Dulcimer (Hammered)

Geographic Region: North America
Country of origin: United States
Classification: Chordophone
Is an Ensemble?: No
Related Instruments: Dulcimer (Hammered)

Author: Will Northlich


The Hammered Dulcimer

Physical Description
The hammered dulcimer is a trapezoidal shaped chordophone instrument with sets of double strings stretched over a sounding board. On either side of the hammered dulcimer are two side bridges, which elevate the strings as they leave the metal tuning pins that are arranged in groups as blocks. Two additional bridges (treble on the left, bass on the right) are placed on the soundboard to further elevate the strings. Some older designs of the dulcimer have only one bridge in the middle, but double bridge instruments are more common due to their greater versatility. Hammered dulcimers come in a variety of sizes and string counts, but the two most common are the 12/11 and the 15/14, so named for the number of string pairs - or courses - on the treble and bass bridges, respectively.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly when the hammered dulcimer first came into existence. Many countries and cultures have a musical heritage that includes unfretted string instruments that are hit or plucked. The direct ancestor of today's dulcimer is the psaltery, an instrument that originated in Asia Minor and spread through Europe during the Middle Ages in such countries as England, France, Holland, and Spain (Mason 1977). Early versions of the dulcimer include the Hackbrett (Germany), santur (Middle East), and cimbalom (Hungary). In addition to Europe and North American, a variety of instruments similar to the dulcimer can be seen throughout Asia and the Middle East. Some of the current-day examples of instruments similar to the dulcimer and their related countries include:

Italy - dolcimela

Denmark - hakkegraet

Poland - cymbal, cymbalky

Ireland - teadchlar, tiompan

Thailand - khim

China - yangch'in/yangqin

Iran - santur

India - santoor

Dulcimers are tuned similar to pianos. Special wrenches - most common is the T-handle wrench - are used for tuning. Wrenches fit over the metal hitch pins, which are adjusted to the desired pitch. As the strings of the hammered dulcimer are usually found in pairs, each set of strings is tuned in unison, resulting in the aforementioned course.

The dulcimer has two sets of string courses - treble and bass - that run the width of the instrument. The treble courses pass from the left side over the treble bridge and under the bass bridge. This yields two pitches that can be sounded on either side of the treble bridge. The bass courses pass from the right side over the bass bridge and then under the treble bridge. This just yields one pitch, struck on the right of the bass bridge (Groce 1983: 3).

The most common tuning interval for a treble course is a fifth from right to left across the treble bridge because of its placement on the soundboard 1/3 of the distance between the two side bridges (Mason 1977). The treble bridge may be placed elsewhere to yield other intervals. Strings on the bass bridge are tuned independently of the treble bridge. Tuning options for bass notes can be an octave below the right hand portion of the treble strings, or a 4th below, hence an octave below the left hand portion of the treble strings. Since there are ample bass courses to overlap the treble notes, certain courses may be tuned down a half step to provide extra semitones and increase chromatic possibilities (Kettlewell; Groce 1983).

Strings are tuned diatonically in major scale sequences from bottom to top. Traditional scale tunings are A major, C major, D major, F major, and G major. E major, E minor, B minor, A minor, D minor, and F# minor. Alternate major scale modes are additional tuning possibilities. Below is a diagram of a North American diatonic tuning⎯i.e. fifth-interval tuning⎯of a 12/11 string hammered dulcimer (tuning begins on C# at the bottom of the diagram. The left hand column indicates the notes on the left side of the treble bridge, the center column indicates notes on the right side of the treble bridge, and the right hand column indicates notes on the right bass bridge (Mason 2001:11):


C______F_____C--octave above

B______E_____B flat






C#_____F#____C--middle C




Playing Technique
The hammered dulcimer is commonly positioned on a slanted stand in front of the sitting or standing player (although dulcimers can be played on a flat surface) with the long end at the bottom.

The player strikes the string courses with special mallets called hammers, which are held loosely between the thumb and forefinger. Hammers are thin strips of firm or flexible wood (although many types of materials can be used, wood is most common) with curved or oval heads. The hammer head can be covered - piano felt is common - or left bare. Hammer lengths and style vary from culture to culture. For example, American dulcimer hammers may have oval felt heads at 8.5 inches in length, while Persian santur hammers have bare heads with special finger holes at the ends, in addition to being much thinner and one or two inches shorter.

The skilled player can maintain melodies and harmonies simultaneously due to the organization and position of pitches on the sound board and the dulcimer's wide pitch range. Chordal effects can be achieved by striking two string courses together. Players can control the string rebound of the hammers against the strings, opting for single pitches or rapid tremolos - also known as "rolls" - from course to course.

Written music for the hammered dulcimer commonly uses standard treble clef Western musical notation. Hammered dulcimer tablature is an alternative method of notation. String courses can be represented by numbers (much like gamelan cipher notation, only more extensive) in parallel with the original Western notation or alone.

Different cultures have their own ciphers (with their own history) for playing and notating music on the dulcimer. For example, in playing traditional Chinese music, yangqin players use jianpu, a numbered musical notation based on a system devised by the French music theorist Emile Joseph Maurice Cheve (1804-1864) and subsequently introduced into China via hymnbooks by Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century (Thrasher et al. 2012).

Due to its many iterations and its long history, the hammered dulcimer has been used in many different situations for many purposes. The dulcimer entered through the back door of most societies by means of minstrels and ostracized minorities (Gifford 2001). Every variety of dulcimer has its own musical tradition. For example, the Hackbrett was used by rural musicians and beggars in German-speaking areas; the santur was played by harem and court musicians in the capital cities of the Middle East (ibid).

The American hammered dulcimer experienced a revival in the mid twentieth century (Groce 1983) and, in the 1980's, it became more commercially available due to an increase in dulcimer makers in the U.S. The earliest record of a dulcimer in colonial America (1717) shows it as a domestic instrument largely played by young women of wealthy families (Gifford 2001: 240-242). The American dulcimer's popularity and independence as a local instrument grew in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to their ease of construction, playability, and sturdiness. Tariffs imposed on imported musical instruments may have contributed to an increase in local manufacture of instruments (Gifford 2001: 243).

Nineteenth century players of the dulcimer lived mainly in rural areas - using it to accompany the fiddle for dancing - and more infrequently at society balls. The biggest category of mid-eighteenth century dulcimer music is that of dance tunes - such as "Money Musk," "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Copenhagen Waltz," "Haste to the Wedding" - and marches and patriotic tunes such as "Yankee Doodle," and "Washington's March" (Gifford 2001: 252-259).

The dulcimer's revival has been credited to performers such as Elgia C. Hickok (1894-1967), founder of the Original Dulcimer Players Club (the term "Original" was chosen to distinguish the hammered dulcimer from the plucked Appalachian dulcimer), and Russell Flaherty, organizer of the Mountain Dulcimer Club (1971) (Groce 1983:72). These performers as well as a growing number of practitioners and dulcimer makers have brought the dulcimer to the attention of a greater public. Today, the hammered dulcimer can be seen and heard being played by street musicians, in folk festivals, movies, television, and sold by online retailers. Its repertory has expanded from dance and patriotic songs to original folk music, pop music, and modern compositions.

Galpin, Francis W. 1932. Old English Instruments of Music: Their History and Character. 3rd ed., rev. London: Methuen.

Gifford, Paul M. 2001. The Hammered Dulcimer, A History. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Groce, Nancy. 1983. The Hammered Dulcimer in America. Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology, no. 44. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Kettlewell, David. 2012. "Dulcimer." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/08294 (accessed 27 September 2012).

Leach, John. 1968-1969. "The Dulcimer." The Consort 25: 390-395.

_________. 1978. "The Psaltery and Dulcimer." The Consort 39: 293-301.

Marcuse, Sybil. 1975. A Survey of Musical Instruments. New York: Harper & Row.

Mason, Phillip. 1977. The Hammered Dulcimer Instruction Book. Crosby, Tennessee: Crying Creek Publishers.

Thrasher, Alan R., et al. 2012. "China: History and Theory." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/43141pg2?q=jianpu&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (accessed 25 September 2012).


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