Steven Calantropio, President

The Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer is the closest thing we have to an instrument born and raised here; an all-American folk instrument.


An hourglass dulcimer
Hourglass Dulcimer. Photo Credit: Used with permission.

The musical history of America very much mirrors the population of the country; it is filled with immigrants. As people came to this country and settled here, they brought the musical tradition of their native land with them. It is hard to find a folk instrument whose development is completely American but the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer is the closest thing we have to an instrument born and raised here; an all-American folk instrument .

The mountain dulcimer is to be distinguished from its cousin, the hammered dulcimer, whose construction and playing technique are considerably more technically challenging and, therefore, not as closely associated with elemental music-making possibilities. This article will focus on the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer whose many names include the lap dulcimer, the plucked dulcimer, the fretted dulcimer, the mountain zither and even the hog fiddle! It is an instrument whose elegant visual beauty is matched by its pure, crystalline timbre; whose modest volume of sound is best suited for use in small group singing or solo entertaining.

One immediately notices the root of the instrument’s name; i.e. ‘dulce’ whose variants among Romance languages include ‘dulce’ (SP), ‘dolce’ (IT) and ‘dulcet’ (EN) all meaning ‘sweet’ and clearly alluding to the instrument’s unique timbre. The mountain dulcimer gained popularity as a folk instrument in America in the 18th century among the Scotch and Irish immigrants who settled the isolated hills and valleys of the Appalachian region. The instrument is still part of the culture in Appalachia and when traveling through the region, travelers will sometimes come across hand-made instruments being sold at a roadside stand. Oddly enough, there is no instrument in Scotch or Irish history that is similar to the dulcimer. As a rule, no instrument culturally springs up on its own without having ancestors related in timbre, playing style or visual appearance. The Mountain Dulcimer is no exception being related to a number of more intricate Scandinavian and European stringed instruments that are elongated in shape and employ the use of the drone as an integral part of the instrument’s sonority. The developmental path from these instruments to the emergence of the Mountain Dulcimer is still a matter of speculation.

Collection of Appalachian Dulcimers. Note the varying body shapes t.`
The dulcimer is considered a member of the zither family and can be strummed with a plectrum, picked with the fingers or on rare occasions, bowed. It is most often played by laying the instrument across the seated player’s lap with the headpiece containing the tuning pegs or gears to the players left. Positioning the instrument this way puts the melody string (usually doubled as with a mandolin) closest to their bodies. The remaining two strings are tuned to a perfect fifth creating the most elemental of sounds, the drone which is used as a static harmonic accompaniment in basic dulcimer playing style. A small rounded stick, termed a ‘noter’ is pressed against the melody strings stopping them against the neck of the instrument creating a series of diatonic pitches by sliding the noter up the sequence of fretted stopping points. The sliding of the noter emits a faint, high pitched squeal when moving between frets and this sound is part of the dulcimer’s overall tonal palette. Melodic patterns moving against a static drone replicates the most elemental of sonorities; one which is emulated in other drone based instruments such as the bagpipes, banjo, sitar, etc. The universality of this harmonic formula implies an innate harmonic appeal most likely based on the repetitions of the lowest harmonic partials of the ever-present overtone series.  Rather than being tiring to the ear, drone based music seems to become more intriguing the longer one is exposed  to it. This elemental sound, along with simplicity of playing technique accounts for the enduring popularity of the instrument.

As with all hollow bodied string instrument, sound escapes the resonance chamber of the dulcimer through sound holes. It is a very durable instrument and can withstand quite a bit of hard treatment without breaking in any way. I have carried a dulcimer in a quilted bag for hundreds of miles strapped to the luggage rack of my motorcycle without any ill effects other than a few scratches. Children as well as adults are also drawn to the visual allure of the instrument shaped with curves resembling the female body often along with heart shaped sound holes. Tradition tells us that the heart shaped cut-outs marked the instrument as one used in the mountain courting ritual. As the volume of sound coming from a dulcimer is small, the dulcimer was used to accompany singing, dancing or as part of a larger mountain ensemble play. The sound holes of modern instruments are also cut in other shapes that can indicate the maker’s identity and include diamonds, spades, clubs and traditional violin F holes. One might even see a two player instrument called a courting dulcimer, using two neck pieces facing in  opposite directions with a common resonance chamber. Two players, both with the courting ritual on their mind, would play the instrument at the same time, most likely  touching knees under the body of the instrument and thereby adding fervor to the music!

A "courting" dulcimer, which would allow a courting couple to play together without direct supervision, as long as the chaperon in an adjacent room can hear two people playing, all is well.
A “courting” dulcimer, which would allow a courting couple to play together without direct supervision, as long as the chaperon in an adjacent room can hear two people playing, all is well. Photo Credit: Used with permission.

My own interest in the Mountain Dulcimer began in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial celebration when I decided to collect and learn all of the primary folk instruments of the culture. Over the ensuing years as a public school music teacher, I employed the dulcimer as a highlight to my fifth grade American music curriculum which paralleled the district wide American history and culture social studies curriculum in that year. I slowly collected a set of low priced dulcimers, enough for half the members of the class to play while a partner watched and helped out before the instrument switched hands. We played and sang very simple diatonic folk songs in Ionian tuning, eventually evolving a more rhythmic strumming technique that gave the playing some drive and style. I offered after school sessions for those who grew more interested in the instrument. In this advanced group, we explored simple finger picking styles and developed harmonic lines to enhance the melodies they had learned. In a very trusting decision, I even allowed a few of the instruments to be signed out for the summer with the assignment that when borrowers returned to school in September, they had to play something for me they had learned on their own. A few students even asked for a dulcimer as a birthday or holiday gift and I was thrilled to direct their parents to music stores mostly on-line, that carried the instruments. All in all, it was one of the student’s most appreciated and remembered musical experience.

The dulcimer is a diatonic instrument; it is not able to play a chromatic scale. It is most often tuned as follows; the lowest string is tuned to a tonic note (most often a D1) and the middle string is tuned a perfect fifth higher to an A1 creating the sound of the drone. The two melody strings are tuned in unison to another A1 but of course their pitch is changed as the noter moves from fret to fret. Because of the pattern of long fret spacing (whole steps)  and short fret spacing (half steps), an Ionian or traditional major scale can be played by starting on the 3rd fret of the melody string (sounding a D2) and moving above and below it. Most modern dulcimers include an extra fret termed ‘6+’  or ‘6-plus’ which  allows for the playing of an additional 1/2 step sounding a raised 4th or diminished 5th scale degree above the tonic pitch. This is used in elaborating the scale as needed.

The elemental beauty of the instrument comes into play as the melody strings are re-tuned to create various musical modes. Re-tuning the melody strings to the tonic pitch an octave higher than the lowest string (D2) allows playing in the Mixolydian mode if the player uses the open melody string as the tonic pitch. Tuning the melody string to a C2 and using the 1st fret note as the tonic pitch provides the potential to play in the very expressive Aeolian or natural minor mode. In essence, the D – A drone supports any of the six elemental modes all using a tonic pitch of D  (D Ionian, D Dorian, D Phrygian, etc. ) as the melody string is re-tuned. What a simple yet elegant way to explore these colorful scale patterns which are the basis for so much American folk music.


Limberjack. Photo credit: Dawn Shurlow. Used with permission.

Another consideration is the potential for teaching all basic dulcimer playing techniques by ear, eliminating the need for notation reading. Students watch the instructor play and imitate usually requiring only a few comments from the teacher. They can learn rhythmic strumming by using speech patterns as rhythmic ostinati. Advanced players can strum the drone strings and play the melody string while beginners just rhythmically strum the drone strings.

As an added element, I purchased a couple of traditional mountain toys know as ‘limber jacks’ for a few students to use along with the dulcimer playing. Built to amuse children, the loosely jointed ‘limber’ man, woman or even animal dances gleefully on a lightly tapped flexible board to the rhythms of the playing. You can even run a ‘limber  jack ‘ workshop where students create their own dancing figurine.

Limberjack Collection- Photo Credit: A. Beckerman. Used with Permission.

Prairie Winds Toy Co. provides a nice selection of Limberjacks for purchase at affordable prices.

Prices for dulcimers range from under $100 for massed produced imported versions up to $1,000 or more for a hand made instrument using exotic or fine hardwoods. One caveat; avoid any instrument with a plastic bridge as the plastic often cracks and renders the instrument unplayable. There is even a dulcimer kit made by Backyard Music for about $50 where children can put together their own instrument from a kit using heavy duty cardboard as the resonator box. I have played such an instrument and the tone quality is surprisingly genuine.

Whatever your motivation, exploring the world of dulcimer playing will be an enjoyable excursion in America’s musical heritage for both children and adults.

One thought on “The Sweet Sound of the Dulcimer

  1. This was a fabulous well written article. The dulcimer is a sensual instrument with a sweet sound.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *