Balalaika

Name: Balalaika.
Type: Chordophones > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.321.6
Specimen: 1 in collection.
Acquisition Date: Circa 1996.

Description: The balalaika [in Russian: балала́йка, pronounced as “balalaika”] it is a Russian stringed musical instrument. The instrument generally has a short sustain, necessitating rapid strumming or plucking when it is used to play melodies. Balalaikas are often used for Russian folk music and dancing.

Etymology: The first known document mentioning the instrument dates back to 1688. A guard’s logbook from the Moscow Kremlin records that two commoners were stopped from playing the ‘Balalika’ whilst drunk. Further documents from 1700 and 1714 also mention the instrument. In the early 18th century the term appeared in Ukrainian documents, where it sounded like “Balabaika”.

Balalaika appeared in “Elysei”, a 1771 poem by V. Maikov. In the 19th century, the balalaika evolved into a triangular instrument with a neck that was substantially shorter than that of its Asian counterparts. It was popular as a village instrument for centuries, particularly with the skomorokhs, sort of free-lance musical jesters whose tunes ridiculed the Tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian society in general.

Balalaika family: In the 1880s, Vasily Vasilievich Andreyev [in Russian: Василий Васильевич Андреев] who was then a professional violinist in the music salons of Saint Petersburg developed what would become the standardized balalaika, with the assistance of violin maker V. Ivanov. The instrument began to be used in his concert performances.

Balalaika Family Tunings
Name Scale Length Tuning
Descant 46 cm [18 in] E E A
Piccolo 61 cm [24 in] B E A
Prima 66–69 cm [26–27 in] E E A
Secunda 68–74 cm [27–29 in] A A D
Alto 81 cm [32 in] E E A
Tenor 91–97 cm [36–38 in] E A E
Bass 104 cm [41 in] E A D
Contrabass 130–165 cm [51–65 in] E A D

A few years later, St. Petersburg craftsman Paserbsky further refined the instruments by adding a fully chromatic set of frets and also a number of balalaikas in orchestral sizes with the tunings now found in modern instruments. Andreyev patented the design and arranged numerous traditional Russian folk melodies for the orchestra. He also composed a body of concert pieces for the instrument.

The classification of the balalaika family was modeled after the orchestras of the era.  Starting from the highest-pitched balalaikas being the descant and piccolo, the lead melody instrument being the prima balalaika and accompaniment instruments secunda balalaika, shares the analogous role as viola in an orchestra. There have also been descant and tenor balalaikas, but these are considered obsolete. On the midrange to bass side of the family we have the bass balalaika and contrabass balalaika.

Prima Balalaika: The prima balalaika, secunda and alto are played either with the fingers or a plectrum [pick], depending on the music being played, and the bass and contrabass [equipped with extension legs that rest on the floor] are played with leather plectra. The rare piccolo instrument is usually played with a pick. Below is a table is a alternate tunings as used for the balalaika during V. V. Andreev’s time and today.

Alternate Balalaika Tunings
Name Tuning
Standard E E A
D Major A  D  F#
C Major C E G
G Major G B D

Construction: All balalaikas have three-sided triangular shaped bodies that are made from spruce, evergreen or fir tops; the backs made of three to nine wooden sections usually maple. The triangular body is assembled with the same process as lutes are created by use of the vaulted back although it terminates in an angle facing inward of the body where the strings are attached from three posts affixed onto the back of the instrument to the tuning gears at the head stock.

Having only three strings the head stock is of rather small size and shape. The tuning gears that are mounted on the back of the head stock, are not the same length and configuration as guitar tuning gears as they are set on an angle. They are typically strung with three strings and the necks are fretted in a chromatic scale. Some balalaika have six all metal strings. The addition of chromatic frets arranged by the semitone, was a design reformation that was spurred on by V. V. Andreyev. Who also applied this approach similar reformations on instruments such as the domra, gusli and other regional instruments.

Citations: Bibliography: Findeizen, Nikolai. History of Music in Russia from Antiquity to 1800 – Ed. Miloš Velimirović and Claudia Jensen. Vol. 1. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2008. P. 172 ; Прохоров, А. М., ed. Большая Советская Энциклопедия. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. Москва: Советская Энциклопедия, 1970. pp. 16-17 ; Prokhorov, A. M., ed. Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. Moskva: Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya, 1970. pp. 16-17 ; Шанский Н. М. Иванов В., В. Шанская,  Т. В. Скоморох Краткий, этимологический словарь русского языка. Пособие для учителя Под ред. чл.-кор. АН СССР С. Г. Бархударова. — М. Просвещение, 1971 p. 412 ; Shanskiy N. M., Ivanov V. V., Shanskaya T. V. Skomorokh, Kratkiy etimologicheskiy slovar’ russkogo yazyka. Posobiye dlya uchitelya, Pod red. chl.-kor. AN SSSR S. G. Barkhudarova.  M. Prosveshcheniye, 1971. p. 412 ; Аверин, В. А. Балалаечное исполнительство в Сибири: Опыт монографического исследования. Енисейский летописец 2013. pp. 31-33 ; Averin, V. A. Balalayechnoye ispolnitel’stvo v Sibiri: Opyt monograficheskogo issledovaniya. Yeniseyskiy letopisets 2013. pp. 31-33 ;

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