Background on that funky little Swedish box fiddle I’m learning to play

Notes I put together for a proposal on “A Pioneer Swedish Singing School: Teaching the Old Songs in a New Land,” a presentation recreating a 19th-century Swedish- or Norwegian-American hymn sing using an old-country box fiddle called a psalmodikon. It didn’t get funded, and I never finished the notes. But the proposal pulls together background on the psalmodikon that isn’t conveniently available anywhere else. So I’m leaving it up on my blog. To hear a sample (played inexpertly), please link to:

Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 3.22.29 PM

Demonstrating a replica of Esbjorn’s psalmodikon at Jenny Lind Chapel, Andover, Illinois

During the 1800s, Swedish- and Norwegian-American pastors used a one-stringed box zither called a psalmodikon (pronounced sal-MOWD-ikon) to teach country church choirs to sing hymns (psalmer) and chorales in four-part harmony. The Rev. Lars Paul Esbjorn, who founded Augustana College of Rock Island, Illinois, used one to teach Swedish folk songs and Lutheran chorales to seminary students at Augie, and they were played in wooden frame churches and immigrant sod houses throughout the upper Midwest. They became an iconic part of the immigrant experience.

In this 50-minute interactive presentation, retired teacher Peter Ellertsen demonstrates the psalmodikon and teaches his audiences a Swedish children’s song “Old Man Noah” (Gubben Noak), Lutheran psalm tones, beloved hymns in the German and Scandinavian chorale traditions and Anglo-American revival songs that were also popular in the old country.

Pete, whose primary instrument is the Appalachian dulcimer, demonstrates both Norwegian and Swedish-style psalmodikons, and occasionally plays a northern European box zither called a hummel and an Icelandic bowed zither called a langspil. All are quite similar to the dulcimer, and all were traditionally used to play sacred music in the old country and America alike.

Pete demonstrated the psalmodikon in a workshop titled “Pastor Esbjorn’s Singing School” during the 2015 celebration of the 155th Anniversary of the Augustana Lutheran Synod in Andover, Illinois. He has also led congregational singing in churches in Springfield and the Quad-City area.

Fee: Negotiable (I come cheap)!

Contact: Peter Ellertsen, 2125 S. Lincoln Ave., Springfield, IL 62704, email edmund.ellertsen85 — at —, telephone (217)793-2597.

A little background on Pastor Esbjorn, the psalmodikon and immigration from Sweden and Norway …

What’s a psalmodikon?

A modified version of the monochords long used to tune organs in urban churches, the psalmodikon (spelled salmodikon in modern Norwegian) was developed in Denmark in the 1820s as a teaching aid. It consisted of one string stretched lengthwise across a wooden soundbox. As far as we can tell, it seems to have been developed from the monochord, used at the time to tune organs and teach voice, but its origins are obscure, and it may have been developed independently at different times and places. The first to call it a psalmodikon and use it with numerical tablature (sifferskrift in Norwegian and American English) was Jens W. Bruun, a Danish teacher.

“It’s so simple, any cabinet maker can build it, and then it will perform anything that can be sung,” said Bruun, in an ad in the Aarhus Stiftstidende (diocesan Times) newspaper on Jan. 5, 1824. “One can learn to play it in the first hour, and in a second [hour] to play from sheet music.”

The Rev. Johannes Dillner, a Swedish pastor in Östervåla north of Uppsala, and Lars Roverud, a Norwegian music teacher, further developed it as new hymnals, or psalmbooks, were introduced in Sweden and Norway respectively.

Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 3.27.37 PM

Psalmodikon in museum at Bishop Hill, Illinois (black frets indicate sharps and flats).

Bruun’s psalmodikons were sold at music stores in Aarhus and Copenhagen, where they cost a rigsdaler (about 25 cents). They didn’t catch on in the city, but church musicians in Norway and Sweden, who had new styles of singing along with the new hymnals to teach their congregations, popularized the instrument in both countries during the early to mid-1800s. Roverud and Dillner worked on it, independently as far as we can tell, and each has a good claim to be considered the father of the psalmodikon in his own land.

In Norway, the psalmodikon usually remained a simple, boxy monochord. But especially in Sweden, it was influenced by a folk zither called the hummel and it was widely played outside of church — especially in rural areas and in “conventicles,” as informal gatherings of pietist dissenters from the official state Church of Sweden were known.

In fact the Nordiska Psalmodikonförbundet, a modern Swedish revival group, proudly claims the psalmodikon was the “the 19th century’s commonest instrument in Sweden.” Related box zithers were played in Swedish-speaking parts of the Baltic nations, where they were known as trough fiddles or gigas, and in Iceland, where tablature was adapted for the indigenous bowed zither known as a langspil. Immigrants from all of these Nordic countries brought at least a few of their instruments to America.

Esbjorn, a founder of the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod as well as Augustana College before he returned to Sweden and served as head pastor in Östervåla, played the psalmodikon, and the instrument’s use became part of the foundational story of the Augustana Synod, one of the precursors of today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

So what? Why does it matter?

This presentation comes out of my historical research into Scandinavian-American history and hymnody. While the psalmodikon is all but forgotten today, it’s an important symbol of the immigrant story in the upper Midwest; it suggests a degree of cultural hybridity (sometimes known as “creolization”) that modifies our understanding the process of assimilation described by Marcus Lee Hansen and other historians.

Swedish psalmodikon players at Esbjorn’s grave in Östervåla, Sweden, August 2016.

My research has led me to re-evaluate the “melting pot” theory, and with it Hansen’s thesis that the children of immigrants wish to forget their heritage and Americanize as quickly as possible. (For a detailed discussion, see my article “‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901–1925,” in the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.) While I still think both theories are basically true, I’m finding the process was more complicated and subtle than I had thought. Even in church music of the early 1800s — especially the Lutheran chorale tradition from 1517 onward — I find precursors of today’s cultural hybridity, creolization and globalization.

Front page of Hemlandet (the homeland), a Swedish weekly newspaper first published in Galesburg, Illinois, with psalmodikon tablature for Just som jag är (Just as I am).

Most psalmodikons were primitive, at least in America, and the old-country chorales they were used to teach mostly fell out of use after Swedish-American Lutherans merged into larger denominational bodies in the mid- to late 1900s and lost much of their ethnic heritage. But Illinois is a diverse state. By playing the instrument and teaching my audiences a simple folk song and Swedish chorale variants, I can open a window into the past and tell the story of how one ethnic group blended its musical heritage with others.

I suspect the Swedish-American experience was paralleled by other ethnic groups of other faith traditions, and I invite audience members to draw parallels with their own heritage. However, there are unique things about the Swedish-American community in Illinois. When the main body of Swedish immigrants came to America, they came first to Illinois, beginning at Bishop Hill in 1846 and soon spreading to Andover, Galesburg, Moline, Chicago and surrounding communities. Some of the most influential Swedish-American cultural institutions, including Augustana College, were in Rock Island, and their story is Illinois’ story too.

How was a psalmodikon played? What’s sifferskrift?

What made the psalmodikon so easy to play was a system of tablature called siffernoter in Swedish (numerical notation, cf. sifferskrift in Norwegian and by American psalmodikon players, who tend to be Norwegian-Americans). It used numbers to represent the degrees of the scale – 1 for do, 2 for re, 3 for mi and so on – corresponding to frets on the instrument. You didn’t have to read music to play sifferskrift tab.

The psalmodikons looked a little different in Norway and Sweden. (They’re spelled differently, too — thanks to a 20th-century spelling reform, the modern Norwegian spelling, salmodikon, is phonetic.) On Lars Roverud’s Norwegian instruments, the frets were numbered to correspond to a C major scale and removable “transposition sticks” marked off the appropriate numbers for the scales in other keys. In Sweden, pastor Johann Dillner didn’t bother with the transcription sticks. Instead, he designed a psalmodikon with chromatic frets marked off with lighter or darker wood in a diatonic pattern (i.e. that of a C major scale), reminiscent of the white and black keys of a piano, and the frets on a Swedish hummel — or an American dulcimer. To play in other keys, 19th-century Swedes using Dillner’s method simply retuned the single melody string.

A familiar Swedish Advent psalm, “Prepare the Royal Highway” or “Prepare the Way O Zion”(Bereden väg för Herran), at right, in Johann Dillner’s sifferskrift. The word means tablature, or “number writing.”

Norwegian or Swedish alike, the psalmodikon was ordinarily set on a table – or a teacher’s desk – and played with a bow. Both Norway and Sweden had new psalmbooks, or hymnals in the early 1800s, and church musicians used the instruments at first to teach new melodies and arrangements of the old chorales. Dillner published the melodies in Johann Olof Wallin’s Svenska Psalmbok in 1830, and in 1835 Roverud’s sifferskrift was used for a simplified arrangement of the state Church of Norways’s new chorale book, containing the music for the Norwegian psalmbook, or hymnal.

As time went on, gospel songwriters like Sweden’s Oscar Ahnfelt also published in sifferskrift, and the psalmodikon was used to teach country church congregations to sing confidently in four-part harmony. As Scandinavian immigrants began to pour into the upper Midwest of America in the mid-1800s, the psalmodikon was crucial to their early cultural life. Ahnfelt’s songs, in fact, were serialized in a weekly magazine called Det Rätta Hemlandet (the true homeland, usually just known as Hemlandet) published in Galesburg and Chicago.

Rural churches depended on the psalmodikon. No doubt typical was Paul Maurice Glasoe’s reminiscence of his father’s day teaching Norwegian settlers in Minnesota during the 1870s. “Music and note-reading had not yet found their way into the public schools of pioneer settlements. … What wonders patience and perseverance can work! Father played the salmodikon and by means of it he could grind out the melody–alto, tenor, or bass–to the different groups. And what a thrill it was when two parts could perform–and then all four!” Glasoe, a professor at St. Olaf College, interviewed another 19th-century church musician who said he couldn’t carry a tune but “learned to handle the salmodikon and by means of it his classes learned to sing the hymns and folk melodies very well.”

Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 3.08.15 PM

“A Mighty Fortress” (Vor Gud Han er saa fast en Borg) in Norwegian sifferskrift.

Occasionally the psalmodikon was used in services. The Rev. Eric Norelius, a protégé of Pastor Esbjorn’s, recalled the first Christmas sunrise service (Julotta) at what came to be First Swedish Lutheran Church in a rented room in pioneer St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Julotta 1860 was extraordinarily pleasant and edifying,” said Norelius, later a president and historian of the Augustana Synod. “The little teacher’s desk was tastefully covered, and the little room was radiant with light. John Johansson … was our parish clerk and organist, and a psalmodikon made out as our organ.” The music was lovely, as Norelius recalled it, and the psalmodikon was nothing if not practical.
“When we subsequently moved to another place,” he added, “one man took the pulpit on his back and another the psalmodikon under his arm, and the chore was over.”

Replaced by reed organs in churches in America and the old country alike, and by accordions in Swedish folk tradition, psalmodikons passed out of common use by 1900. A few people demonstrated them during the 20th century at local church suppers or Sons of Norway programs, but in time they were all but forgotten. Even so, their influence carried on – Gracia Grindal, hymnologist at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, found it in the choral traditions of ethnic churches like First Lutheran in St. Paul and in the confident four-part harmony singing in Swedish- and Norwegian-American congregations throughout the upper Midwest. [6]

“One still can find these primitive instruments,” she said at a 1992 Swedish-American hymn sing in St. Paul, “in old barns out on Swedish and Norwegian farms in this area, much misunderstood, but a deeply significant part of the Swedish song tradition in this country.”

One finds them more widely than that today, thanks to a modest ongoing revival of the instrument.

Revival — the psalmodikon today

Like folk genres as different as Nordic folk dance and the American mountain dulcimer, the psalmodikon has enjoyed a revival in the last 25 years or so, in the United States and Sweden alike. Clubs (forbunder in Norwegian and Swedish, give or take a diacritical mark over the o) meet in Minnesota’s Twin Cities and in Stockholm to play ensemble arrangements of traditional hymns and folk songs in four-part harmony. Both clubs have issued CDs of psalmodikon music. More information at:

  • The Nordic-American Psalmodikonforbundet has awebsite with background, sound files and an online “Psalmodikon Shop” at Available are a CD, a songbook, and instructional video and plans, parts and “Psalmodikon Building Tips” by Floyd Foslein, vice president. Psalmodikons and kits are also available from Musicmakers of Stillwater, Minnesota. Forbundet members have regular meetings in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.
  • The Nordiska Psalmodikonförbundet website at and Facebook page at have information about Sweden’s psalmodikon revival. Both are in Swedish, but you can get rough-and-ready translations (more rough than ready) by clicking on “See Translation” at the top of a post. Videos are posted from time to time on Facebook showing NPsF members playing the psalmodikon.

Nordiska Psalmodikonförbundet members at Östervåla parish, August 2016..