10 Traditional Norwegian Musical Instruments You Might not Know

Norway is one of the more well-known Scandinavian countries. It’s famous for its incredible scenery, hardy people, and unique and rich history. While you might know Norway for its beautiful mountains and fjords, did you know that it has a deep musical history as well?

In this post, we’re going to take a look at several unique Norwegian musical instruments that you most likely haven’t heard of. Let’s start off with the Hardingfele. 

1. Hardingfele (Hardanger Fiddle)

Otherwise known as the Hardanger fiddle, the Hardingfele is a uniquely Norwegian instrument similar to a violin or viola.

Not only is it one of Norway’s most famous exports, but the hardingfele is also Norway’s national instrument. 

The hardingfele is different from its stringed cousins in a couple of ways. First, the wood of the instrument is significantly thinner than the wood used in violins. 

Also, the hardingfele typically has eight or nine strings, while the violin only has four.

The hardingfele player plucks or bows four strings while the remaining four or five resonate underneath. 

2. Nyckelharpa

The Nyckelharpa is another iconic Scandinavian musical instrument.

While it originally hails from Sweden, Norway still considers the nyckelharpa an essential part of its musical heritage. 

Like the hardingfele, the nyckelharpa is a close cousin of the violin and is like a cross between the violin and the hurdy-gurdy.

However, the nyckelharpa only has four strings like the violin and features a series of keys along the neck which is very unique for stringed instruments.

The player depresses these keys while playing the strings with a bow. 

Many believe the nyckelharpa actually originated in Germany, but it’s more widespread throughout Norway and the rest of Scandinavia. 

3. Seljefløyte

The Seljefløyte is an incredibly simple flute instrument that Norwegians use in traditional folk songs.

It consists of a single finger hole and exposed holes at each end. The player inserts a plug as the mouthpiece, then covers and uncovers the other holes to produce tones. 

You might have also heard of the Seljefløyte called the willow flute or sallow flute. However, these names may refer to similar flutes found throughout central Europe, not only in Norway. 

4. Kantele

Even though the Kantele originates in Finland, Norwegians value it as an integral part of their musical heritage.

It stems from a long line of Baltic box zingers and has been adapted for use over the centuries in Norwegian and broader Scandinavian traditional music. 

Kanteles are either small or concert size.

Small kanteles have less than 15-strings and are typically used in smaller traditional settings.

Concert kanteles, on the other hand, have up to forty strings.

5. Munnharpe

Otherwise known as the Jew’s harp or jaw harp, Munnharpe translates directly to ‘mouth harp.’ 

It’s a small, metallic instrument that you place in your mouth, strumming the flexible metal tongue attached to its frame.

Sound vibrations that travel through the munnharp’s body are amplified by your mouth, creating its unique ‘twangy’ sound. 

Although the munnharp has been embraced by Norwegians, earlier versions of the instrument date back to ancient China and lots of different cultures have their own versions.

Today, the munnharpe is growing in popularity as a travel instrument because of its size and weight. 

6. Bukkehorn (goat horn)

The Bukkehorn is an ancient musical instrument of unknown Scandinavian origin. This instrument literally translates to ‘buckshorn.’

This instrument is a simple horn instrument crafted from a goat’s horn. Traditionally, the bukkehorn might also have been made using ram horn instead.

The bukkehorn is a simple hollowed-out goat’s horn with several finger holes along its body.

Usually, this horn is played without a reed, but modern players might opt for one to make it easier to amplify. 

In the old days, bukkehorns were used by Scandinavian farmers as a signal instrument or to warn off predators in the area. 

7. Harpeleik (chorded zither)

Descending from a long line of zithers, the Harpeleik is a zither that features chords.

Although chorded zithers are typically considered to be an American phenomenon, the harpeleik is decidedly Scandinavian in origin. 

The harpeleik was first invented by native Swede Adolf Larsson in the 1800s. As time wore on, the instrument spread around the rest of Scandinavia.

Today, you can find skilled harpeleik players in a range of traditional folk music bands around Norway. 

8. Langeleik

Another variation of the zither, the Langeleik, is older than the harpeleik. It features a narrower body, and instead of being a chorded zither, it’s considered a droned zither.

While the harpeleik is broadly Scandinavian, the langeleik is decidedly Norwegian. Although it’s not known who the exact inventor was, the first langeleiks can be traced back to 16th-century Norway.

The langeleik has become less and less popular as the years pass for a couple of reasons. The main cause of its decline is due to the fact that it can’t play a chromatic scale, and doesn’t harmonize well with other instruments.

As a result, it’s incredibly hard to play in a concert or band. 

9. Lur

The Lur is another horn-type instrument. However, this horn is much longer than the bukkehorn and doesn’t feature any finger holes either.

While it’s typically played without a mouthpiece, some players prefer using a brass-like embouchure. 

While many ancient lurs are completely straight, many others have curves that influence the instrument’s sound and amplification. As a result, you may find lurs that look completely different from one another, but they’re technically still the same instrument. 

There are two main types of lur that you might find in the wild: wood and bronze.

Wood lurs are usually the more modern versions, while bronze was used in Denmark and Germany during the ancient bronze age. 

10. Tungehorn

Translating from Norwegian to mean ‘tongue horn,’ the Tungehorn is a reed blown goat or cow horn that features a single reed inserted into the instrument’s cavity.

The tungehorn looks incredibly similar to the bukkehorn. However, the tungehorn’s origins are known, and it almost became extinct throughout the previous millennium. 

While the tungehorn’s reed is generally made from juniper branches, makers have also been known to use spruce, oak, or other types of hardy wood.

Today, not many people know of the tungehorn, and it isn’t widely used in Norwegian folk music.

Summing up our List of Norweigian Instruments

That’s it for our list of instruments used in Norway, we hope you found it helpful and learnt a thing or two about not only the instruments but the beautiful music from this part of the world.

Our favorite is definitely the Nyckelharpa and the haunting sound is amazing. What’s yours?

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.