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A Hardanger fiddle (or in Norwegian: hardingfele) is a traditional stringed instrument used originally to play the music of Norway. In modern designs, the instruments are very similar to the violin, though with eight or nine strings (rather than four on a standard violin) and thinner wood. Four of the strings are strung and played like a violin, while the rest, aptly named understrings or sympathetic strings, resonate under the influence of the other four, providing a pleasant haunting, echo-like sound.

The Hardingfele is used mainly in the southwest part of Norway, whereas the ordinary violin (called 'flatfele' - 'flat fiddle' or 'vanlig fele' - 'common fiddle') is found elsewhere. The Hardingfele is used for dancing, accompanied by rhythmic loud foot stomping. It was also traditional for the fiddler to lead the bridal procession to the church.

The instrument often is highly decorated, with a carved animal (usually a dragon or the Lion of Norway) or a carved woman's head as part of the scroll at the top of the pegbox, extensive mother of pearl inlay on the tailpiece and fingerboard, and black ink decorations called 'rosing' on the body of the instrument. Sometimes pieces of bone are used to decorate the pegs and the edges of the instrument.

The earliest known example of the hardingfele is from 1651, made by Ole Jonsen Jaastad in Hardanger, Norway.[1] Originally, the instrument had a rounder, narrower body.[2] Around the year 1850, the modern layout with a body much like the violin became the norm.



See also Scordatura in folk music

The instrument is tuned higher than a violin, because it is considered to sound better in a higher range. The 'A' on the hardingfele corresponds to B (about 466 hertz) or higher on a standard piano. The notes given below for tunings are therefore relative to the A on the Hardingfele, not to A equal to 440 hertz.

The strings on a hardingfele.

The understrings are tuned to vibrate according to the main tuning. For example, when the main strings are tuned A-D-A-E, the understrings are tuned B-D-E-F-A. The tuning largely depends on the region in which the instrument is being played, or the requirements of a particular tune.

In Norway, more than 20 different tunings are recorded.[3] Most hardanger tunes are played in a common tuning (A-D-A-E). The hardanger fiddle can also be played in "low bass", the word "bass" referring to the lowest string, (G-D-A-E), the normal violin tuning. In certain regions the "Gorrolaus" (F-D-A-E) tuning is sometimes used.

Another tuning is called "troll tuning" (A-E-A-C). Troll tuning is used for the fanitullen tunes, also called the devil's tunes; in the Valdres district of Norway, using this particular tuning is called "greylighting", a reminder that the fiddler tuned his fiddle like this when the morning was near, and he had played himself through a number of other tunings.

Legend has it[4] that the fiddler learned fanitullen tunes from the devil. This tuning limits the melodic range of the tunes, and is therefore sparsely used.


The technique of bowing a Hardingfele also differs from that used with a violin. It's a smoother, bouncier style of bowing, with a lighter touch. The player usually bows on two of the upper strings at a time, and sometimes three. This is made easy by the relative flatness of the bridge, unlike the more curved bridge on a violin. The strings of the fiddle are slimmer than those of the violin, resembling the strings of violins from the baroque period.

Tunes and techniques of playing differ a great deal between different regions in Norway. This is probably because Norway consists of a series of valleys separated by mountains, and communities were isolated from each other in the past.

Standard musical notation is rarely used by the traditional players. But to preserve the music, and to get classical players to play Norwegian music, there were people who systematically transcribed tunes. They used a system where the notes corresponded to the fingering on the instrument rather than to absolute pitch. It is usual for the players in Norway not to read music, but learn tunes by ear. It is actually surprisingly common for players to not even be able to read notes. In later years, however, some fiddlers use manuscripts as a kind of "second-hand" source, for refreshing their memories.

The Hardanger Fiddle and Religion

The Hardingfele has had a long history with the Christian church. Well known early fiddle maker Isak Botnen is said to have learned some of his craft from church lay leader and school master Lars Klark, as well as the methods for varnishing from pastor Dedrik Muus.[5] In many folktales the devil is associated with the Hardingfele, in fact many good players were said to have been taught to play by the devil. During religious revivals in the 1800s many fiddles (regular and Hardanger)[6] were destroyed or hidden both by fiddlers and laypeople who thought "that it would be best for the soul that the fiddles be burned", as it was viewed as a "sinful instrument that encouraged wild dances, drinking and fights." [7] This happened in Norway, as well as other parts of Europe, and until the 20th century playing a Hardanger fiddle in a church building was forbidden.[8] Famous modern fiddler Annbjørg Lien has played with church organist Iver Kleive[9], but even she has experienced prejudice before performance from the religious side. [10] Also, the oldest known fiddles still in existence can be heard accompanied by the oldest playable church pipe organ in Norway (originally built for an 18th century church) on the album "Rosa i Botnen" by Knut Hamre and Benedicte Maurseth.[8] While the use of a Hardingfele in church in Norway may still be a bit sensitive for some, fiddlers in other parts of the world have no problems playing in churches for all types of occasions, including weddings. [11][12]


Edvard Grieg adapted many Hardanger folk tunes into his compositions, and composed tunes for the Hardanger as part of his score for Ibsen's Peer Gynt. For example, it is widely believed that the opening phrase of "Morning" from Grieg's Peer Gynt music is derived from the tuning of the sympathetic strings of the Hardanger fiddle: A F E D E F and so on. The main theme from Grieg's piano concerto is said to be inspired of a version of the tune Fanitullen, played by a fiddler from Hallingdal.

In recent years the instrument has gained recognition in the rest of the world. Japan has been one of the countries that has found an interest in the hardingfele and Japanese musicians travel to Norway just to learn to play this instrument. In 1997, the Australian classical composer Liza Lim wrote the piece Philtre for a solo Hardanger fiddle.[13]


See also List of Spelemannslag

Notable hardingfele players include Hallvard T. Bjørgum, Torleiv H. Bjørgum, Per Anders Buen Garnås, Knut Buen, Hauk Buen, Kristiane Lund, Andrea Een, Olav Jørgen Hegge, Vidar Lande, Annbjørg Lien, Myllarguten (Targjei Augundsson), Lars Fykerud, Lars Jensen, Nils Økland, Kathryn Tickell and American players Loretta Kelley and Kris Yenney.

Use in film

The Hardanger fiddle was used in the soundtracks of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King composed by Howard Shore, to provide the main voice for the Rohan theme. The use of the hardanger fiddle in this movie, however, is far from traditional since the theme does not make noticeable use of the usual practice of bowing on two strings at a time for harmony.

The Hardanger fiddle also features in the soundtrack of Fargo, written by Carter Burwell. Here the context is a little more traditional. The main theme it plays is an arrangement of a Norwegian folksong entitled "The Lost Sheep".

In the Japanese animated movie Tales from Earthsea it is played by Rio Yamase.

See also

  • Låtfiol, a Swedish fiddle with two sympathetic strings


  1. ^ Aksdal 1993, 21
  2. ^ Aksdal 1993, 22
  3. ^ Gurvin 1958.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Sandvik 1983, p.12.
  6. ^ Broughton, Ellingham 1999 p.212.
  7. ^ Sandvik 1983, p.13.
  8. ^ a b George 2008
  9. ^ Broughton, Ellingham 1999 216.
  10. ^ Magiske understrenger - historien om hardingfela (Documentary produced by NRK).
  11. ^ Hardanger fiddle player at Faith Lutheran Church in Isanti Nov. 27
  12. ^ Andrea Een and the Hardanger Fiddle - Brightcove
  13. ^ "Philtre (music): for solo retuned violin or hardanger fiddle / Liza Lim". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 2008-04-29.  


  • Aksdal, Bjørn, and Sven Nyhus. Fanitullen: Innføring i norsk og samisk folkemusikk. Oslo: Universitetsforlag.
  • Broughton, Simon, and Mark Ellingham. Rough Guide to World Music Volume One: Africa, Europe & the Middle East. London: Penguin Books, 1999. 212-216.
  • George, Patrice. "Knut Hamre and Benedicte Maurseth - Rosa I Botnen." RootsWorld. 26 Feb. 2008
  • Gurvin, Olav. 1958. Hardingfela. In Hardingfeleslåttar, ed. Olav Gurvin. Norsk Folkemusikk, ser. 1 vol I. Oslo: Universitetsforslaget.
  • Sandvik, Sverre. Vi Byggjer Hardingfele. Tiden, 1983. 12-13. English translation "(How) We Build the Hardanger Fiddle" by Eldon Ellingson

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