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Discover the Lithuanian kanklės (Guest post - Emilija Karaliūtė)

Emilija Karaliute - kankles

Lithuanian musician Emilija Karaliūtė specialises in performing classical/folk music and more with a unique traditional instrument: the kanklės. In this guest post, learn all about the origin and particularities of this special instrument!


Sound Garden : classical music immersion

First, a short word about Sound Garden. Founded by classical singer Kayla Collingwood, Sound Garden is an online hub to engage with classical music, no matter your age or level of knowledge or experience! Through online content, digital products, and more, Sound Garden's aim is to provide resources for discovering classical music in all its forms.


Lithuanian music and the kanklės

Kankles, Baltic instruments

Lithuania, located in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, boasts a rich cultural heritage reflected in its unique customs. Lithuanians strive to preserve these customs through folk dancing, traditional music, art, and other means. The country’s dedication to preserving its history is evident in events such as the Song and Dance Celebration, which brings the nation together to showcase and celebrate its longstanding traditions; the year 2024 marks the celebration's centenary anniversary.

Lithuania has its own national instrument, the kanklės, which belongs to the Baltic Psaltery family. This includes instruments such as the Latvian kokles, Estonian kannel, Finnish kantele, and Russian gusli, among others. The kanklės is a traditional instrument which carries a beautiful and significant message. When a family member died, Lithuanians would go to the forest and cut a tree to make the kanklės; they believed that whenever you played the instrument, the dead person spoke through the strings. Following this heartfelt message, it is easy to see why it has been dubbed the "singing tree" by some!

Kanklės with 5, 7, 9, or 12 strings originated in the XV century and were initially used to accompany church singing and later in folk music. In 1964, attempts were made to transform traditional kanklės into concert kanklės, showing a desire to integrate the instrument into Western Europe's classical music scene. The kanklės, also known as concert kanklės due to its use in concert settings, has 29-32 strings that span over four octaves. The added strings and chromatic levers on the kanklės allow players to expand their repertoire by adapting pieces written for other instruments, such as piano, harp, marimba, or any other instrument with two staves. 


Insights from a kanklės specialist

As a musician who specialises in playing this unusual instrument, it is very interesting to follow and analyse the process of arranging a well-known classical piece for the instrument that it was never meant to be played on. I enjoy playing classical music by renowned composers like Debussy, Hasselmans, Handel, or Bach - but that means that these pieces were written before the concert kanklės even existed! That is not to say that the pieces cannot be performed on this traditional instrument; they simply need to be applied effectively.

Every instrument has limitations, such as octave range or some technique restrictions; what matters is how you 'battle' these limitations and use them to your advantage. I typically have to bring up lower notes an octave, because the instrument does not have that many bass notes. To maintain a smooth flow in music, we may need to remove some notes due to chromatism levers on the side of the kanklės that need to be moved up or down while playing.

Playing classical music on the kanklės can be challenging. If we take any of Debussy's pieces as an example, we can see that he mainly wrote for the piano, and the techniques for the piano and strings are very different. However, my perspective on the kanklės’ limitations has changed, I no longer prioritise performing the piece in the same way as a pianist would. Because I am already performing a piece that was not written for my instrument, I believe it opens up possibilities for limitless interpretation.


Find out more

I am now a dedicated classical music performer in London; I came to the UK from Lithuania with the goal of popularising a relatively unknown instrument. I am a classically trained musician with a folk fusion - the subtitle of my personal website ( is 'Where Classical Meets Folk', and that is because I explore my journey of how a traditional instrument coming from the XV century that was primarily used to play folk music evolved and began to discover its possibilities within the context of classical music.

For more on my experience playing the Lithuanian national instrument kanklės in London, UK, visit my newly launched website:


Sound Garden

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