by Sissel Morken Gullord

photo by Cecilie Owren

One of the oldest instruments in Norway, if not the oldest, is the bukkehorn. It is the horn of the billy goat, in use since the Stone Age.

Setra, the summer mountain farm, is where farmers take the animals in the summertime so that they get enough to eat in the pasture. In the old days, budeia, the milkmaid, took care of the cows and the goats there; she milked, made butter and cheese. Her instruments were the wooden lur and the bukkehorn. She used them for scaring and calling: scaring away the predators - wolves, bears, lynx - and calling the cattle and the goats. To emphasize - playing on animal horns is a human, world-wide tradition, not unique to Norway. 

Anywhere in the world where people have animals, in any culture, I guess that they have taken up a horn and wondered if they could make sounds from it. 

At all times, man has used horns to warn, to give signals, to scare, and to call. To communicate. They have been used in wars and conflict, as well as in religious ceremonies.

Horns from a ram or a cow, a buffalo or an antelope sound different than goat horns. In Norway, the billy goat is the main supplier of horns.

I focus on the Norwegian bukkehorn: this is my heritage, so few people are playing it, and the culture of budeias’ use of these instruments is not that far in the past.

It was not the historical facts or the strange instrument itself that evoked my passion for it. It was the sound. I was moved by this sound and got myself a horn, ready to explore the instrument. As a horn player, I of course have some advantages, like the lip technique and a way of playing that always searches for the tones to “ring”, to feel the richness of overtones in a way not all non horn players could. Another advantage I have as a natural horn player is a trained ear and practical knowledge of the natural tones, as well as the flexibility to “lip” tones upwards and downwards when necessary. And perhaps also the experience (or ability?) to let the instrument lead the way, not always fight against it.

When I started to play the bukkehorn, I had to play with it, not only on it. Maybe it has to do with personal interest, or maybe with the fact that I am a horn player (and not a trumpet player, for instance), but my focus on this instrument from the start has been the sound. I wanted to get inside the sound, to find the soul of the instrument, rather than to develop a fast or virtuoso technique. I found it natural to use the soft tongue-technique that I was used to on the natural horn, not the modern way of tonguing. I doubt there is one correct historical way of playing the bukkehorn, the history being what it is. I chose to follow my heart and ears.

For me, it has been a creative process learning to play the bukkehorn, with a different approach than I ever had to use when playing the modern horn. It is very basic and you may say, primitive, and it has very few tones and many limitations. So to get to the music, which is the main point in playing…I had to dig down to the real basics. Of both the instrument and my own musicality.

biri 1
photo by Hans Olav Granheim

In a strange way, these bukkehorns often sound best in minor. The range is about a fifth, more or less, and it is not fully chromatic. The wonder of the horns is that because of the billy goats, no horn is similar to another. The billy goats are quite like us- they are all different! That makes each horn unique - in size, shape, curves, structure - and of course how it sounds, which tones they have. Which sound and timbre. To learn to play the bukkehorn is to learn to play a new instrument every time. I have realized that I do not even think in the same theoretical way when I play those horns. The fingerings differ from horn to horn, and I do not have the same relation to which tones I play. I try just to be open and play it. Like singing. I guess you could approach it as you would a modern instrument and be theoretical about which natural tones are there or not, but I find it much more interesting and playful to use my ears and heart. As far as I know, no one has yet found a mathematical way of making these horns, due to the  aforementioned factors that make them unique. You never know until a horn is finished if it is a nice instrument or not. And even then, there is a lot to explore and research. This is where the magic lies. Of course, I admit that my sense of humor is also triggered by playing a strange kind of horn, with the smell and everything, and my historical passionate side enjoys the fact that this is the oldest Norwegian instrument we have.

As for the style - well, I guess that is quite personal. But a knowledge of the traditional music from my country is of course a necessity. In recent years, I’ve really understood how my singing experience influences my playing. I have always sung a lot in various styles: alone, in small groups, and in choir. The awareness of music made by voices is something I cannot emphasize enough. After all, the voice is our most natural instrument.

I am honored to be invited to the International Horn Symposium in Ghent this summer as a featured artist, and I will fill my lecture with some of the content of my TEDx-talk. I will also be happy to answer questions from the audience afterwards. Hopefully I can offer both insight and some musical experiences. In the late-night nocturnal recital, I will play Norwegian music, both on the modern horn and the bukkehorn. I will also sing, as I do in all of my concerts. I am thrilled that the IHS invited me and that they appreciate my versatile musicianship. I hope we can create a magical night together, with a musical focus on the raw powers of nature as well as the connection between the Norwegian tradition and modern music.

A Frozen magical journey from the Norwegian mountains | Sissel Morken Gullord | TEDxArendal

Sissel Morken Gullord’s website:

Sissel Morken Gullord is a Norwegian musician, singer and artist. She lives in Biri with a view to Lake Mjøsa. She is known as a passionate player of the Norwegian Bukkehorn and was headhunted to play in Disney's Frozen. She plays in "Lilyhammer" and recorded some tunes together with Steven Van Zandt, who wanted "the amazing Norwegian horn" to be heard in the NRK/Netflix TV series.

Sissel represents "Norway" in the turn-based strategy-game Civilization VI with her music.She was awarded the government work grant for three years from the Arts Council of Norway in 2015. She plays the modern horn, the bukkehorn, the wooden lur, the baroque horn and the classical natural horn. She sings traditional music, jazz, pop, rock, - she loves music and doesn't want to limit herself to one kind of style- she wants to play them all!

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