The oldest forms of kantele have 5 or 6 horsehair strings and a wooden body carved from one piece; more modern instruments have metal strings and often a body made from several pieces. Modern concert kanteles can have up to 40 strings. Modern instruments with 15 or fewer strings are generally more closely modelled on traditional shapes than the concert kantele, and form a separate category of instrument known as small kantele. The playing positions of concert kantele and small kantele are reversed, ie to the player of a small kantele the longest low pitched strings are furthest away from his body, whilst to a concert kantele this side of the instrument is nearest, and the short high pitched strings furthest away. The instruments have different though related repertoires.
The kantele has a distinctive bell-like sound. The Finnish kantele generally has a diatonic tuning though small kantele with between 5 and 15 strings are often tuned to a gapped mode missing a seventh and with the lowest pitched strings tuned to a fourth below the tonic as a drone. The Estonian Kannel has a variety of traditional tunings. Concert versions have a switch mechanism (similar to semitone levers on a modern folk harp) for making sharps and flats. Players hold the kantele in their laps or on a small table. There are two main techniques to play, either plucking the strings with their fingers or strumming unstopped strings (sometimes with a matchstick).
There have been strong developments for the kantele in Finland lately. Education for playing the instrument starts in schools and music institutes up to conservatories and the Sibelius Academy, the only music university in Finland. Even some artistic doctoral studies are being made at the Academy with traditional, western classical and electronic music. A Finnish luthiery, Koistinen, has developed also an electric kantele , which employs pick-ups similar as those on electric guitars. It has gained popularity amongst Finnish heavy metal composers, such as Amorphis.
In Finland's national epic, Kalevala, the magician Väinämöinen makes the first kantele from the jawbone of a giant pike and a few hairs from Hiisi's stallion. The music it makes draws all the forest creatures near to wonder at its beauty. Later, after losing and greatly grieving his kantele, Väinämöinen makes another one from a birch, strung with the hair of a willing maiden, and its magic proves equally profound. It is the gift the eternal sage leaves behind when he departs Kaleva at the advent of Christianity.