A line drawing of a hudry-gurdy

I have a love-hate relationship with the hurdy-gurdy. While the haunting drone sound it produces is enchanting, it strikes me as something a medieval software engineer would conjure up so they could play the viola without actually knowing how to play the viola.

  • Drawing a bow is too difficult… let’s add a hand-cranked wheel
  • Fingering the strings is too difficult… let’s add some piano keys
  • Fiddles are too portable… let’s make it large and cumbersome

The “improvements” here create an object that couldn’t be more different in aesthetic and timbre than its relatives. One is sweet, nimble; it serenades. The other grinds endlessly like a cat in a vice; a groaning wooden automaton.

As much as I dislike the hurdy-gurdy as a concept, history shows that the hurdy-gurdy democratized music and lowered the bar for people to create (loud) music. The hurdy-gurdy was widely used in churches before organs got popular. It stands to reason this mechanized monstrosity with push button keys was easier to popularize than it’s more technical stringed cousins.

As history progressed, the fiddle came back into the mainstream and orchestras ruled the zeitgeist for centuries… until the guitar.

There’s a metaphor in here about software engineering somewhere, I’m sure of it.