Size and pitch

In the first half of the sixteenth century there were no more than two, or three common sizes of lute: descant, tenor and bass. By the time of the Fugger[1]inventory of 1566, this had increased to seven, from the tiny lutelein to the contrabass lute. Like many other stringed and woodwind instrument families, the continuous development of the consort principle during the courseof the sixteenth century lead to a rapid expansion of the lute family. In his Syntagma Musicum  of 1619, Praetorius confirms the same seven sizes, and additionally gives us the note to which the top string of each was commonly tuned.

·     Small octave lute: c”, or d’ 

·     Small descant lute: b’

·     Descant lute: a’

·     Ordinary chorist, or alto lute: g’ 

·     Tenor lute: e’

·     Bass lute: d’

·     Octave great bass lute: g

Praetorius also provided us with a scaled drawing of an alto lute, which seems to indicate a string length somewhere between 60 and 62.5 cms. Unfortunately none of the other lutes are illustrated, so we can only guess what their string lengths might have been, though it is generally assumed that they would have been in proportion to their respective nominal tunings: a bass lute sounding a fourth lower than the alto would have had a string length 4/3 longer.

Although it is generally thought that lutes were conceived and built as part of larger families[2], the pattern of surviving sizes is not as neat and well ordered as one might hope for - some instruments fall outside or between the expected sizes. There are a number of reasons for this. 

Firstly, surviving instruments are a statistically unreliable basis on which to establish past patterns of musical usage. Certain sizes may have survived for reasons that have nothing to do with their original musical function: instruments that were built in popular sizes may simply have been played to destruction. 

Secondly, consorts of lutes were not built to exactly the same size or pitch by definition a consort of lutes only had to be in tune with itself so we cannot expect all surviving lutes to have been made to the same pitch standard. For example, the first two items on the Fugger inventory are sets of lutes, the second of which is listed as ‘another set of lutes somewhat smaller’. 

Thirdly, I am not convinced that all lutes were conceived and build as matched sets - many  instruments would have fallen into the category of liuti mezzani, or mean lutes. These instruments would have been selected by players to fit the individual hand -  for playing  solo music the pitch of the lute was not a primary consideration.   A good example of this is  a letter of 1523  in which Federico Gonzaga wrote to his brother, Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga, asking him to find a lute by Laux Maler:

“...we would like a middle- sized lute (“un lyuto mezano”), that is, neither too large nor too small, and very good….” [A few days days later, Ercole answered] “ I received your letter in which you commanded me to look for a Maestro Luca who makes lutes, and to send you right away a liuto mezano. This, I did it and had selected two from a great number, and I am sending them to your Excellency. I am sending you two because I was not certain of the size [you wanted][3].”

Clearly there were at least two different sizes of liuto mezzano available in Maler’s shop, and quite possibly more. Perhaps most lutenists were unaware of the string length of their instruments - what mattered to them was whether it fitted their hand or not. Similar references are quite common, such as Besard’s advice from Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610) “First and foremost chuse a Lute neither great nor small, but a midling one, such as shall fit thine hand in thine own judgment.”

What of the pitch of lutes? There is plenty evidence to suggest that there were a number of pitch standards widely used in the late 16th century (mainly derived from woodwind instruments such as the cornett or the organ) but they are never mentioned in relation to the lute. Whatever the top string of a lute was called, the preferred pitch was always set as close to the breaking pitch of the gut top string as possible. Regardless of size, lutes were commonly thought of as being nominally tuned in g’, and lutenists were simply instructed to tune the top string as high as possible - “First set up the treble [strings] so high as you dare venter for breaking”, was Thomas Robinson advice in the The School of Music (1603). One advantage of not having international pitch standards and tuning meters was that lute players had to take a more subtle approach to the issue of stringing and tuning - using touch and sound alone to draw out the best resonance from the instrument -  as  recommended by John Dowland in Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610).

“For the well ordering and setting on the right sizes of string upon the Lute, the senses of Seeing and Feeling is required…..first set your trebles,which must be strayned neither too stiffe not to slacke, but of such a reasonable height that they may deliver a pleasant sound, and also (as Musitions call it) play to and fro after the strokes thereon.” 

Good advice even today.

My own renaissance lutes contains Bass, Tenor, Alto and Descant sizes as follows:-

 ·     Small descant c’ c.44cm

·     Descant  a‘ c.53cm

·     Alto/mean  g‘   c.59-67cm

·     Tenor  e‘  c.70-71cm

·     Bass  d‘ c.78cm

The alto/mean lutes in g’ vary in string length from 58.7 - 67 cm - a deliberately broad range from which most players should be able to select a size appropriate for their hand. All except the largest alto lute are capable of being tuned to modern pitch,  though is some cases a slightly lower pitch may be preferred. The following list provides a guide to the likely (though approximate) pitches associated with these various mid range string lengths using gut strings and assuming a reference pitch of A=440Hz

·     56-58 cm G# 

·     59-61 cm G 

·     62-64 cm F# 

·     64-66 cm F 

·     66-68 cm E

As a general principle I would always advise a player to play on an instrument with the longest string length they find comfortable. Large altos and tenor sizes open a window into a different sound world from that of their smaller relatives.


[1]D. Alton Smith ‘The musical instrument inventory of Raymung Fugger.’ Galpin Society Journal XXXIII (1980).

[2]Ray Nurse: ‘Design and Structural Development of the Lute in the Renaissance’, Proceedings of the International Lute Symposium, (Utrecht, 1988).

[3]See William F Prizer  ‘Lutenists at the court of Mantua in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.’  Journal of the  Lute Society of America, vol XIII (1980).