What is a HOOSLI? A Historical Narrative

Editor’s Note: People often ask us about the origin of our name. The hoosli was an ancient stringed instrument that was essentially the precursor to the bandura. This academic article is translated from the original Ukrainian. You can find the original Ukrainian article here.

Ця стаття була перекладена з оригіналу українською мовою. Оригінальну версію можна знайти тут.


Hoosli – is one of the oldest strummed string musical instruments known on the territory of present-day Ukraine. The name of this instrument is derived from the word “husty” (to buzz), that is to play with fingers or with a bow. Another variation is that hoosli comes from the word “hoosla”, meaning “bowstring” or “bow”.

History and Appearance of the Hoosli

In an exhibition at the Archeological Museum of the Institute of Ukrainian Studies named after I. Krypiakevich of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences in Lviv there is a rare item on exhibit – a fragment of a stringed instrument. The item was found by an archeological expedition under the direction of Prof. I. Shveshnikov in 1984 during the excavation of the outskirts of the historical city of Zvenyhorod. It is a fragment of the top portion of a unique musical instrument, one that can be qualified as the oldest Ukrainian lyre-like hoosli, which clearly depict openings for pegs that affixed the top ends of the strings. The hoosli was identified in a building site, dated through the use of dendrochronological analysis (tree-ring dating) to the first third of the XII century.

The lyre-like hoosli
The lyre-like hoosli

By way of reconstruction, using the recovered fragment from the top portion of the instrument, it is possible to determine the actual type of the hoosli, as well as its general outlines. By classification, it can be categorized as a medieval lyre-like hoosli, which was widely common throughout the Baltic region. What points to this is the partial preservation of the perfectly round opening on the top portion of the instrument. Seven peg holes point categorically to the presence of seven original strings. From the width of the top part of the instrument, conclusions can be reached that its length ranged from between 70 and 80 cm. The findings of the Zvenyhorod hoosli piece, allow us to discuss the existence on territories of present-day Ukraine (the Galician-Volynsky princely state) during the middle age period of a unique type of lyre-like hoosli, the initial origin of the Ukrainian bandura.

Construction, Evolution and Sound

As is the case with all folk instruments, the hoosli were continually being improved. Those that existed in Kyiv-Rus were often called the “hoosli board”. The structure of these ‘springy’ hoosli was quite simple: a medium-sized board with stretched strings. As a rule, performers carried the instrument under their arms.

Later, the ‘hoosli board’ was changed into a resonating box, which improved and strengthened the timbre of its sound. The box itself could be rectangular, trapezoid or triangular in form. At the same time, markedly improving its acoustics, the number of strings increased and its form was changed. Usually, the number of strings of the hoosli varied from 5 to 8.

Despite significant differences in the various types of hoosli, all of its models were rather similar in construction. The body was made of wood and had three component parts: the top deck, the bottom deck and the customized part that joins the decks on the sides. The top deck was made of spruce or oak. Its centre had the resonating opening, which assisted in continuing the sound, making it stronger and fuller. The bottom deck was made of maple, birch or nut. The front part of the body was equipped with a plate with pins, cuttings for pegs and a stand. Inside, the body was equipped with vertically glued wooden bars, which increase resistance and evenly divide the sound vibrations.

The number of strings in the instrument depended fully on its type and varied from several to several tens of strings. The strings stretched practically over the entire body, secured by metal plates. A wooden bridge, placed between the tightly stretched strings and the top deck, called the string holder, assisted the string to vibrate freely and strengthened its sound.

The winglike hoosli
The winglike hoosli

There were several varieties of hoosli:  winglike (related to the balladic poetic era, in the folkloric era tradition), helmet-like (or the psalm/hymn-like hoosli) and the table-shaped variety.  Most widely spread on Ukrainian territories was the winglike hoosli, which had the greatest options for customization. Its number of strings varied, usually between 5 and 17. Its sound was diatonic (using only whole notes). The strings were located in a fan-shape, the distance between them narrowing depending on their proximity to the string holder.

The technique for playing such hoosli is as follows. In Kyiv-Rus`, the hoosli were played while sitting, arranging the instrument on ones knees, with the top end leaning against the chest. The narrow end of the instrument faced to the right, the wider end – to the left.  The sound was derived with the aid of strumming the strings with the fingers of the hand or through another medium (or means). While the right hand strums all of the strings, the left one muffles the sounds which are too loud.  In general, the hoosli has a loud, bell-like albeit soft sound.  Its timbre (quality of sound) – is overflowing and full, reminiscent of the chirping of birds or the babbling of a brook.

Popularity among Slavic Peoples

This ancient instrument was used by Slavic tribes prior to the appearance of the state of Kyivan Rus. The first written reference about the hoosli appears in a composition by the Byzantine historiographer Theophylact Simocatta in about 591 AD. The tenth century Arabian writer, Ibn-Dasta, in his ‘Book of Valuable Treasures’, wrote that the Slavs have ‘lutes, hoosli and reed pipes’.

Image of musicians (including a hoosli player) in the Radzyvilliv Chronicle
Image of musicians (including a hoosli player) in the Radzyvilliv Chronicle

In pre-Christian times, community competitions or games were popular in ancient Rus, often assuming a ceremonial character. Similar games were pictured in one of the miniatures of the Radzyvilliv Chronicle, where next to the image of a dancer, three musicians are depicted, one of whom is playing the hoosli.  Similar images can also be found on bracelets from the treasures of princes and nobility dating back to the XI-XIII centuries.

XI century fresco of the Saint Sophia Sobor (Kyiv)
XI century fresco of the Saint Sophia Sobor (Kyiv)

Among the musicians depicted in the XI century frescoes of the Saint Sophia Sobor (Kyiv), along with performers on the lute, wind and percussion instruments, also present is a hoosliar (hoosli player). Taking into account that the hoosliar in this composition is depicted prominently, one can conclude that the hoosli was the primary instrument of the ensemble. In addition to accompanying singing, hoosli were also played in ensembles for dancing.  Often two, three or more hoosli players joined into a collective or musical band.

The most historically well-known hooslyar (hoosli player) of the Kyiv-Rus period was Boyan, mentioned in the epic “Slovo o Polku Ihorevim or The Tale of Ihor’s Campaign”. This musician proved that the hoosli was an instrument of broad performing capacity and that playing it required a certain level of competency. Boyan, in particular, utilized the technique of ‘reverberation’, the loud plucking of strings, that later became characteristic of Ukrainian kobzars and bandurists:

“Yes brothers, our Boyan
Did not release ten hawks to fly at the swans,
But applied his flying fingers to the strings;
And the living strings themselves played glory to those princes.”

Literary sources from the XI-XII centuries mention hoosli along with other common instruments, for example: “peeling the bells, playing the trumpets and playing the hoosli”.

The hoosla (singular of hoosli) was a beloved instrument in Kyivan-Rus’. To its music, people sang, danced, marked important holidays, carried out fist-fights, related tales.  The art of making hoosli was passed on from father to son.

During the XVI-XVII centuries, the hoosli experienced significantly wider popularity on the territories of present day Ukraine and in Russia, where there were many Ukrainians among the palace courtiers. Particularly notable among the courtiers at the beginning of the 1730’s was the hoosli player, Kiriak Kondratovych, who received his education in the Kyiv theological seminary and later became a translator in the Academy of Sciences.

In everyday Ukrainian life, hoosli were found up to the XIX century.   Panteleimon Kulish (Ukrainian writer, historian and folklorist) mentioned seeing a singer-hooslier: “… once in 1853, I encountered this instrument in the arms of a blind singer-beggar in the Zolotonisk district of Poltava gubernia (province).”

Hoosli in Ukrainian Folk Music

Hoosli are frequently mentioned in ancient Ukrainian folk songs. Among the folk songs collected and printed in a separate edition in 1854 are the following lines:

“Where the unquiet, swift-running Danube flows,
On the banks of the Danube stands a green sycamore.
Under the sycamore is a young black horse,
And on the horse is a young kozak,
Playing quietly on the hoosli –
One string softly speaking to another.”

The “Notebook of Ukrainian folk songs, dumas (thoughts), proverbs etc.” collected by author Marko Vovchok, includes the following lines:

“My heart has boiled over
Because of you, my friend,
Because you come so late from the streets,
With your hoosli beneath your arm.”

Modern Successors and Legacy

Over time, the hoosli lost their mass presence on Ukrainian territories. More refined instruments began arriving in what is present-day Ukraine from Western Europe, particularly the harpsichord and later the piano, which gradually displaced the hoosli from use. The primary reason for this, however, was that the hoosli became the basis for the creation of a more refined Ukrainian instrument – the kobza or bandura, which replaced the hoosli from everyday Ukrainian musical life.

The repertoire of contemporary performers of refined hoosli is quite broad and diverse, in particular – as an accompaniment to folk songs, instrumental folk music (especially dance music), as well as compositions of classical and contemporary composers.  Hoosli also form the make-up of instruments of the National Academic Orchestra of National Instruments of Ukraine (in Kyiv).


The hoosli was an ancient stringed instrument used widely by Slavic tribes across Eastern Europe. Its popularity among ancient Ukrainian peoples was particularly evidenced between the XI and XVIII centuries, although there is indication that the hoosli was used widely in Ukrainian folk music well into the nineteenth century. As more refined instruments began to make their way into Eastern Europe, the hoosli in Ukraine was eventually replaced with more modern and portable stringed instruments such as the kobza or bandura.

Literature and Sources

  1. L., Ukrainian National Instruments. Kyiv: Educational Thought, 1967. p. 244
  2. Zinkiv I. Ancient Slavic Lyra-Like Hoosli VI-XIV centuries: problems in the genesis and research for a prototype. Materials & research of the archeology of the Prykarpattia and Volyn regions. 2006. Edition 10. pp.291-297
  3. History of Ukrainian Culture: in 5 volumes, Kyiv: Educational Thought, 2001. Volume 1: History of the ancient population of Ukraine. pp. 1134
  4. The History of Ukrainian Music: in 7 volumes, National Academy of Ukraine, IMFE named after M.T. Rylskyi, editorial board: H.A. Skrypnyk (chair) et al, Kyiv, 2016. Book 1: From earliest times to the XVIII century. Folk Music. p.440
  5. Kulish P. Notes re. Russia, St. Peterburg, Typography by Alexander Jakobson, 1856. Vol. 1, p. 322
  6. Vovchok, Marko, Writings in 7 volumes. Kyiv: Educational Humeniuk Thought. 1966. Vol. 7, Book 1. p. 600
  7. Metlynskyi, A. , SouthRussian Folk Songs. Kyiv, 1854. p. 474
  8. Tereschenko A. Beats (Rhythm) of the Russian people. Vol. 1. Nationality. 2. Dwellings. 3. Farming. 4. Attire. 5. Lifestyle. 6. Music. Moscow, 1848. p. 507

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