Hammered dulcimer

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Hammered Dulcimer
Hammered dulcimer.JPG
a musician playing a Diatonic Hammered Dulcimer
String instrument
Other names Cimbalom
Four-hammer dulcimer
Hammer dulcimer
de: Hackbrett
it: Salterio
es: Dulcémele
uk: Tsymbaly
pl: Cymbały
fa: Santoor, Santur
fr: Tympanon
zh: Yangqin
ko: Yanggeum
kh: ឃឹម Khim
vi: Tam Thập Lục
th: ขิม Khim
tt: чимбал çimbal
Classification Percussion instrument (Chordophone), String instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 314.122-4
(Simple chordophone sounded by hammers)
Related instruments
Alpine Zither, Appalachian Dulcimer, Autoharp, Board Zither, Concert Zither, Psaltery

The hammered dulcimer (also called the hammer dulcimer, dulcimer, or tympanon) is a percussion-stringed instrument which consists of strings typically stretched over a trapezoidal resonant sound board. The hammered dulcimer is set before the musician, who in more traditional styles may sit cross-legged on the floor, or in a more modern style may stand or sit at a wooden support with legs. The player holds a small spoon-shaped mallet hammer in each hand to strike the strings (see Appalachian dulcimer). The Graeco-Roman dulcimer ("sweet song") derives from the Latin dulcis (sweet) and the Greek melos (song). The dulcimer, in which the strings are beaten with small hammers, originated from the psaltery, in which the strings are plucked. [1]


Hammered dulcimers and other similar instruments are traditionally played in Iraq, India, Iran, Southwest Asia, China, Korea, and parts of Southeast Asia, Central Europe (Hungary, Slovenia, 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 the United Kingdom (Wales, East Anglia, Northumbria), and the US, where its traditional use in folk music saw a notable revival in the late 20th century. [2]

Strings and tuning

Major scale pattern on a diatonic hammered dulcimer tuned in 5ths. HDulcimerScale.png
Major scale pattern on a diatonic hammered dulcimer tuned in 5ths.
An early version of the hammered dulcimer accompanied by luthe, tambourine and bagpipe. Dulcimer.png
An early version of the hammered dulcimer accompanied by luthe, tambourine and bagpipe.
The Salzburger hackbrett, a chromatic version. Hackbrett (photozou 168404790).jpg
The Salzburger hackbrett, a chromatic version.
A woman playing a psalterion. Ancient Greek red-figured pelike from Anzi, Apulia, circa 320-310 BCE. Psalterion 001.jpg
A woman playing a psalterion. Ancient Greek red-figured pelike from Anzi, Apulia, circa 320–310 BCE.

A dulcimer usually has two bridges, a bass bridge near the right and a treble bridge on the left side. The bass bridge holds up bass strings, which are played to the left of the bridge. The treble strings can be played on either side of the treble bridge. In the usual construction, playing them on the left side gives a note a fifth higher than playing them on the right of the bridge.

The dulcimer comes in various sizes, identified by the number of strings that cross each of the bridges. A 15/14, for example, has 15 strings crossing the treble bridge and 14 crossing the bass bridge, and can span 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.)

The strings of the hammered dulcimer are often tuned according to a circle of fifths pattern. [3] [4] Typically, the lowest note (often a G or D) is struck at the lower right-hand of the instrument, just to the left of the right-hand (bass) bridge. As a player strikes the courses above in sequence, they ascend following a repeating sequence of two whole steps and a half step. With this tuning, a diatonic scale is broken into two tetrachords, or groups of four notes. For example, on an instrument with D as the lowest note, the D major scale is played starting in the lower-right corner and ascending the bass bridge: D – E – F – G. This is the lower tetrachord of the D major scale. At this point the player returns to the bottom of the instrument and shifts to the treble strings to the right of the treble bridge to play the higher tetrachord: A – B – C – D. The player can continue up the scale on the right side of the treble bridge with E – F – G – A – B, but the next note will be C, not C, so he or she must switch to the left side of the treble bridge (and closer to the player) to continue the D major scale. See the drawing on the left above, in which "DO" would correspond to D (see Movable do solfège).

The shift from the bass bridge to the treble bridge is required because the bass bridge's fourth string G is the start of the lower tetrachord of the G scale. The player could go on up a couple notes (G – A – B), but the next note will be 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 same thing happens as the player goes up the treble bridge – after getting to La (B in this case), one has to go to the left 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.

The whole pattern can be shifted up by three courses, so that instead of a D-major scale one would have a G-major scale, and so on. This transposes one equally tempered scale to another. Shifting down three courses transposes the D-major scale to A-major, but of course the first Do-Re-Mi would be shifted off the instrument.

This 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".

The tetrachord markers found on the bridges of most hammered dulcimers in the English-speaking world were introduced by the American player and maker Sam Rizzetta in the 1960s. [5]

In the Alps there are also chromatic dulcimers with crossed strings, which are in a whole tone distance in every row. This chromatic Salzburger hackbrett was developed in the mid 1930s from the diatonic hammered dulcimer by Tobi Reizer and his son along with Franz Peyer and Heinrich Bandzauner. In the postwar period it was one of the instruments taught in state-sponsored music schools. [6]

Hammered dulcimers of non-European descent may have other tuning patterns, and builders of European-style dulcimers sometimes experiment with alternate tuning patterns.


The instrument is referred to as "hammered" in reference to the small mallets (referred to as hammers) that players use to strike the strings. Hammers are usually made of wood (most likely hardwoods such as maple, cherry, padauk, oak, walnut, or any other hardwood), 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. 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.[ citation needed ]

Several traditional players have used hammers that differ substantially from those in common use today. Paul Van Arsdale (1920–2018), a player from upstate New York, used flexible hammers made from hacksaw blades, with leather-covered wooden blocks attached to the ends (these were modeled after the hammers used by his grandfather, Jesse Martin). The Irish player John Rea (1915–1983) used hammers made of thick steel wire, which he made himself from old bicycle spokes wrapped with wool. Billy Bennington (1900–1986), a player from Norfolk, England, used cane hammers bound with wool.

Variants and adaptations

A piano Th. Steinweg Nachf. Braunschweig.jpg
A piano

The hammered dulcimer was extensively used during the Middle Ages in England, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, 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 would give rise to two distinct families of instruments, differing essentially in tone quality, in technique and in capabilities. The evolution of the psalterium resulted in the harpsichord; that of the dulcimer produced the pianoforte. [7]

Around the world

Tuning of a hammered dulcimer (southeastern Slovenia) Oprekelj - uglasevanje.jpg
Tuning of a hammered dulcimer (southeastern Slovenia)

Versions of the hammered dulcimer, each of which has its own distinct manner of construction and playing style, are used throughout the world:

See also

Related Research Articles

In music theory, a tetrachord is a series of four notes separated by three intervals. In traditional music theory, a tetrachord always spanned the interval of a perfect fourth, a 4:3 frequency proportion —but in modern use it means any four-note segment of a scale or tone row, not necessarily related to a particular tuning system.

Zither Class of stringed musical instruments

Zither is a class of stringed instruments. Historically, it has been applied to any instrument of the cittern family, or to an instrument consisting of many strings stretched across a thin, flat body – similar to a psaltery. This article describes the latter variety.

Autoharp Musical string instrument

An autoharp or chord zither is a string instrument belonging to the zither family. It uses a series of bars individually configured to mute all strings other than those needed for the intended chord. The term autoharp was once a trademark of the Oscar Schmidt company, but has become a generic designation for all such instruments, regardless of manufacturer.


The tsymbaly is the Ukrainian version of the hammer dulcimer. It is a chordophone made up of a trapezoidal box with metal strings strung across it. The tsymbaly is played by striking two beaters against the strings.


The langeleik, also called langleik, is a Norwegian stringed folklore musical instrument, a droned zither.

Appalachian dulcimer fretted string instrument

The Appalachian dulcimer is a fretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings, originally played in the Appalachian region of the United States. The body extends the length of the fingerboard, and its fretting is generally diatonic.


The trapezoidal yangqin is a Chinese hammered dulcimer, likely derived from the Iranian santur or the European dulcimer. It used to be written with the characters 洋琴, but over time the first character changed to 揚, which means "acclaimed". It is also spelled yang quin or yang ch'in. Hammered dulcimers of various types are now very popular not only in China, but also Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, Iran, and Pakistan. The instruments are also sometimes known by the names "santoor" and "cymbalom". This instrument had an influence on the Thai classical instrument, known as Khim (ขิม).


The garmon, is a kind of Russian button accordion, a free-reed wind instrument. A garmon has two rows of buttons on the right side, which play the notes of a diatonic scale, and at least two rows of buttons on the left side, which play the primary chords in the key of the instrument as well as its relative harmonic minor key. Many instruments have additional right-hand buttons with useful accidental notes, additional left-hand chords for playing in related keys, and a row of free-bass buttons, to facilitate playing of bass melodies.

Button accordion

A button accordion is a type of accordion on which the melody-side keyboard consists of a series of buttons. This differs from the piano accordion, which has piano-style keys. Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs categorize it as a free reed aerophone in their classification of instruments, published in 1914. The sound from the instrument is produced by the vibration of air in reeds. Button accordions of various types are particularly common in European countries and countries where European people settled. The button accordion is often confused with the concertina; the button accordion's buttons are on the front of the instrument, where as the concertina's are on the sides and pushed in parallel with the bellows.

Gravikord 24 string, electric double bridge-harp

The gravikord is a modern, 24 string, electric double bridge-harp invented by Robert Grawi in 1986, which is closely related to both the West African kora and the kalimba. It was designed to employ a separated double tonal array structure making it possible to easily play cross-rhythms in a polyrhythmic musical style in a modern electro-acoustic instrument. There is a similar instrument, also developed by Grawi, the gravi-kora, which is tuned identically to a traditional 21 string African kora.


The khim is a stringed musical instrument derived from the Mesopotamian or Persian Santur. It is similar to the Hammered Dulcimer or Cimbalom. This khim was introduced to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand from China, where a similar instrument is called yangqin. It is played with two flexible bamboo sticks with soft leather at the tips to produce a soft tone. This instrument can be played by either sitting down on the floor with the khim on the floor, or by sitting on a chair or standing while the khim is on a stand. The khim produces a bright and expressive sound when played. It is made of wood, with brass strings that are laid across the instrument. The Australian-born musician and vocal artist Lisa Gerrard specialises in the use of a khim hammered dulcimer, featuring its music on several albums and performing with the instrument live on tour.

Salterio is the Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese term for either of two types of zither: the hammered dulcimer or psaltery.

Triple harp

The triple harp is a type of multi-course harp employing three parallel rows of strings instead of the more common single row. One common version is the Welsh triple harp, used today mainly among players of traditional Welsh folk music.

Diatonic and chromatic Terms in music theory to characterize scales

Diatonic and chromatic are terms in music theory that are most often used to characterize scales, and are also applied to musical instruments, intervals, chords, notes, musical styles, and kinds of harmony. They are very often used as a pair, especially when applied to contrasting features of the common practice music of the period 1600–1900.


The Schwyzerörgeli is a type of diatonic button accordion used in Swiss folk music. The name derives from the town/canton of Schwyz where it was developed. Örgeli is the diminutive form of the word Orgel (organ). Outside of Switzerland the instrument is not well known and is hard to find.


The yatga is a traditional plucked zither of Mongolian. It is derived from Chinese guzheng.

Epinette des Vosges

The épinette des Vosges is a traditional plucked-string instrument of the zither family, whose use was confined to two areas in the Vosges mountains of France approximately 50 km apart: around Val-d'Ajol and around Gérardmer.

Damping is a technique in music for altering the sound of a musical instrument by reducing oscillations or vibrations. Damping methods are used for a number of instruments.

Santur hammered dulcimer of Iranian or Mesopotamian origin

The santur (Persian: سنتور‎, is a hammered dulcimer of Iranian or Mesopotamian origins.


The Indian santoor instrument is a trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer, and a variation of the Iranian Santur. The instrument is generally made of walnut and has 25 bridges. Each bridge has 4 strings, making for a total of 100 strings. It is a traditional instrument in Jammu and Kashmir, and dates back to ancient times. It was called Shatha Tantri Veena in ancient Sanskrit texts.


  1. "Definition of DULCIMER". Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 29 July 2012.
  2. Groce, Nancy, The Hammered Dulcimer in America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1983. Page 72-73.
  3. Rizzetta, Sam. "Hammer Dulcimer: History and Playing". Encyclopedia Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  4. "Traditional or Fifth-Interval Tuning". Dusty Strings. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  5. Rizzetta, Sam. "Luthier Spotlight Sam Rizzetta and Music, Dulcimer Sessions". Encyclopedia Smithsonian. Mel Bay.
  6. Gifford, Paul M., The Hammered Dulcimer: A History, Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2001. Page 81.
  7. Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain :  Schlesinger, Kathleen (1911). "Dulcimer". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica . 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 652.

Further reading