Hammered Dulcimers

What is a Hammered Dulcimer?

The hammered dulcimer or hammer dulcimer is an ancient trapezoidal music instrument with several courses of strings running more or less parallel to the soundboard. At least one bridge is positioned so that strings are playable on both sides of the bridge to give different notes.

It is played by striking the strings with stick-like hammers.
(More Anatomical Details)

Dulcimers have many names in many lands: dulcymore, salterio, tsimbal, tsimbaly, santour, yang q'in, hackbrett and cymbalom. * The name "dulcimer" is derived from Latin, meaning "sweet sound". Hammered dulcimers were popular in England during the reign of James I, when the Bible was translated into English as the King James Bible. The dulcimer was mentioned in the Book of Daniel 3:5 among other instruments "..the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick..." The word in the original Hebrew text is now known to mean something other than "dulcimer"; and it is believed the King James translators were doing the best they could with knowledge available to them at the time. (* For pictures of some of the different types of national and historic variations of the instrument, see builder and researcher Gillian Alcock's Australian Dulcimer Page.)and the historic dulcimers on this site.

What It's Not

It's Not a Psaltery

Psalteries do have strings running more or less parallel to the soundboard, sometimes many courses of strings. Though they come in many shapes, including triangular and "hog-nosed" (instrumento di porco), some are trapezoidal. The distinction is primarily the manner of playing the instrument. Psalteries are plucked (and more recently, bowed), not hammered or struck.

Baroque Spanish Ensemble with psaltery (paslaterio) player - right front.

It's Not an Appalachian Dulcimer

The Appalachian Dulcimer, also known as the "mountain", "lap" or "fretted" dulcimer is a more modern instrument which was born in the Appalachian mountains. It appears to have ancestral ties to earlier German and Scandinavian instruments, and to the French epinette de Vosges. The German scheitholt was known in early North America, and played by immigrants from German speaking countries. The scheitholt may be the most direct ancestor of the Appalachian dulcimer.

The most likely explanation for the application of the name "dulcimer" to the Appalachian dulcimer is that the name for the Appalachian instrument was taken from the Biblical reference to the hammered dulcimer in Daniel 3:5, King James Version. The name "dulcimer" is more melodious to the ear than the word "scheitholt".

In recent years, the Appalachian dulcimer has undergone a revolution in both construction and playing styles.

Appalachian, mountain or lap dulcimer

It's Not A Zither

Around the turn of the 20th Century, a German music scholar classified hammered dulcimers as members of what he called the "zither family". The German/Austrian/Swiss concert zither was popular at the time in German speaking countries. A century or so earlier, "zither" was an alternate German term for "cittern", an instrument with a fretted neck like guitars, lutes and mandolins.

German Concert Zither, in its case

The zither is not trapezoidal; and some of the strings cross a fretboard similar to a guitar's.

The "zither family" classification ignores history (the hammered dulcimer is a much older instrument); construction (the zither has fretted melody strings and no central bridges); and playing technique (zithers are plucked and fretted, not struck). Both hammered dulcimers and concert zithers, like psalteries, harpsichords and pianofortes, do have free strings running parallel to the soundboard. (Harps, in contrast, have free strings perpendicular to the soundboard.) The "zither family" classification still crops up today, though it is by no means the only instrument classification nomenclature in use, nor is it particularly useful for understanding the history of the hammered dulcimer.

Just for fun, one could try a classification based on contemporary instruments, in which the dulcimer is classified as a "non-electric, hollow-body, fretless, neckless Stratocaster with extra bridges and extra strings played by striking the strings, in some cases on both sides of a single bridge".