The Cretan Musical Instruments from the Masters of the Cretan Music Tradition.

There is a special bond between Cretans and their musical instruments. During all social and family events, Cretans play their tradional instruments for hours, having fun and singing. The dominating musical instruments in Crete today are four: The Lyre, the Lute, the Violin and the Mandolin. The last two are come across in specific parts of the island. Of a more rare sort are the BULGARI, ASKOBANTOURA (which slightly resembles the bagpipes), SPHIROHABIOLO (which slightly resembles the flute) and the DAOULI (which resembles a small drum). It is worth mentioning that, after the year 1970, apart from the lute many artists started using the guitar as well to accompany the lyre.


A musical instrument with roots in ancient Greek history, it was played from ancient times on the island though not with the shape it has today. It is the most popular and well-known musical instrument to all Cretans, both inhabitants of the island and those of the diaspora. It is also played in other areas of Greece, such as the Dodekanese (mainly in Kassos and Karpathos, Thrace and Macedonia), however it is more pear-shaped and is played in a different way. At this point the lyre of the Greek regions of the Black Sea and Capadocia should be mentioned which is bottle-shaped and is known by the name ‘kementzes’. Changes to the shape of the Cretan lyre that were also recorded between the 18th century and the 1940’s include:

  • THE PEAR-SHAPED LYRE which is found in two types, the small lyre or ‘lyraki’, which has a small, shallow sound box and a sharp sound and the ‘vrontolyra’, which has a large, deep sound box and intense bass sound. It was played on the island from the 17th century up until the late 1930’s. It’s bow is adourned with bells called the ‘Gerakokoudouna’, which the lyre players used to keep rhythm since, at that time, there were no accompanying instruments such as the ‘bulgari’ or the lute. The latter two made their appearance as accompanying instruments of the lyre after 1915. The first to be used as such was the bulgari, with the lute following shortly after.

  • THE VIOLOLYRA, a type of lyre which has many common traits with the violin, due to European culture and the great acceptance that the violin had during the mid-war years, mostly by residents of eastern and western Crete. The ‘viololyra’ was first created in Crete around 1920 and was a popular instrument up until the end of the 40’s. It is rarely come across in Crete today.

  • THE MODERN LYRE, is the descendant of the pear-shaped lyre (a cross between the ‘lyraki’ and the ‘vrontolyra’), and is played throughout Crete. It is the dominating instrument and the one that most represents Cretan music.


    An instrument played throughout all of Crete which is, after the lyre, the most popular instrument in Crete and among Cretans abroad. The lute is not particular to Crete, since it can be found in other parts of Greece, though it is tuned in a different way. The modern lute is a descendant of the renaissance lute, which was introduced to Crete during the time of Vitsentzos Kornaros who wrote the ‘Erotokritos’. Over the years, it has undergone many changes to its sound box and neck so as to improve its sound. It first began being used as an accompanying instrument to the lyre or violin after 1920, mostly though by the residents of central and western Crete. Today, besides its bass accompaniment role, it is also played solo and renders Cretan melodies perfectly. Depending on the part of Greece, the lute is played differently which has led to it not being as glamourous as it used to be.


    A renowned instrument whose shape as we know it today has remained the same for the past 400 years. Up until the mid-war years, it was an extremely popular instrument among the Cretans, mainly in eastern and western Crete. Its popularity is directly related to the particular musical motifs of those areas (‘kondilies’ and ‘pentozalia’), which are best executed on the violin. The fact that these motifs were greatly influenced by the skillful arrangement and execution on the violin by Strato Kalogeridi resulted in them being embraced by the residents of those areas. However, after the war and the appearance of the masters of Cretan music, the lyre began to dominate, reaching a peak in the 60’s and 70’s. Despite the fact that the violin is still used today by many Cretans, mainly in the eastern and western parts of the island, the journey that the lyre has made during the long history of Cretan music has shown its dominance and uniqueness. It has been embraced and has left its mark on the people of Crete.


    An instrument of European origin, it is found in the whole of the Mediterranean basin. It is widely known and played throughout almost all of Crete. Its first appearance is dated back to the Venetian occupation. It was a widely popular instrument, especially during the mid-war, when it was used in various forms (‘mandola’) and as an accompanying instrument to the lyre or lute. Today it is mainly used as a solo instrument at personal and family events or gatherings.


    A stringed musical instrument, belonging to the ‘tampoura’ family and closely related to the ‘tzoura’, with strings plucked with a pick. It first appeared towards the end of the 18th century and became well-known after 1915 through the Greeks of Asia Minor. It was mainly played in Rethimno during the mid-war and owes its popularity to Stelio Foustalieri. It is rarely come across in Crete today.


    A woodwind instrument which was primarily used by shepherds and is played in most Aegean islands. The askobandoura or ‘askavlos’ has been an actively used instrument since antiquity. It was played by the Greeks of Asia Minor as well as by the Romans.
    In Crete and specifically in the Monastary of Saint Fanourio in Valsamonero, Heraklion there is an icon depicting Saint Fanourio playing the askobandoura. It was very popular in the mountainous regions of the island up until the 60’s and is yet another musical instrument which is rarely found in Crete today.


    An instrument belonging to the fifes and flute family, it has been known since antiquity and first appeared in Crete during the 3rd century AD. It was the favourite companionship to the shepherds in the mountains of the great island. It can still be found today, though it is played by few and older residents of the island.


    The tabors are very ancient instruments which resemble a drum and are found in civilisations all around the world, though with various names. The insular tabor (small drum) can still be heard today on the Aegean islands and is used as an accompanying instrument to the fife or violin. It belongs to the same family as the tabor of ‘Sitia’. Its appearance in Crete, and particularly in Sitia, is dated back to the 16th century when it was brought from the Dodekanese. It was mainly played by the residents of eastern Crete and was used to accompany the lyre or violin at dances up until the 60’s. Unfortunately, it is not come across often in eastern Crete today.