You may have heard a buzzing sound in your favorite hurdy-gurdy song, and not know where it came from. You may think it is a problem with the audio, a problem with the instrument, or that a swarm of angry bees are outside your window.
This sound is actually a unique feature of the hurdy-gurdy, called the trompette. More specifically, a trompette is a string on the player side of the instrument that sometimes has a loose bridge called a “chien”. The chien is the part of the hurdy-gurdy that actually makes the buzzing sound. It is not attached to the instrument, but rather held in place by pressure on the string.
The trompette string is pulled at a 90° angle by a piece of thread called a “tirant string”. The tirant string is attached to a tuning peg that goes through the tailpiece. Adjusting this tuning peg increases or decreases tension on the trompette string, which changes the sensitivity of the buzz. A few angles of the tirant string and tuning peg below:
There is another type of system, primarily used on tekeros (Hungarian style hurdy-gurdies). This system uses a wooden wedge to add tension to the trompette string in a similar fashion. The sensitivity of the buzz is controlled by adjusting the wedge itself. This article will focus on the tirant/chien system, not the tekero system, but you can see examples of the tekero parts below:
The actual buzzing sound is caused by the chien moving up and down on the soundboard, hitting it over and over like a hammer. You can see the action of the chien in this below video, watch carefully as the chien moves up and down from the vibration of the string:
A bowed string moves in a wave pattern, with greater amplitude the faster the bow moves across the string. Same is true for the wheel-bow of the hurdy-gurdy. When you increase the speed of the wheel, the amplitude of the string increases. When the string reaches a specific amplitude (controlled by adjusting the tirant), the chien begins to buzz.
Thus, we use a crank technique that accents the wheel to speed up and slow down the wheel at specific times, creating a rhythmic buzz to go alongside the main melody of a tune. This technique is called “coup de poignet”, which translates from French to “flick of the wrist”. Each individual buzz is called a “coup”. Coups can be long or short buzzes, and can be louder or quieter depending on how the crank is accented.
Here we have an example of the trompette being played by Nigel Eaton, without a melody:
Here we have an example of the trompette being played by Steve Tyler, with a melody:
Trompette sounds vary by instrument and by player, there are many different tones they can take on. From strong in-your-face buzzes to light background buzzes.
The trompette is one of the hardest parts of learning the hurdy-gurdy. You can find tutorials on learning individual coups, as well as putting them together in a song on our tutorials page. A lot of new players start off not liking the sound of it, but it eventually grows on them – so don’t write it off first thing! Come in with an open mind. Most players consider it a core part of learning the instrument.