The hammered dulcimer is a stringed musical instrument with the strings stretched over a trapezoidal sounding board. Typically, the hammered dulcimer is set on a stand, at an angle, before the musician, who holds small mallet hammers in each hand to strike the strings (cf. Appalachian dulcimer). The Graeco-Roman dulcimer (sweet song) derives from the Latin dulcis(sweet) and the Greek melos (song). The dulcimer’s origin is uncertain, but tradition holds it was invented in Mesopotamia, as theIranian Santur or persian Santur some 2000 years ago.
Various types of hammered dulcimers are traditionally played in India, Southwest Asia, China, and parts of Southeast Asia, Central Europe (Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, Switzerland (particularly Appenzell), Austria and Bavaria), the Balkans, Eastern Europe (Ukraine and Belarus) and Scandinavia. The instrument is also played in Great Britain (Wales, East Anglia, Northumbria) and the U.S., where its traditional use in folk music saw a notable revival in the late 20th Century.
Strings and tuning
The hammered dulcimer comes in various sizes, identified by the number of strings that cross each of the bridges. A 15/14, for example, has two bridges (treble and bass) and spans three octaves. The strings of a hammered dulcimer are usually found in pairs, two strings for each note (though some instruments have three or four strings per note). Each set of strings is tuned in unison and is called a course. As with a piano, the purpose of using multiple strings per course is to make the instrument louder, although as the courses are rarely in perfect unison, a chorus effect usually results like a mandolin. A hammered dulcimer, like an autoharp, harp, or piano, requires a tuning wrench for tuning, since the dulcimer’s strings are wound around tuning pins with square heads. (Ordinarily, 5 mm “zither pins” are used, similar to, but smaller in diameter than piano tuning pins, which come in various sizes ranging upwards from “1/0” or 7 mm.)
This shift to the adjacent bridge is required because the bass bridge’s fourth string G is the start of the lower tetrachord of the G scale. If the player ascends the first eight strings of the bass bridge, they will encounter a flatted seventh (C natural in this case), because this note is drawn from the G tetrachord. This D major scale with a flatted seventh is the mixolydian mode in D.
The pattern continues to the top of the instrument and to the left-hand side of the treble bridge. Moving from the left side of the bass bridge to the right side of the treble bridge is analogous to moving from the right side of the treble bridge to the left side of the treble bridge.
This diatonically-based tuning results in most, but not all, notes of the chromatic scale being available. To fill in the gaps, many modern dulcimer builders include extra short bridges at the top and bottom of the soundboard, where extra strings are tuned to some or all of the missing pitches. Such instruments are often called “chromatic dulcimers” as opposed to the more traditional “diatonic dulcimers”.
In the Alps are also chromatic dulcimers with crossed strings, which are in a whole tone distance in every row.
Hammered dulcimers of non-European descent may have other tuning patterns, and builders of European-style dulcimers sometimes experiment with alternate tuning patterns.
The hammered dulcimer derives its name from the small mallets that players use to strike the strings, called hammers. Hammers are usually made of wood (most likely hard woods such as maple, cherry, padauk, oak, walnut, or any other hard wood), but can also be made from any material, including metal and plastic. In the Western hemisphere, hammers are usually stiff, but in Asia, flexible hammers are often used. The head of the hammer can be left bare for a sharp attack sound, or can be covered with adhesive tape, leather, or fabric for a softer sound. In the studio, for example, percussion legend Emil Richards used mallets made of wood that had a curve in which to place the fingers, sometimes wrapping cotton or silk string around the beating end to soften the sound. Two-sided hammers are also available. The heads of two sided hammers are usually oval or round. Most of the time, one side is left as bare wood while the other side may be covered in leather or a softer material such as piano felt.
Several traditional players have used hammers that differ substantially from those in common use today. Paul Van Arsdale (b. 1920), a player from upstate New York, uses flexible hammers made from hacksaw blades, with leather-covered wooden blocks attached to the ends (these are modeled after the hammers used by his grandfather, Jesse Martin). The Irish player John Rea (1915–1983) used hammers made of thick steel wire, wound with wool. He made these himself from old bicycle spokes. Billy Bennington (1900–1986), a player from Norfolk in England, used cane hammers bound with wool.
Hammered dulcimers, psalteries, pianos and harpsichords
The hammered dulcimer was extensively used during the Middle Ages in England, France, Italy, Germany, Holland and Spain. Although it had a distinctive name in each country, it was everywhere regarded as a kind of psalterium. The importance of the method of setting the strings in vibration by means of hammers, and its bearing on the acoustics of the instrument, were recognized only when the invention of the pianoforte had become a matter of history. It was then perceived that the psalterium in which the strings were plucked, and the dulcimer in which they were struck, when provided with keyboards, gave rise to two distinct families of instruments, differing essentially in tone quality, in technique and in capabilities: the evolution of the psalterium stopped at the harpsichord, that of the dulcimer gave us the pianoforte.