The hammered dulcimer is a musical instrument which is an object of fascination here at UArts Libraries, as we now have two new staff members who are players, myself being one of them! This instrument has been used for centuries in various forms and has ancient roots, and yet its enchanting sound can still hold modern audiences in awe. Questions often abound when people come within earshot of the dulcimer. Many feel beguiled by its sounds but are unfamiliar with the outlandish contraption producing them. Here, then, is a quick history and guide to this remarkable instrument, written in hopes that the UArts community will be just as fascinated by the dulcimer as we are!
So what is this thing, and where is the hammer? The instrument itself is a trapezoidal box with two main bridges (though some contain several smaller bridges), with strings strung lengthways over one of the bridges while diving under the other. The highest pitches are located on the narrower upper part of the instrument, and the lower pitches toward the wider bottom. Dulcimers come in many sizes and ranges, with some being diatonic and others fully chromatic. No matter the size, they all have a plethora of strings, with each note being double-stringed. My own personal dulcimer has 64 strings. Knowing that, you can probably imagine that tuning can take a while, as each string terminates at a tunable peg. These instruments are played with mallets, referred to as hammers. This feature gives this instrument its distinction in nomenclature from another dulcimer – the Appalachian dulcimer, which, though beautiful in of itself, is unrelated to the hammered dulcimer in terms of development.
The North American hammered dulcimer’s roots are a subject of debate. Some claim that the instrument derives from an older European native, while others contend that the instrument’s ancient origins stem from the Middle-East. Most agree, however, that the dulcimer began as a plucked instrument and gradually transformed into one which is now hit by mallets. The English word for the instrument, “dulcimer”, comes from “dulce melos”, Latin for “sweet sounds” (the same word “dulce” as in the drink “dulce de leche”). As previously mentioned, the “hammered” in dulcimer comes from calling the mallets it’s played with “hammers”, and is not, as some suspect, a reference to the player’s state of intoxication. The dulcimer crossed the Atlantic with the very first English colonizers of North America. Here, it became a common instrument in dance and string band music, acting as primarily a chording instrument. As its development continued, it became the basis for the harpsichord and later, the piano. When affordable pianos came into the mainstream during the late 19th century, both Europe and the US saw a decline of interest in dulcimers. However, since the folk revival of the 1960s, dulcimers are now back on the scene… albeit in an abbreviated niche role.
Today, many dulcimerists specialize in traditional British and Celtic music, fairly similar to what early Euro-Americans would play. Many players can be seen at events such as Renaissance faires, historical reenactments, folk festivals, and even an Irish music session or two. Some of today’s dulcimer players have also expanded from the realm of tradition to experiment with limits of this powerful and evocative instrument, engaging more modern genres like jazz, blues, new age, and even rock and roll. I have done this in my own dulcimer playing, as many of my original pieces contain elements of Celtic stylings mixed with more modern chord progressions. I even amp up the hammered dulcimer for use in a rock band! This beautiful and compelling instrument is certainly full of possibility, and is waiting to be rediscovered by ears hungry for something different.
If you are compelled to give this instrument a listen or learn more about it, the UArts Music Library offers a smattering of resources on the subject. These include several books and CDs. Here are some good starters.
For more music, check out the Music and Performing Arts section of Alexander Street Press. Search for “hammered dulcimer”.
And, from Grove Music Online, two reference articles (with bibliographies) I used in writing this entry:
1. . “Hammered dulcimer.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.catalog.library.uarts.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2241395>
2. . “Dulcimer.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.catalog.library.uarts.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/08294>
–Mike Romano firstname.lastname@example.org