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What is a Psalmodikon?

By Beatrice Hole

The Psalmodikon is a rare, one-stringed musical instrument that was played in Norway and Sweden during the 1800's. It is usually played by laying it on a table and using a violin bow or by plucking it. This simple instrument was usually homemade with the most common size about 35" (89.9 cm) long, 3" (7.6 cm) wide and 2" (5.1 cm) high. A finger board marked with numbered frets indicates where the fingers should be placed to play the various notes. The frets are measured in half-step increments, placed such that only slow tunes within a two-octive range can be played.

The origin of this one-stringed instrument dates back to the ancient Greek Mono chord instrument that is still used for measuring musical sounds. Thus the name "Psalmodikon" came from the Greek word "Psalmos" (a Psalm) and "Ode" (a song). Because it has just the single string, only one melody line can be played at a time. Where more harmony parts are needed, two to four Psalmodikons in varying sizes can be used.

During the difficult times of the early 1800's, many of the rural churches in Norway and Sweden were much too poor to have an organ in their church. As singing was an important part of the Lutheran worship service, there was a publication issued stating that something must be done to improve the quality of music within the church.

Thus, the Psalmodikon came about because the State Church would not allow instruments, that were played at dances, to be brought into the church. Dancing was considered to be very sinful in the belief of the church in those times. Because only slow melodies can be played, not any fast dance tunes, the State Church gave its approval and issued a Royal Resolution on June 15, 1835, giving permission to play the Psalmodikon to lead in singing in the churches.

The Psalmodikon not only improved the singing in the church, but also taught the children in school about music, and brought music into many homes because of its simpleness. The religious reform movement also started during this time period and spread quickly through the efforts of lay preachers who held prayer meetings in the homes in Norway, Sweden and also in America. The Psalmodikon was the ideal instrument to lead the singing at these meetings.

Many of the early Scandinavian immigrants brought these little instruments and the Sifferskrift (numerical) music along with them to America and continued to use them in their homes, churches and schools until around the 1930's. Any skilled craftsman could make this economical instrument and without any musical training, could learn to play the Psalmodikon. And so it became very popular amongst the common people. The frets on a Psalmodikon are numbered and the music was also written with numerical notations (Sifferskrift), thus the musician could play by ear or by following the numerical notations.

Perhaps because of its limitations, the Psalmodikon has become a near forgotten part of our Scandinavian heritage. Nevertheless, I feel it should have an honored place in the history of musical instruments, as it played a very important part in the life of our ancestors. In 1997, I organized "The Nordic-American Psalmodikonforbundet" a group of Psalmodikon enthusiasts who intend to carry on the tradition of Psalmodikon music.

The use of the Psalmodikon is another example of resourcefulness on the part of our ancestors.