What Instruments Are Played in Klezmer Music?

By Wilhelm Schnotz
A violin provides klezmer bands with an important piece of tradition.

Klezmer music is a Yiddish folk music that developed during the renaissance in Eastern Europe. The style features mainly acoustic instruments, though modern American takes on the style incorporate drums and vocals into the blueprint, as well. Because of its origins, klezmer is still considered a form of Jewish music, and is frequently heard at Jewish weddings and other functions.

Violin

The violin sits at the heart of klezmer music. Musicians capitalize on the stringed instrument's highly expressive qualities. As klezmer originally intended to mimic human sounds such as laughter or sobbing, the violin's versatility proved to be the cornerstone of the style; Balkan influences may permeate klezmer songs, but traditional klezmer fiddle players rely heavily on traditions that originated in Jewish communities separate from the gypsy overtones associated with Balkan folk music.

Hammered Dulcimer

An ancient instrument different from the picked Appalachian dulcimer present in bluegrass sounds, the hammered dulcimer is a large stringed-instrument that musicians play by striking strings with drumstick-like hammers. The instrument, which is more common in Eastern Europe than in Western cultures, helps carry melodies alongside the violin.

Accordion

Although it's a more recent addition to klezmer music, accordions provide another layer of melodies. In addition, the accordion’s rhythmic pumping contributes to the band’s exotic, and often energetic, rhythms.

Clarinet

American klezmer revivalists embraced the clarinet's steadfast sound and octave range as the genre found a home in America. Along with the clarinet, American acts began to draw inspiration from Dixieland jazz and swing acts, helping sever some of the ties to folk music that defined the style without losing its distinctly Yiddish identity. Before the addition of this woodwind instrument, many klezmer bands included wooden flutes. The clarinet frequently replaces that archaic instrument.

Drums

Drums are a modern and recent addition to the klezmer band. Drums strengthen the sound’s ties to jazz as it gives the traditional music's energetic rhythms an increased presence in the music.

Brass

Brass instruments, such as saxophones and trombones, are another recent addition to klezmer music styles indebted to Golden Era American jazz. Brass sections flesh out the act's lineup, fatten its sound and give it a presence similar to that of a big band.

Upright Bass

A contrabass player adds depth to a klezmer band’s rhythm section. Sometimes cellos were substituted for the contrabass in a traditional klezmer lineup devoid of drums. Although a modern klezmer band includes drums, traditional upright bass still remains in the lineup.

About the Author

Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.