Da Vinci’s Viola Organista

hurdy gurdy

Leonardo Da Vinci had many unfinished projects, not unlike many hackers here. Lucky for us though, he was a bit better at writing down his ideas than we are. This is his Viola Organista, as recreated by [Slawomir Zubrzycki] — a mechanical work of art, that sounds good too!

If you’re familiar with a Hurdy gurdy, this is basically the same thing — but on a much bigger scale. It is the combination of an organ, a harp, and a viola. Instead of a hammer hitting the 61 steel-strings, spinning wheels of horse-hair (similar to a bow) caress each string via input from the keyboard and the pedal powered crankshaft. The result is a very unique sound, which is reminiscent to each of the instruments it combines.

The designs for the instrument were found in Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, a 12-volume collection of many of his manuscripts and designs, documenting everything from his flying machines to weaponry. [Slawomir] spent three years and over 5000 hours perfecting his version of it.

Stick around after the break to hear it in action! Don’t forget to turn on the subtitles though, unless you’re fluent in Polish!

[via Reddit]

34 thoughts on “Da Vinci’s Viola Organista

  1. Wow, that’s very cool. It’d probably drive me nuts to pump the pedal constantly, though. I wonder–is there some sort of flywheel and/or wind-up mechanism to ensure that the wheels spin at a constant rate? Or does it matter? (any string players that can clear this up?)

      1. If you look closely, the strings pass through slots cut in the edge of another wooden disk (or segment) coaxially located next to the spinning disks. The outer radius of the segment is larger than the spinning disk. The inner radius of the slots is smaller than the spinning disk. At the bottom of each slot is a tiny metal crank lever formed by a right-angled bend on a piece of wire. The wire goes through the fixed disk and can rotate between two positions. In one position the lever lifts the string away from the spinning disk. In the other, it allows the string to touch the spinning disk. The other end of the crank is connected to the key. When the key is pressed it causes the crank to rotate which moves the lever down allowing the string to touch the spinning disk.

        You can see this at 10:28 in the video.

        1. I’m actually thinking that the levels *push* the strings into the wheel, because that’s the only way you’re going to get pressure-based vibrato. If the strings’ natural state is in contact with the wheels, that’s a) going to mean only one playable state (no vibrato) and b) the combined force of the strings will be trying to press the keys down. The challenge then would be for the levers to be *solidly* grounded to the case, because they become the terminus of the vibrating length of string. The other end of the vibrating length is the bridge, which is the edge of a very rigid piece of wood the string lays against. The far end of the string is tied in a loop and slung around a pin driven into the soundboard, but everything past the bridge is “non-speaking”.

          (disclaimer: my dad has been a few dozen harpsichords, most of them from scratch)

          1. It’s really hard to tell. If you look closely at the video at 10:28, all of the levers are “horizontal”, (holding the strings away from the wheel?). The 8th lever from the left is angled downwards , which either allows the string to drop into the slot and onto the wheel, or pushes the string onto the wheel. It’s hard to see if the string is above or below the lever. If the lever pushes the string then yes, the musician could alter the pressure on the key to alter the sound of the string.

            To get around the ‘solid grounding’ you mention, it’s possible that the lever is intended to push the string down into the slot, which makes that wooden segment the bridge. It’s quite solid.

            I’ve never met anyone whose dad was a harpsichord.

    1. The shaft itself looks fairly hefty to me. Being vertical like that, gravity may end up being your friend. With a properly designed pedal, I would imagine you could get a nice rocking motion going that would be fairly easy to sustain (obligatory music pun). I’m not sure how heavy those four wheels are, but they may be helping quite a bit as well.

    2. I think I observed a pattern of increasing and decreasing rotation speed, possibly effecting the sounds created. It was hard to tell from the video, so I can’t be certain.

      I think a flywheel of some sort would be needed for the treadle to operate properly. I like that he didn’t put an electric motor in, even though it probably would have been easier. It’s nice to see that he stayed true to the historic nature of the instrument.

    3. I played cello all through school. The speed, angle (both roll and tilt), and force on the bow all make a difference. You control them all in concert (do you see wat I did thar) to get a specific “feel.”

  2. Thank you, Hackaday! What a brilliant machine! I absolutely loved the sound. It was like an entire string ensemble filtered through the interpretation and emotion of one mind. I wish Leo had gotten to hear it.

    BTW, who knew Polish sounded so awesome?!

      1. Allowing an inventory to earn money off of a novel invention is the specific intention of patents as a concept. Like, this is an example of them working exactly as intended, and not some kind of weird perversion like so many software patents. I have no idea what’s “yuck” about this unless you think everything everywhere should be free.

        1. It depends if the design was truly novel, or similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s design for this instrument. Or just obvious.

          Frankly I doubt that da Vinci would have patented anything (maybe he did, I don’t know when the patent system started). He was totally doing this sort of thing for the lulz.

    1. I think he only mentions vibrato with respect to the description of another similar instrument created apparently in the 1600s, maybe earlier. Regardless, I’m betting such an instrument is very temperamental. Adding vibrato which goes above and under the intended frequency (i.e. concert A is 440Hz, so FM’ing it w/a ~8Hz sine wave to get 445Hz to 435Hz is want I am talking about) would probably make the instrument go out of tune so fast it wouldn’t last a concert. Last thought, as with all things mechanical, features are usually applied uniformly. (That’s why I think the only good DrWho theme recording was the one done by the BBC national orchestra.) If vibrato was possible, and he applied it to all the notes as he played a cord, I think that would sound both alien and undesirable.

      1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oCGNwDokT0

        That’s a clavichord (which my dad has also made at least one of, there’s one in their house I’ve “played” many times), which consists of a small edge (think flat screwdriver) on the key lever that presses into the string (see wikipedia). The initial strike induces vibration to get the primary sound, and pressing variably on they key (as in the video) causes subtle changes in the length of the string (thank you Pythagoras) that creates vibrato.

        Yes, that does cause the instrument to go out of tune faster. Harpsichords, clavichords, etc. are always tuned immediately before a concert, just like violins etc are, because they are a) wood and b) intentionally adjustable therefore prone to de-adjusting. They do sometimes acquire a barely noticable out-of-tune-ness over the span of a long concert, which is why you’ll *always* hear the strings etc of an orchestra re-tune during any intentional pause (intermission etc) of a concert.

        Pianos don’t generally need tuning nearly as often because they’re a) metal and b) require much more force to tune, and thus hold it better. Heavy-hitters will require a tuning before a concert just to be sure, but usually there isn’t anything wrong with it unless the piano was just moved there (think piano-mover, not just rolling it onto stage).

  3. All I can think of is that this must be as temperamental as a harpsichord and more susceptible to the weather then bagpipes.
    Question 1: How can you manipulate the strings w/o them going false or out of tune. Ideally the positioning and tension on the string would not change putting the ideal fulcrum of the manipulating arm at the bridge at the far end of the string. That’s impractical. And probably why I see what looks like several bridges before the horse hair wheels.
    Question 2: How do you maintain the horse hair wheels. If in fact they are horse hair (Did he say so? I don’t remember.). A string player is applying rosin (yep, same stuff you use for solder) on their bow all the time. And, for that matter, breaks horse hair all the time. So, yes, string players have their bows re-“horse haired” all the time.

  4. Giegen-werk string-machine!
    I had a book on a museum piece ca. 1500,s Spain. Which was my first impression when seeing today’s post. In the book are shown X-rays of it and the four speed drive, fastest wheel on the treble slowest on the bass. Which takes on of the first concern of a human string player, bowing speed. The keys pivot at the rear and pull down on wire linkages the strings to the wheels, string tension lifts the key at rest and nut end is dampened with felt. These were a curiosity all the way back to Early Music, Bach knew of them. Why they never caught on probably had to do with the fussy nature of it. The one in the book had parchment covered rosined wooden wheels, not horsehair.
    Also look up the Violino-Virtouso and the Hupfield, both century ago tech that played real fiddles!

  5. Does it require rosining? I play the viola and violin, both of which need to have a lump of vitrified sap rubbed against their horsehair bows every couple of days (more if you play alot) to keep a good tone. I can see that being a problem with this one.

    1. It almost certainly requires rosin, because it emulates the interface of a bow on a string (after a fashion).

      But since it’s a rotating, crank-driven thing that would have to be rosined, an obvious hack would be a lever that would apply a lump of vitrified sap automatically….perhaps, even during a performance, while actively playing.

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