Old musical instruments: shalmei and dulcian

In companies that make 'old music' (music from the Middle Ages or Renaissance) you will encounter: the shalmei, the pommer or the dulcian. Since I myself play within the 'Stadpipes of 's-Hertogenbosch' on both the shalmei and the dulcian it might be nice to tell us what instruments are.


A schalmei is a wooden wind instrument with a double reed. In the past, the shalmei was found throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. Probably it is the Crusaders who came into contact with the instrument during the Crusades. They brought it home and the instrument became known in Europe already in the early Middle Ages. The shalmei is the precursor of the modern oboe.

Historical Groups

Music groups such as the many City Piper Groups were popular enough in the years 1400-1600 to be depicted on various drawings and paintings.



Fragment of a painting by Jeroen Bosch



The shalmei has a double reed, which is largely in the mouth while playing. By varying breathing pressure, lipstand and lip pressure (embouchure), the vibration of the reed and therefore also the pitch can be affected. Because of this combination, playing the shalmei is an intensive matter. Not only for your lips and breath, but also for your ears. A little more or less with your lips' squeezing 'can already affect your tone. To give the lips some support, you can often find a small 'saucer' at half the height of the reed. This is called the pirouette. The shalmei has a conically drilled tube, that is, the instrument is wider downwards. To create different tones, finger holes are made. The fingering has many similarities with the fingering of the recorder. The shalmei is not equipped with valves, the fingers are placed directly on the holes. An exception is for the lower sounding members of the Schalmei family. These have valves and because the valve mechanism is very delicate, a cap has been placed (also called 'fontanel').

Photo: the double reed



The volume of the shalmei is much larger than the volume of, for example, the recorder. This makes the shalmei less suitable in smaller spaces, but all the more in the open air, larger halls and festivities. It is not strange that a shalmei is considered to be among the 'loud (re) wind instruments'.

(Photo: On the left some niccolos, then two shalmians and on the right two pommers. The pommers have a pirouette, on the other instruments they are not on. The thickening of the niccolos and pommers is the fontanel described above)


In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the shalmei is a popular instrument, similar to the recorder in the smaller spaces. A lot of music has been written that can be played with the Schalmei instruments. Precisely because the book printing for music notation was invented in the Renaissance, much of that music has also been preserved.

(Photo: a beautifully executed musical notation)


Schalmei family

Almost all wind instruments occur in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in families, shorter instruments for the higher tones, longer instruments for the lower tones. Also, the shalmei has relatives. At a glance:

  • Nino: sopranino, voted in f
  • Schalmei: soprano, voted in c
  • D-Schalmei: soprano shalmei voted in d
  • F-Pommer: alt, voted in f
  • G-Pommer: alt, tuned in g
  • Nicolo: tenor, voted in c
  • Tenor: tenor, tuned in c, but equipped with single valves to lower a few tones.
  • Bass: bass, tuned in f

Related: the dulcian

Especially with the lower instruments, the format was a problem. Musicians often played outside, walked along in processions, etc.. Because the average height of the people in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was lower than today's European, playing longer instruments was more difficult. With the niccolo you could just hit the street, but the long tenor could be played on foot very hard. But a bass was impossible to carry. In fact, the bass could only be played by using a stepping stone.

Photo: Musician next to a tenor. You can see: this instrument is too big to play, unless you have a very long musician.


A solution to this problem was sought and: it was found. It was thought that the long tube, which was needed to produce low tones, could be “folded”. The name of this instrument: the dulcian. If you look at this instrument, you can see that it is wider than a shalmei.


In this picture you can see a dulcian on the left. This instrument is hardly longer than the pommers that are next to it, but a lot wider. It sounds a lot lower.

There are two sound tubes next to each other, connected to each other at the bottom. One got that bottom closed by putting wooden plugs in there. When a shalmei leaves the sound at the bottom of the instrument, at the dulcian the sound opening is at the top. Another feature of the dulcian is that the sound sounds a little less loud than the shalmei. You can see that in the name: dulcian is derived from 'dulce' (=’zoet’) Ook de dulciaan kwam voor in families: meest gebruikte familieleden: bas, tenor en alt.

There are also soprano versions, and I happen to have one of them.

In the photo you can see a soprano and a tenordulcian.

You can see that the tenor is equipped with a valve. The mechanism of this valve is under a small “fontanel”.


Modern instrument

The shalmei and bassoon have disappeared from the modern instruments, because they were too difficult to play well. These instruments are well developed.

Our modern oboe is derived from the shalmei. Also the oboe is played with a double reed. The dulcian is at the base of the present bassoon. (also double reed)

Contemporary use

The Renaissance shalmei, like the dulcian, is still manufactured by specialist instrument builders, as well as the associated wicker. Various groups of musicians play a.o. with the Schalmei- and dulcian family music from the Renaissance, for example the Stadpipers of 's-Hertogenbosch. In addition, more modern variants of the shalmei are still used in oriental music.

(Photo: The Stadpipers in St.Nicolas-Chapel in King's Lynn, during the international festival of Stadpijpers, 2018)


(c) 2021 Hans van Gemert

Images: archive Stadpipelpers of 's-Hertogenbosch

An early version of this article I myself published on Infonu.nl. The current version has been extended, with text and photo material.


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