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Traditional Musical Instrument: The Finnish Kantele

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The kantele, a plucked string instrument belonging to the zither family, is the Finnish version of the psaltery played by peoples living in the eastern Baltic countries. Kanteles are grouped into two categories: the small kantele and the concert kantele. Small kanteles have 15 or fewer strings with a range of around two octaves and generally have a shape similar to that of traditional instruments.

The main playing techniques are plucking and strumming the strings with the fingers or with a stick. Although various playing methods exist, the most traditional way is to use the right thumb to play the shortest string and one finger for each of the other strings while interleaving the fingers of the left and right hands. A reverberant sound is produced by plucking a string upward so that all the other strings are free to vibrate. With a kantele, you can make various kinds of tones to play melodic lines, an accompaniment, or even both!

Modern concert kanteles can have up to 40 strings with a switch mechanism for making sharps and flats, an innovation made by Paul Salminen in the 1920s. The shape of these instruments is similar to that of large western stringed instruments such as the piano or harp. For playing a concert kantele, a table is used and the strings are pulled toward the player. The main playing technique is to pluck the strings or glide from one string to another using the index, middle, and ring fingers. The thumb plucks up and then moves underneath the palm.

This wonderful instrument can be used for playing in various musical forms and genres, from folk tunes, waltzes, serious art music, and soothing meditative melodies to pop, rock, and avant-garde music. With its bell-like tones, the kantele is able to create a mystical mood that transports listeners back to legendary or mythical realms. Let’s now enjoy an excerpt from “Motion” performed in 2020 by the duo Eva Alkula and Tomoya Nakai on top of a scenic mountain.

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