Music Of The Viking Era, Its Instruments, And How It Was Performed

Music was certainly a pivotal part of the culture of the Norsemen during the Early Middle Ages, as it was for the rest of the European peoples of their time. The music of the Norsemen represented an important way of expressing the heroic deeds of exploration, bravery or victory in battle, as well as the legendary tales of their folklore and mythology which were passed on from generation to generation by their forefathers.

Sarek National Park, Jokkmokk municipality, northern Sweden. Nature constitutes a significant theme in the Nordic folk music. Image source:

As such, it is rather easy to discern the fact that it was performed in the Norse realms both in everyday life and on the occasions of some festivals or celebrations. Nonetheless, because of the fact that there was no musical notation at the time of the Viking period, much of the knowledge regarding the music of the Norsemen stems through historical reconstruction and, possibly, some archaeological hints.

Luckily, shortly after the end of the Viking Era, a musical notation system came to be used for writing songs. So it is that we know of the Danish folk song entitled ‘I Dreamed a Dream‘ (or ‘I Dreamt me a Dream’/’Drømde mik en drøm i nat‘) which was found partly written down on a piece of wood (dated to the 14th century) which was found in Denmark.

The song was written using a Runic script in Old East Norse (a dialect of the Old Norse language that evolved into modern Danish and Swedish). ‘I Dreamt me a Dream’ is also preserved in a medieval document known as ‘Codex Runicus‘, a compilation of Danish law texts written using medieval runes. To date, this song is the oldest secular one discovered in the Nordic countries.

Even though there’s little information regarding the tunes that the Norsemen once sang, the musical instruments that they used are known. Thus, some of these instruments include:

  • the lyre (a different, somewhat smaller and lighter prototype developed independently from the Greco-Roman ones in Scandinavia);
  • the lur (as recounted in the Icelandic sagas, a horn-like instrument used on the battlefield for intimidating the foes);
  • small recorder (woodwind instrument);
  • pan flute (woodwind instrument);
  • bukkehorn (goat’s horn; an ancient Norwegian folk instrument).

Below you can listen to a series of Viking Age Norwegian instruments and their sounds:

Bukkehorn instrument

Bukkehorn instrument

Bukkehorn instrument

Bukkehorn instrument

Bukkehorn instrument

It must be mentioned that skaldic poetry (used for entertaining the royalty and nobility of Scandinavia during the Viking period) was often accompanied by folk tunes performed by the reciters of these poems, specifically by the skalds (i.e. poets).

To these days, Icelandic folk music (alongside the traditional music of the Faroe Islands) are by far the most conservative with respect to the preservation of the Viking Age musical heritage. It is equally important to highlight the fact that in both cases there can be noticeable a significant Gaelic-based influence as well (stemming from the Celtic-speaking thralls/slaves brought from Ireland and Scotland to these former Norse colonies situated in the North Atlantic Ocean during the early Viking Age).

The Faroe Islands, for example, preserved the tradition of circle dancing while singing traditional ballads, while the Icelandic folk tunes still have a pronounced Viking Age sound, especially when referring to vocal performances. In this particular respect, there can be identified two main categories of vocal Icelandic folk music as follows: kveða and the syngja. The former is tied to poetry while the latter is connected to singing.

Nowadays, efforts aimed at revitalising, reconstructing, and preserving the character of the Norse musical legacy are consistently recurrent in the media worldwide, from the soundtracks of some strategy/fantasy video games or TV shows related to the Norsemen such as ‘Vikings’ on History Channel to professional musicians as Wardruna.

A prominent example of an album of this sort that is faring well in the music charts quite recently is ‘Ice and Longboats: Ancient Music of Scandinavia‘ released in 2016 and performed by Ensemble Mare Balticum, Åke Egevad, and Jens Egevad. Below is a short preview of the album.

Another important way of preserving the Viking Age musical heritage can be highlighted by the ballads that are performed at local Viking-themed festivals in Scandinavia. One such performance is the one filmed below at the Viking market in Hemmes, a small village Akershus, southern Norway in 2009. The male artist is Harald Foss.

Documentation sources and external links:

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6 Responses to Music Of The Viking Era, Its Instruments, And How It Was Performed

  1. Rat says:

    You do realise that much of the music ised on Vikings is either straight up Wardruna songs or music composed (and even performed on camera) by Einar Selvik of Wardruna, right?

  2. Robert Foedisch says:

    I am researching the history of the Song -Helvegen- do you have any information on when it was created?

  3. Mark says:

    Great article! Thanks for (formally) introducing me to Wardruna. I never made the connection between them and the music for ‘Vikings’. Definitely picking up their music…

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