • profile image

      Bartukas 5 years ago

      Nice lens thank you

    • YsisHb profile image

      YsisHb 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi,

      what kind of lyra do you want to buy? I have a friend who makes them. If you want contact me through the "contact" me button on my profile

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @NoYouAreNot: I want o buy one but I don't know how. Are there any sites which sell it online in Greece.

    • bilafond lm profile image

      bilafond lm 5 years ago

      I loved listening to your music clips, very nice. You must listen to Pakistani version of TAKE FIVE by Dave Brubeck quartet you should live it. you will find it in 'About Me' lens. It has some oriental musical instruments especially the 'Sitar'

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Very enjoyable lens! I love the instruments and the dancing as well. It's always nice to learn something new.

    • NoYouAreNot profile image

      NoYouAreNot 7 years ago

      The Politiki lyra is always so lamenting, fit for the amanedes and the rembetika. The Cretan lyra is lively and energetic. So is the Pontian lyra - but this one has an additional aspect: the musical pieces are somewhat monotonous (not necessarily in a bad sense), they sort of get you in a "trance" state. I believe it has something to do with the fact that the famous Anastenaria (dancing on hot coals) take place in Serres and in Northern Greece in general, where there are many Pontian refugees. About the Serra (Pyrrihios) dance: in its authentic form, it is cyclical, because, being a martial dance, it is meant to show that all comrades-in-arms are equal, brothers of the same value, with no "coryphaeus." I like the way a whole culture finds its expression in such "small" gestures in every aspect of a people's life.

    • I-sparkle profile image

      I-sparkle 7 years ago

      Well done lens. I like the history that you gave behind the creation of the instruments. The music, to me, has what I would call a grass roots bohemian gypsy flavor. Very free and uninhibited.