The hurdy-gurdy is the hideous musical lovechild of the violin, bagpipes and keyboard. It’s played by cranking a handle, which turns a wheel that excites its strings (like an infinitely long violin bow), and pressing keys which stop those strings along a fretboard to play melodies. Instruments of the type have been around for almost a thousand years.
There are a number of localised variations to the instrument; many types have drone strings, so there is a constantly held tone throughout a piece, and often there is a buzzing-bridge which adds a cutting rasp to the tone.
My favourite proponent of the instrument is Nigel Eaton; he seems to me one of those rare people who has mastered an esoteric art and then managed to ride that obscure talent to various wonderful places, he’s been in multiple films (if a casting agent needs a hurdy-gurdyist, it looks like he gets the first call) and toured with all sorts of folkish folk including Page and Plant of the sacred Zep.
From 1988 this is my favourite of his albums, it’s an absolute smasher.
How do I use this music in a game? For me the instrument cries busy town-square, evoking a feel of (occasionally discordant) noise and bustle with the merry vielist busking in the corner with their fascinating mechanical marvel.
Inspiration: Perhaps the busker, Tangol, is accompanied by her dancing sprite, Etiane, who is passing out the collection hat; maybe it has a secret; maybe they saw something happen in the square last time the drovers brought their sheep through. It was the eve of the shield-meet, wasn’t it?