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Hammered Dulcimer
History & Background

 

The hammered dulcimer

- what is it;  where did it come from;  what type of music is played on it;  how is it played?  These are all good questions, and I will attempt to answer them and probably more.  Much of the information found in this article has as its source the New Havard Dictionary of Music. A full bibliography is found at the bottom of this page.

 

What is a hammered dulcimer?

The hammered dulcimer is a musical instrument of the zither family which is "sounded by striking rather than plucking" the strings.  There is another instrument called a mountain, lap, or Appalachian dulcimer, that is not struck with hammers, but strummed with a quill (traditionally), a pick, or the fingers of the right hand (unless, of course, one is left-handed, then one might turn the instrument around, re-string it, and strum with the left hand; but I digress.).  This mountain dulcimer should not be confused with the hammered dulcimer.  The picture above is of a present-day hammered dulcimer built by James Jones of Bedford, VA.

 

What does a hammered dulcimer look like?

The hammered dulcimer has, as do some of its other zither relatives, a trapezoidal-shaped sound box with metal strings running parallel to the long side of the instrument in sets called "courses" of 2 to 4 strings each.  The strings are divided into unequal lengths by at least 2 long, high bridges.  The first course of strings passes over the right-hand bridge and through a hole in the left-hand bridge.  The next course passes over the left-hand bridge and through a hole in the right-hand bridge, and so they alternate all the way up the instrument.  This arrangement produces two planes, slightly inclined, that cross each other in the middle (without touching, of course).  See the picture above for the general appearance of the instrument.

 

How is a hammered dulcimer played?

Picture of Hammers on James Jones Website The hammered dulcimer is normally played by striking with small wooden or light metal "hammers" (See picture from James Jones's website to the right.).  Another way to play it that I have seen and used myself is to pluck or pick the strings with one's fingers.  Normally, a dulcimer-like instrument plucked with the fingers is called a psaltery, and is made like the hammered dulcimer except the instrument is constructed to sound better when plucked with the fingers than when struck with hammers.  The hammered dulcimer is made to sound better being struck with hammers than being plucked with the fingers.

 

Where did the hammered dulcimer come from?

According to some people, the hammered dulcimer is an ancient instrument which existed in Biblical times.  This is due to the translation of the Greek word sumponyah in Daniel 3 as "dulcimer" in the King James version of the Bible (1611).  Others think, because of Carl Engel's 1864 theory that a bas-relief known as the "Procession of King Assurbanipal" depicted a man playing a hammered dulcimer, that the hammered dulcimer existed in Persia in the 10th century A.D.
 
But it did not exist in Nebuchadnezzar's time (605-562 B.C.), nor in Persia in the 10th century A.D.  The latest research, including that of Paul Gifford in his recent book The Hammered Dulcimer, A History, supports the belief that the hammered dulcimer developed from two other instruments in roughly the mid-to-late 14th and early 15th centuries (mid-to-late 1300s and early 1400s) A.D.  In his book, Paul outlines what he considers the most likely origin of the hammered dulcimer - that it developed from the middle eastern psaltery and, separately, from the string drum.
 
The psaltery is an instrument that dates from around the 11th century A.D., and is considered to be more like the instrument really referred to in Daniel 3 instead of the hammered dulcimer.  Paul Gifford says, "Prior to 1000 A.D. it is difficult to verify the existence of a true psaltery in either the European or Islamic worlds." (p. 11)  So, we date the psaltery from the 11th century A.D., though some evidence points to earlier instruments that may have been at least similar to the psaltery.  The psaltery was an instrument that looked much like a dulcimer, but was plucked rather than struck.  Why was the psaltery plucked rather than struck?  Why couldn't these instruments in the Bible and in the bas-relief have been hammered dulcimers?  One major reason is the kind of strings that were available for use at the time.

 

Strings for Melody

Nick Blanton, in his article, "The Origin of the Hammered Dulcimer Finally Not Explained, Part II", for Dulcimer Players News, discusses the reasons why hammered dulcimers were probably not possible for practical melodic use until the mid-14th century.  Nick says that to have a string that is suitable for striking with a mallet rather than plucking with fingers, it really needs to be a drawn wire.  Beaten wire has varying characteristics, "...hard spots and soft spots, and thin spots.  Uneven hardness and uneven diameter make for weak wire, that breaks easily; wire that was more suitable for genteel plucking but not hammering."  He goes on to say that drawn wire can be made longer and cheaper, with a more consistent diameter and hardness than beaten wire, all of which makes it stronger, and therefore, more suitable for hammering.  (I would suggest anyone interested in this subject should read Nick's article in full.  It can be obtained by contacting Dulcimer Players News, I believe.)
 
The strings available in Nebuchanezzar's time, and until the mid-to-late 13th century (mid-to-late 1200s) A.D., were first gut strings, then later on, beaten wire strings.  Gut strings produced the loudest and best sound when either bowed or plucked.  Nick discusses the beaten wire strings above.  Therefore, it was not until drawn wire technology was developed that strings were available of consistent diameter, and therefore sufficient strength to be put under high tension and quality to produce a clear, loud enough sound with which to play melodies as we know today.

 

Two predecessors, two "original" dulcimers

Two versions of the dulcimer developed separately at about the same time, one in France and one in Germany.  The version that developed in France descended from the psaltery which was also the predecessor of the harpsichord.  This version was called the doulcemér in French, the name probably being taken from the Latin dulce melos which means "sweet song".
 
The German version developed from the string drum.  This string drum is, curiously enough, also the predecessor of the present day tambourin à cordes found today in the French Pyrenees which is played with one "hammer" to accompany flute playing by the same player.  The string drum is the predecessor of the Hackbrett, the German version of the dulcimer known today.  Apparently, the German version overtook the French version in popularity and became the predominant version.  So, the origins of the dulcimer as we know it today were in Europe in the mid-to-late 1300s and early 1400s, making it roughly 650-700 years old.

 

Beyond Origins, or "Where's the dulcimer?"

Versions of the dulcimer can be found today all over the world, in Europe, in China, in Scandinavia, in Persia, in Egypt, in Mexico, and in the U.S.  As a result, there is a variety of music that can be and is played throughout the world on the hammered dulcimer in its various forms.

 

In Europe

In Europe, though dulcimers have remained mainly folk instruments, at least 2 versions of the dulcimer were popular on the concert stage, the pantaleon (built by Hebenstreit) in the 18th century and the cimbalom (built by Schunda) in the 19th century.

 

In the United States

In the United States, the hammered dulcimer enjoyed somewhat widespread popularity in the 1700s and 1800s.  Having been brought to America by settlers, the hammered dulcimer became a popular enough instrument that Montgomery Ward and Sear & Roebuck sold them in their mail order catalogs in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The last Sears & Roebuck catalog to include dulcimers in their musical instrument section was the 1902 or 1903 edition.  A decline in the popularity of the instrument began around the 1890s and continued until the 1930s.  This decline was due to the influence of people such as Lowell Mason who pushed the superiority of European art music over traditional music for a "cultured" people, and the violin and piano as more suitable for that music than the dulcimer.  But the playing of the hammered dulcimer never entirely died out, and the instrument was "revived" in the 1970s, I believe, by the efforts of Sam Rizzetta and others.  The current design of the hammered dulcimer was greatly influenced by Sam Rizzetta's development work during that time.
 
Today in the US, the instrument is enjoying a continuing popularity as people are becoming more interested in traditional ethnic musics or are intrigued by the wonderful sound of the dulcimer.  There are a number of instrument designers and builders in the U.S. today, as well as in the U.K., and a great number of workshops and festivals including, if not centering on, the hammered dulcimer.  For more info on this, see the following web pages:


The Festivals  page,
the Builders  page, and
the Cute Dog Music Links  page.

 

Bibliography: