The Complete Guide to D&D’s Musical Instruments

Have you ever made a new bard character and wondered which musical instrument was a good fit? Have you ever looked at the equipment list in the Player’s Handbook and thought, hey, what even is a dulcimer? Do you want to use musical instruments to add depth and colour to your worldbuilding? If so, this post might be for you!

Continuing last week’s musical theme, I’m going to start with the instruments in official 5e rulebooks and then add a few more. Along the way, I’ll be thinking about the role each instrument might play in the world and its real-life history. If I get anything wrong, please correct me in the comments below.

An excellent sourcebook for this post was the 3rd edition Song and Silence supplement, which has a whole section on ‘bards and their instruments’. I recommend it highly!

The Player’s Handbook list

There are ten musical instruments in the Player’s Handbook. They are:

  1. Bagpipes
  2. Drum
  3. Dulcimer
  4. Flute
  5. Horn
  6. Lute
  7. Lyre
  8. Pan flute
  9. Shawm
  10. Viol

Let’s go through them.

Bagpipes have existed since at least the 13th century and may even have ancient origins. While they are widely associated today with the Scotland, they were also played in Ireland, England, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. They are even mentioned in The Canterbury Tales. There are many similar instruments outside Europe, including India, Turkey, North Africa, and the Arabian peninsula.

Drums have been part of our musical expression for thousands of years and can be found all over the world. According to Song and Silence, they are popular with almost every species and culture, except elves, who find them extremely annoying.

The dulcimer (the ‘c’ is pronounced like ‘s’) is a wonderful instrument related to the zither. Its etymology is Latin dulcis and Greek melos: literally ‘sweet song’. It resembles a flat soundbox, which rests on a stand: there are strings stretched across it, and the musician hammers the strings with little mallets. Or at least, I think this is what the D&D dulcimer is referring to. There is also the Appalachian dulcimer, but that’s much more modern and played more like a guitar. According to Song and Silence, zithers are popular with humans and gnomes; the latter particularly appeals to me for some reason.

Here’s a Guns N’ Roses classic played on a dulcimer. Isn’t it great? (Musician: Tim Simek)

Like drums, flutes have been around for thousands of years and can be found all over the world. (Archaeologists have found flutes from prehistoric times.) They can be made of wood, metal, or bone, and range from piccolo size to the ludicrous double contrabass flute.

The horn had me stumped. I can’t imagine the game designers were thinking of the animal horn that Boromir uses for signalling in The Lord of the Rings; that wasn’t really a musical instrument per se and would have been more for war and hunting. I wonder if they were thinking of the cornett, which I’ve pictured above. The later herald’s horn – the long, conical, trumpet-like instrument made of metal which might trumpet the arrival of a king – was more of a Renaissance instrument, but hey, there’s plenty of stuff in D&D that isn’t very medieval.

Ah, the lute, perhaps the most popular bardic instrument of them at all. It has prehistoric origins: there were lute-like instruments in ancient Greece and Rome and later in Africa, China, and India (the sitar is a kind of lute). Song and Silence considers it the most popular of the three ‘prime’ bardic instruments along with the lapharp and fiddle, neither of which appears in the PH.

The lyre isn’t that dissimilar to a lute, only with fewer strings. It is probably most associated with ancient Greece – think Orpheus – but was also played in Egypt and Mesopotamia. I’m not sure how much it was used in medieval times.

If you don’t know what a pan flute is, you might recognize them as panpipes. Another instrument associated with ancient Greece, this one named after the god Pan. Like flutes more generally, they can be found all over the world; the siku of the Andes is a particularly famous example. I’m not sure how popular they would have been in medieval Europe, but given the number of ancient Greek influences in the game, I don’t care much.

The shawm is a distinctly medieval instrument that eventually evolved into instruments like the oboe (or as they’re referred to Shakespeare, hautbois). They can be as small as a recorder or as big as a bassoon. According to Song and Silence, its music is adored by treants!

Finally, the viol. It’s questionable to call this medieval – it was more of a Renaissance and Baroque instrument – but hey. They look a bit like cellos, but any cellist will tell you they are quite different: notice the frets, the flat (not curved) back, the additional strings, and the sound holes, which are shaped like ‘c’s, not ‘f’s. I wonder if the game designers were thinking of the vielle, which was more like a violin. Viols are played sitting down, not under the chin.

Is that it? Are there only ten musical instruments in D&D? No – there are a few more!

Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

There are also some Faerûnian specific instruments in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Some of them are fictitious, but many of them have real-life analogues. They are:

  1. Birdpipes
  2. Glaur
  3. Hand drum
  4. Longhorn
  5. Shawm
  6. Songhorn
  7. Tantan
  8. Thelarr
  9. Tocken
  10. Wargong
  11. Yarting
  12. Zulkoon

Some of these aren’t really new. Birdpipes are just what Faerûnians call pan pipes. The glaur is essentially a type of horn, the hand drum is a type of drum, and the longhorn is a type of flute. And the shawm is already in the Player’s Handbook!

The songhorn is a recorder (pictured above), a popular medieval instrument that is probably missing from the PH (although I suppose it’s really a type of flute). According to Song and Silence, these simple instruments are popular among bards who can’t afford (or master) anything more complicated.

The tantan is a tambourine – another drum.

The thelarr is also known as a ‘whistlecane’, but that doesn’t help much. Looking at it in the Forgotten Realms wiki, it seems to resemble a flute or recorder.

Tocken are ‘a hanging set of carved oval bells, usually played with a pair of light wooden hammers (or open handed).’ This one is very curious: I’m not sure there’s a real-life analogue for them. If you know of one, help me out in the comments.

Wargongs are what you think they are, popular with dwarves and goblins and traditionally made from a shield. Fun!

The yarting is essentially a Faerûnian guitar. I wonder if this is what the bard in the Player’s Handbook is carrying. In the lore, they come from Amn and Calimshan.

Finally, the zulkoon: ‘a complex pump organ that originated with the zulkirs of Thay, who use it in the casting of their spells.’ This is fun, but not medieval – the first pump organ in our world was made in 1780. (Pipe organs, on the other hand, go back to antiquity.)

Missing instruments

As I mentioned above, there are a few odd inclusions in these lists, and definitely some overlooked choices. I would add four more: the fiddle, the harp, the hurdy-gurdy, and the recorder. There are also, of course, non-portable instruments like the organ and the clavichord, but those aren’t really suitable for bards to take on adventures!

For me, the fiddle should have replaced the viol. Not only is it more medieval, it’s also more portable! According to Song and Silence, the fiddle is loved by both kobolds and halflings – and honestly, this just makes sense.  

The lyreis perhaps an odd choice because we associate it more with ancient Greece than the Middle Ages. I would swap it out for a harp. While today we might think of the concert harp or pedal harp, an instrument about 6 ft high and weighing 80 lb, the medieval harp was smaller and more portable. Think of the Celtic harp, the symbol of Ireland. In Song and Silence, it is one of the three prime bardic instruments and particularly popular with elves.

The hurdy-gurdy is a great name for a great instrument. It is sometimes called a wheel fiddle, which sort of describes how it works: it’s kind of like a violin with tiny keys and a wheel instead of a bow. Perhaps it’s better to see it in action:

I don’t know how portable it would have been, but there are pictures online of people playing them while standing, so ¯_(ツ)_/¯

I’m not sure we needed the pan flute since it’s just another type of flute. I like the inclusion of the songhorn from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, but can we not just call it a recorder? This was a popular medieval instrument and very suitable for carrying on adventures.

Of course, no list is going to cover every possible musical instrument, and therein lies my biggest tip: think of these instruments as ‘types’ and make yours more specific. A drum could be a tabor, a tambourine, or bongos. You might want to draw on non-European instruments, too: your lute might be an oud, a pipa, a biwa, or a sitar. Personally, I would also be relaxed about including some non-medieval instruments like the mandolin, harmonica, or banjo. Your musical instrument can be a big part of your identity as a character: make it your own!

Any historical inaccuracies here? Thought of an instrument Ive missed? Let me know in the comments below.

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