I want to do this up as a webpage with photo illustrations someday. But until then, this is for all the folks who end up at Mi Contra Fa because they Googled for "how to play lyre." I play the six-stringed Saxon lyre.
There are many ways to play the lyre. You can pluck the strings like a harp, or strum them like a guitar. I use the "block and strum" method as my primary approach, with occasional plucking.
There are many ways to tune the lyre. As a historical re-enactor, I prefer the one described by Hucbald, c. 800 CE. It is the only one we can authenticate. It is, very simply, "do re mi fa so la." I tune in the key of F because I am an alto; I do not have a strong opinion on what a "proper do" for the scale is. It's not like A=440 Hz was defined in the 9th century.
I would use a Pythagorean temperment, if I had a tuner or an ear that would let me. Some day... Right now, I use equal temperment but I would like to change that.
I tie a tablet-woven band around either arm of my lyre, with enough slack to loop around my left wrist. This secures my hand near the strings.
I am experimenting with different ways to hold the lyre on my leg or lap. Historically, I set it upright on my left leg with the soundboard facing to my right. This is not really towards the audience, and I suspect a different pose would be better. Graeme Lawson has a paper that shows another way to hold the lyre, and I'm trying to practice that. To start, you can try what feels comfortable.
Basic Playing Style: Drone Plus Notes
For historical performance, I do not like to use modern chords. They are absolutely modern, becoming popular in the late Renaissance or early Baroque, as new, popular keyboard instruments were causing Pythagorean temperments to be replaced with newer, experimental ones. The Pythagorean third is dissonant, so building a chord around one just isn't good form.
(Read more about Pythagorean tempermant and medieval music theory.)
Everything we know about early music suggests that the "most important note" on the lyre would have been "re," followed closely by "la." "Re" is the base note of the Dorian mode, and "la" is its dominant, a fifth up. There was no "major scale" in the 9th century, even though today, we might say the lyre is tuned "to the first six notes of the major scale." It is really tuned to the first five notes of the Dorian mode, with one note below tonic to allow for some nice cadences.
My lyre has six strings and I have five fingers. What I do is place a finger on every string except "re."
If I want to sound "re," I strum all the strings.
If I want to sound "re" plus another note, I lift up the finger blocking the other note and strum all the strings. Four fingers damp four strings, and the interval sounds.
Often for "do," and sometimes for "mi," I do not want the dissonance that comes with sounding them together with "re." In those cases, I shuffle my thumb (on do) or index finger (on mi) from those notes to the "re" string, and strum.
You can also shuffle fingers around to get any single note. I don't find this as fast as just lifting up fingers, though, and I like the effect of the "re" drone underlying the melody.
Yes, I play melodies or parts of melodies. It's done by oral poets in other parts of the world. There is nothing wrong with playing what you are singing (if you are singing).
Generally, I improvise tunes in Dorian mode.
But I want to play tuned pentatonically/using chords/the way I do now.
I am not going to stop you. I have a very specific goal of historically informed performance, and my current performance practice is a snapshot of where I am right now with my reading and my technique. You may have different goals, different interpretations of the literature, and different technique.