History of Dulcimers

If you really want to know about Dulcimers in the UK. The best source is David Kettlewell's website. David Kettlewell's doctoral thesis was 'The Dulcimer' (1976, now with updates!) It's so good remember to come back here afterwards. It also has lots of pictures of old Dulcimers. Compared to David Kettlewell the information presented here is insignificant and academically, probably completely flawed. All I do is make the things and I've learned a few bits and pieces along the way.

Black and White hammered dulcimer pic

Above - One of my earliest dulcimers.

My understanding is that the invention of the Dulcimer is usually attributed to the Ancient Persians whose empire included some areas now occupied by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course we cannot be very clear but it seems to have come from somewhere in that area. The earliest visual representation of a Dulcimer is in a 12th century manuscript made in Byzantium. The instrument was introduced into Western Europe in the 15th century. Because of the versatility of the instrument, it's ease of adaptation to different musical scales, its portability, and the explosion of travel. it spread to many different cultures and became a very popular instrument throughout many areas of the world.

Above - I restored this late 17th or early 18th century in about 2010.

The Hammer Dulcimer is a member of the Zither family of instruments, instruments having strings stretched over a box type frame but without a keyboard. Other members of the Zither family are Psaltery, Auto-harp, Qanun(North Africa) and Koto (Japan). Nomenclature The name Dulcimer comes from Greek and Latin dulce-melos meaning sweet sound but this name for the instrument is only used in English speaking countries. Interestingly, in Greece the word Santuri, (the instrument played by Zorba, in the book 'Zorba the Greek') is apparently related to the Ancient Greek word psallo (to pluck). In Iran the name of instrument is Santur >and in India, Santoor, (same name different spelling). Yang-chin meaning foreign string instrument) is used in China, in Central Europe, Hungary Etc., Cimbalom and derivatives of that name are used. In Germany the instrument is named Hackbrett which is also the name for a butchers chopping board, the look of someone playing a Hackbrett resembles someone, chopping at a chopping board. Dulcimer type instruments exist in many areas of the world and more often than not consist of a trapezoid box with strings stretched over, in courses (sets) of 2 to 6 and are usually divided by a bridge. The bridge splits the strings into two portions, on some instruments both sides of both bridges are playable, although more usually, the left (or treble) bridge is playable both sides. The Bass bridge is played to the left, and to the right side of this bridge are a set of unplayable notes, because they are often out of tune with the instrument.

The essential difference between Dulcimers of different countries is the way the instruments are made and tuned, this combination is what gives each member of the family a different voice. While this is true, it is also possible with minor amendments to technique and minimal adjustments to the instrument to create passable attempts at sounding culturally different. In this country, at this time, the interval between the left and right portions of the strings passing over the treble bridge is usually a fifth. In other countries they may be tuned anything between a semitone and an octave apart. The bass strings passing over the bass bridge are usually only played on the left side. On Music Magic Dulcimers, the bass bridge can be played both sides, the interval across the bridge being two octaves. The lower note on the left and the higher on the right. The advantage of this is that the sympathetic vibrations from the right side of the bridge are in harmony with the pitch of the fundamental note. This gives the bass notes more clarity than on traditional dulcimers, which can often sound quite 'coloured' from the inharmonicity of the notes to the right of the bass bridge being musically at best randomly related. Previously, these strings had sounded, high pitched, slightly random notes that were only useful for special effects! Now they can be used to fill out accompaniments or simply to extend the range of the instrument.

Diagram of string layout of a Hammered Dulcimer

On Dulcimers, the treble bridge is on the left of centre, the bass bridge on the right. The lowest sounding strings, the bass strings, are the longest and they are those to the left of the bass bridge, which is the one on the right. The next highest are to the right of the treble bridge and then the left of the treble bridge.  Strings pass over one bridge and under the other. The usual method of playing is to hit the strings with small wooden sticks. These are the hammers. A variety of different hammering techniques, like drumming techniques are used to produce chords, arpeggios, rolls and single notes. Non traditional techniques, such as brushing the instrument with things, or plucking the strings with the fingers, or a plectrum, can produce interesting and pleasing results.

The name Dulcimer (sweet sound) could feasibly be applied to any musical instruments, although perhaps on reflection not a Digeridoo. Over time confusion has arisen. A completely unrelated instrument which is played by strumming the strings has unfortunately, and confusingly, also acquired the name Dulcimer! This other Dulcimer imposter is really a development from the French and Belgian instruments Eppinett des Vosges. Other similar instruments exist which were originally of Northern European origin. To avoid confusion this other instrument is usually given a prefix such as â€ËœMountainâ€â„¢ or â€ËœAppalachianâ€â„¢.

The Psaltery, an instrument designed for plucking had become the instrument upon which the Harpsichord was based. When the keys of the keyboard are depressed a mechanism automatically plucks the strings allowing very full chords, and contributing to the development of the keyboard layout. Unfortunately, this method of note production did not allow for an expressive instrument like the Dulcimer. Of course composers and instrument makers did their best to overcome the lack of expression in the Harpsichord but eventually the piano became the most important instrument in the history of music.

F Schröter the inventor of the early piano was a friend of Pantaleon Hebenstreit who designed a large Dulcimer (and whose name Pantaleon was given to that particular instrument). Pantaleons instrument had very long, and wound, bass strings. The general effect of the size on the instrument coupled with the long strings must have produced a very full sounding instrument. J F Schröter's greatest achievement was in designing a key mechanism that struck the strings like a Dulcimer and had a damping mechanism that prevented all the strings sound sympathetically. Schroter cited Pantaleon Hebenstreit as his influence for his Pianoforte. The name Pianoforte (quiet, loud) shows what an effect the instrument had on music making, and expression, the ability to play loud and quiet must surely be one of the most important elements in music making. The Piano became such a successful instrument that its forbear the Dulcimer became very much a forgotten instrument. In fact, in England today surprisingly few people are even aware of the instrument, despite the fact that the sound of the dulcimer is still around them. The instruments are used frequently on television adverts and in background music for television plays and films. My ears are probably highly sensitively tuned to pick up the sound of dulcimer family, but I am constantly surprised at the frequency of use of Dulcimers when the general awareness of the instrument is so low. People alway seem to be so enthralled when they watch a Dulcimer Player.

Certain areas of the world still retain the Dulcimer as a very popular instrument, in particular Iran where there are daily broadcasts of Santur Classical music. In India, the Santoor player Shiv Kumar Sharmer led the way to classical acceptance for the instrument. whereas previously it had only been regarded as a Folk instrument. His method of playing allowed the instrument to be played in the classical style. He uses the instrument to play Ragas; where, in the tradition of Indian Classical music the instrument imitates the human voice. In Indian pop music the instrument is used frequently alongside other modern sounds. The instrument has also been popular with film composers such as John Barry and Lalo Schrifrin for use in TV and Film music scores. I think my first experience of the Dulcimer was its use in John Barry's theme tune to the 70's TV drama 'The Persuaders'. I have also heard Dulcimer family sounds used by Rap and Hip-Hop musicians as diverse as Dr. Dre and The Herbaliser.  Pop musicians are often trying to find different sounds Pop diva Britney Spears has used dulcimers and Trip Hop pioneers Portishead from Bristol had a huge hit with what was essentially a simple Cimbalom (Eastern European dulcimer) sample. The sample came from Lalo Schrifrin, film composers use of Cimbalom ) with their song Sour Times. Orbital used a Dulcimer in one of their hits 'The Box'. It reached number 11 in the charts in 1996. I have no idea if it was one of mine but I do know that Paul Hartnoll one half of orbital toured with one of my Maestro Dulcimer played by Joy Smith where they performed this song.

Dulcimer Hammers The sticks used to play the instrument are referred to as Hammers and can vary a great deal. Thus factors influence playing styles and therefore strongly influence the sound and musi-cultural qualities.  Some of the variables are ;- the amount of bounce they have, how long they are, whether they have felt or leather on the bottom, how heavy they are etc. Dulcimer-family players of different countries use extraordinarily different types of hammers.