The written sources and archaeological evidence supporting the existence, nature and function of music in the Viking Age are very limited.
After the conversion to Christianity, the records and evidences left are clearer, and it is likely that music was as much a part of Christian life in the Nordic countries as anywhere else in Europe.
According to the theory of "musilanguage" formulated by the musicologist Steven Brown, singing in human history developed early on as a mode of musical expression through its ability to emit linguistic units.
Considering the oral tradition and a pronounced taste for poetry, not devoid of an intrinsic musicality, it is reasonable to think that singing had at least a functional and pragmatic dimension in various activities during the Viking Age, such as memorizing, coordinating, encouraging, calling, celebrating...
Vikings were sailors who navigated on ships. Yet, whether it was to cross an ocean, sail up a river or pull their ship onto land, it was necessary to synchronize and rhythm their teamwork.
Associated with the long tradition of sailing, this is the primary function of the sailors' songs, which are described as songs to hoist the sails, songs to turn, songs to pump to evacuate sea water, songs to swim (i.e. to coordinate the movement of the oars), songs to move (i.e. to move the ship by means of its moorings).
It is likely that there were also songs to relax, soothe and weld the crew during periods of inactivity. In addition, it could have been a means of identity recognition within a fleet or a way of memorizing landmarks or dangers on a route.
Vikings are also warriors, and long before them, their Germanic ancestors were already known to sing songs about their gods and heroes. The oldest source on this subject can be found in the work "Germania" by the Roman historian Tacitus:
"They have another song, called 'bardit', by which they stir up their courage, and from which they foretell how successful the battle will be; for they tremble or make tremble, depending on how the army has sung the bardit. And this song seems to be less a sequence of words than the noisy concert of warlike enthusiasm. It is formed in the harshest of accents, of hoarse and broken sounds, by pressing the shield against the mouth, so that the echoing voice escapes louder and more resounding."
(Volume VI, p.9, Complete Works of Tacitus).
Paying homage to those who gave their lives, preserving and passing on the memory of heroic deeds, urging men to overcome the fear of injury and death, strengthening group cohesion and identity, parading to impress and provoke the opposing camp, or calling for victory, this tradition continues to this day in the armed forces of many countries.
Singing may have brightened up the monotony of agricultural work such as ploughing and threshing, or domestic chores such as milling and weaving. As can still be observed in other cultures today, labour singing also stimulates and coordinates the activity while strengthening the cohesion of those at work.
Usually, the one with the loudest voice sings a verse that is then repeated by the whole group. The words are rarely fixed and leave room for improvisation.
Historians and composers such as Hjálmar Ragnarsson, think that the poetry in Old Norse, which reached us through the Icelandic sagas, could conceal working songs, such as the "Grótti song" (Grottasöngr) where two young slave girls, Fenja and Menja, descendants of the giants of the mountains, are bought in Sweden by the Danish king Fródi who condemns them to grind without interruption, while they sing their story, their tiredness and at the end, the prophecy of their revenge. The Grottasöngr could illustrate the type of song to be sung while grinding grain or doing other tedious and repetitive work.
In the more specific context of animal husbandry, singing with a high-pitched voice and imitating the sounds of animals probably came before the use of a musical instrument (flute, lur, horn). This made it possible to be heard over long distances in order to gather herds in the fields.
Songs and music may have had a sacred character and played an important role in religious events in which offerings and sacrifices were made to the gods.
They probably also accompanied rites of "passage" marking a change in someone's social status, the birth of a child, adulthood, marriage, and so on.
Ibn Fadlan, a 10th century scholar of Arab origin and secretary to the ambassador of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, testifies in his account of a trip (Risāla) to the king of the Bulgarians of the Volga, to the funeral of a Viking chieftain, during which a slave sang before being sacrificed to accompany her deceased master in the afterlife.
On festive occasions, at gatherings such as the "Thing" (the political and judicial institution of the Viking Age), or at the court of kings, music and song were to be as much a part of the festivities as poetry.
Again, there is little evidence of how ordinary people feasted, but all Scandinavians praised poetry, attributing its origins to the Allfather Odin.
Men and women, from the humblest to the kings, everyone tried their hand at poetry; but the most erudite, masters of the art and the depositories of mythological and heroic traditions were the "skalds".
The Skaldatal of the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturlurson (1178-1241) draws up a chronological catalog of more than 200 poets, the most famous of whom were of Icelandic origin.
These wandering poets sang their poems at the courts of kings and jarls throughout the Nordic world, attended feasts and accompanied their benefactors on their military ventures, both witnesses and actors of the events they were called upon to tell and sing in their verses.
The praise they received for their testimony had to be as accurate as possible, even if it meant learning about events in which they had not participated, which made them scholars.
This was the prerequisite for their success. Between poetry and song, the recital was in different registers:
1. The skjaldardrápa (skjaldardrápur in plural) is the song of the shields, one of the oldest forms.
2. The drápa (drápur in plural) is a panegyric, song or poem of praise and represents the majority of the great compositions. Composed of several verses where images abound, it follows strict metric rules with a more or less solemn tone. Some 'drápur' have a kind of refrain (stef) of two or four verses that organizes the poem in several more or less regular parts. It is found in several songs of the Edda.
3. The flokkr or draeplingr ('little drápa') is a shorter, simpler drápa without a chorus.
4. The lausa vísur are improvised verses, improvised according to the circumstances and expressing the impression or emotion of the moment, in response to an invective.
5. The mangsöngr (mangsöngvar in plural) is a love song. Going against social norms in Iceland, it could expose its author to banishment.
6. The nídvísa (nídvísur in plural) is a satyr or defamatory poem, against which there was a severe judicial measure also punishing its author with exile.
7. The grátr is a lament poetry.
A very old form of song is known as a lullaby. Although it is impossible to know what a lullaby looked like in the Viking Age, it probably wasn't very different from those we know through folk music today.
This kind of singing is meant to calm and soothe the baby to help him or her fall asleep. Also, the lullaby is often monotonous, sung in a low voice, and the melody often varies only 2-3 notes from high to low.
The lyrics should already evoke the family, pets and other familiar subjects that are reassuring to a baby, as is the case in today's popular lullabies.
Other forms of music traditionally associated with a child's world also include nursery rhymes and songs that accompany games.
The lokk ("the call"), is called "kulning" in Sweden, "laling, lalning" or "lålning" in Norway and some border regions in Sweden, "kauking, kaukning" in parts of Norway, in the provinces of Dalarna and Hälsingland in Sweden and "kulokk, kulokker, kyrlokker" or "lokkrop" in the former Norwegian provinces in Sweden, Jämtland and Härjedalen.
This Scandinavian song was used as a means of communication over long distances between shepherds and their herds (cows, goats...) or other breeders during the summer season.
Due to the lack of grazing areas near the farms, the farmers moved with the animals far away in the forests and mountain pastures.
Women and children were largely responsible for watching over the herds and therefore practiced this vocal technique.
The lokk begins with a long high note in the lead voice which then descends from a quarter or half tone to a lower note, the blue note which gives the blues its musical tone. This song is followed by a few shouts, which may, in turn, be followed by the names of the animals, as herds are generally small.
The "lokk" is performed with a high-pitched voice, as it is best performed over long distances.
Between tradition and improvisation, the call varies from person to person and from place to place.
The shepherds had to know common signals to communicate with other herders, but they had their own melodies to be recognized and identified by their herd.
This form of singing is found throughout the world and is considered one of the earliest forms of music, according to Kurt Sachs in his book "The Wellsprings of Music".
Researchers have also hypothesized that this singing technique was one of the first ways of taming animals for breeding in Scandinavia and the Urals, as early as prehistoric times.
The joik (or yoik), also called "luohti", "vuolle", "vuelie" or "juoiggus" in the Sami languages, is the traditional song of the Sámi, an indigenous people of Lapland with whom the Vikings have had confirmed contact as evidenced by various archaeological finds.
A joik interpreter is called a joiker (in Norwegian) or jojkare (in Swedish). This type of song can be of a deeply personal or spiritual nature, sometimes sung during shamanic rites.
It is a key element of the traditional Sámi religion, whether it is practiced by an "amateur" at home or by a noaidi, the resident shaman of the siida.
However, the role of the yoik in shamanism will prove to be the basis for a systematic suppression of this cultural expression by Christian missionaries and the governments of Scandinavia (in the form of assimilation programs and boarding schools).
The joik is a kind of emotionally expressive and spontaneous portrait directly related to situations such as a birth, a human being, an animal or a landscape.
There are not necessarily words or short words. Ursula Länsman of the Sami Angelit Group defines joik as follows: "A yoik is not simply a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it is like a holographic and multidimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or a simple visual memory.
It is not about something, it is only something. It doesn't start and it doesn't end. A yoik doesn't need words - his narrative is in his power, he can tell an experience in song.
The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures."
It is traditionally performed a capella. It is only in its more modern version that the joiker is accompanied by musical instruments.
The tone of the joik is mainly pentatonic. It has neither beginning nor end and consists of glissando notes. Its rhythmic structure is so different from that valued in western music that it may be inaudible to the ear of the uninitiated.
The joik has many social functions: it can be used to share memories, to unite the community (both family and society as a whole), to express an emotion, a personal feeling, to calm reindeer or scare wolves, or even to travel between worlds.
Throat singing is a diphonic singing practiced in duos by Inuit women in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. It comes in different versions and names depending on the region: "Katajjaq" or "Katadjak" in Nunavik and Baffin Island, "Lirngaaq" and "Nipaquhiit" in Nunavut, "Piqqusiraarniq" or "Pirkusirtuk" on Igloolik and Baffin Islands, "Qiarvaaqtuq" in Arviat.
Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub, an Andalusian trader and traveler, who visited the great trading city of Hedeby (or Haithabu, on the border between Denmark and Germany) in 950, heard songs there and reports in his account (of which only excerpts remain in the Book of Roads and Kingdoms of Abu Abdullah al-Bakri):
"Never have I heard ugly songs like those of the Vikings in Hedeby. The growling from their throats reminds me of howling dogs, but wilder."
Throat singing is widely used in attempts to reconstruct the musical world of the Vikings, such as here in 2008 with the musical project Skvalthr, whose members have joined bands such as Wardruna or Heilung:
Vikings had a wide variety of instruments at their disposal as evidenced by archaeological finds, mostly bone or wooden wind instruments. However, perhaps the oldest and most popular of these is the drum.
Wooden or bone flutes are quite common on Viking Age sites. Elderberry branches, easy to dig, or willow branches were used to make simple whistles for children and flutes for musicians.
Whistles and bone flutes that have been unearthed are most often made from the shins of cows, deer, or even large birds. Note that the Latin term for a flute is tibia.
Some have no holes, or just one or two. According to the Swedish musicologist Cajsa Lund, these may be instruments used by hunters to imitate the calls of birds or animals, not musical instruments per se.
Two-hole bone flutes dating from the 9th and 10th centuries were found in the Swedish commercial area of Birka.
Others with a recorder and usually with 3 holes were probably used to play musical tunes. Archaeologists have unearthed flutes from the Viking Age with up to 7 holes.
A bone recorder from the early 13th century made from a sheep's shin was found in Aarhus, Denmark. It measures 11.9cm, has 3 holes on top and one at the back, a beveled opening, but its beak is missing.
A wooden pan flute was discovered during the Coppergate excavations in York, England. It measures 9.5 x 5.5 x 1.2 cm and dates from the 10th century.
This Anglo-Scandinavian instrument was created by digging 5 holes of different depths in a block of boxwood. As the pan flute is not intact, it is very likely that it originally had up to 7 or 8 holes in total.
The edge of each hole is slightly bevelled to better fit the shape of the player's lips.
A hole in the lower left corner was probably used to hang the instrument with a string, perhaps around the musician's neck.
It was dated between the last half of the 11th century and the 12th century. The wooden pipe that formed the body of the instrument is 18 cm long and has 5 holes.
It is difficult to say what the instrument was originally. Some people think that it could be the chanter of a bagpipe whose other elements (pocket, drone(s) and blowpipe) would not have been preserved.
Although the bagpipe appears among the Germanic musical instruments known since the IXth century, there were not yet other discoveries of the Viking Age in Scandinavia to support this hypothesis.
Also, most researchers believe that it is rather an instrument with a double reed, although the latter has not been found.
It would be a kind of oboe, an instrument known since antiquity, similar to the Welsh pibgorn or the Slavic zhaleika, which must have had a mouthpiece and bell made of cow horn.
Other discoveries confirm this theory, in Lund in Sweden with a 4-hole pipe dated from the mid-11th century and in the Netherlands, with a horn pipe discovered in the village of Britsum, decorated with X-shaped motifs and dated between the 9th and 11th centuries.
A replica of the Falster oboe was made of wood and horn by the musician, engineer and violin maker Åke Egevad (see photo on the left).
The jaw harp has been known in most European and Asian countries for 3000 years. Those discovered in Scandinavia date for the most part from the 13th century.
The oldest jew's-harp was found in the floor of one of the nine pit houses dating from the Viking Age in Gammeltoft, at the foot of the Ellemandsbjerget, the highest point of the Helgenæs peninsula in Denmark.
The famous Sutton Hoo lyre, whose maple remains are kept in the British Museum, dates from the beginning of the 7th century (see photo on the left).
Although the instrument is Anglo-Saxon, its shape corresponds to that of other lyre throughout Europe and many replicas have been made.
The Trossingen lyre, discovered in 2020 in the state of Baden-Württemberg, dates from the 6th century. Its state of preservation is exceptional. It is the most complete lyre found to date, with a maple body covered with engravings, a bridge and pegs.
Other lyres found, such as the two Oberflacht lyres found in rich burials in the Oberflacht necropolis, dated from the 6th century, and the Cologne lyre dated from the 7th century, were destroyed during the Second World War.
In Scandinavia and in the colonies of the Viking Age, pieces of 18 lyre were found. The oldest of them come from Sweden, among them an amber lyre bridge discovered at Halla Broa on the island of Gotland, dated from the end of the 8th century, and another one made of Birka horn, dated from the 9th century. These lyres must have looked a lot like the one in Sutton Hoo.
The Kravik lyre, discovered in a barn in the county of Buskerud, northwest of Oslo, and supposed to date from the end of the 13th or the beginning of the 14th century, turned out after carbon-14 dating to be from the 16th century. Made of pine, it is incomplete and differs somewhat in shape from the other models.
The famous scene from the saga Vǫlsunga where Gunnar, thrown into a snake pit, plays the harp with his toes to put the reptiles to sleep, is the subject of many sculptures.
Despite the fact that the instrument is referred to in the story as a harp, many of these representations are actually more like a lyre (the strings are plucked, not rubbed with a bow), such as Gunnar's carvings on the standing wooden churches of Uvdal built around 1168 and Hyllestad built in 1200, in Norway.