17 facts you never knew about theorbo

Aidan Deasy teaches us about this ancient instrument


If you’ve ever wanted to hear Baroque by candlelight, now’s your chance. Aidan Deasy will bring his theorbo to Armadale this May 6 for an event with the Perth Chamber Orchestra. This period performance will close the Armadale Arts Festival and also features conductor Jessica Gethin, saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, and more. Ahead of the concert, Aidan gives us the rundown on his rare and ancient instrument. Get ready to learn all there is to know about the theorbo in 17 facts.

Irina via Flickr CC2.0


  1. The theorbo was invented in Italy at the end of the 16th Century in order to accompany singers in the first operas. The composers needed a chordal instrument that didn’t interfere with the audibility of the text being sung. These melodramas were devised after the Florentine Camerata read Ancient Greek texts on music. These texts said that ancient dramas were sung all the way through. The members of the Florentine Camerata didn’t know what Ancient Greek music sounded like, so they applied their own music of the day to ancient dramas; thus opera was born.
  2. In Italian the instrument is called tiorba and also chitarrone. It was originally thought that these were different instruments, but it is now accepted that the terms were used interchangeably.
  3. The theorbo is tuned using re-entrant tuning. The top two strings are tuned down an octave, and this means that the highest open string is not the first but the third.
  4. Like its strings, the frets of the theorbo and those of the lute are made of sheep’s gut, and are movable. This allows the player to ‘fine tune’ their instrument. It’s known that some players used steel strings.
  5. The theorbo is part of the lute family. Many of the first theorbo players also played the Renaissance lute, Baroque lute, archlute and the Baroque guitar.
  6. There are at least 14 pieces in which Handel specifies either theorbo, archlute or Baroque guitar for accompaniment.
  7. It is expected that the modern player of plucked strings be able to play these instruments ­– but obviously not at the same time.
  8. Anyone who can play the guitar can – with a bit of practice – play the theorbo, as their tunings are rather similar!
  9. The theorbo can have anywhere from 11 to 19 strings. None of these strings are sympathetic strings.
  10. The most common theorbos have 14 strings; seven fretted, and seven bass strings. The lower strings are tuned diatonically, like a harp.
  11. The low bass strings give a powerful sound; as a result, it was used as a basso continuo instrument in orchestras well into the 18th Century.
  12. The theorbo reads from the bass line and plays the harmony above the notes, just like the harpsichord. However, solo pieces are written in either French or Italian tablature.
  13. The theorbo is played without fingernails. However, it was common in certain areas of Italy to play with fingernails.
  14. There are no playable theorbos surviving today. Many of Europe’s musical-instrument museums contain fine ornate examples.
  15. The theorbo has three intricately carved sound holes or ‘roses’, whereas the lute only has one. Each luthier had their own individual design.
  16. The use of the theorbo was so prevalent throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries that many tutors were written on how to play solos and improvise over a bass line.
  17. Even though it may not be written in the original score, the theorbo was expected to perform in all orchestral and chamber music performances throughout the Baroque period.

See Aidan perform the theorbo with the Perth Chamber Orchestra on May 6. Details at perthsymphony.com.

Images supplied by PCO. Credit: Richard Jefferson.

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