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What Came Before The Piano? The Dulcimer

In this blog What Came Before The Piano? The Dulcimer you will have a brief overview of what the Dulcimer is and where it came from. Continue reading to learn more, and don't forget to click on the youtube link below to see it being played!

An example of a hammered dulcimer, what came before the piano? the dulcimer
An example of a hammered dulcimer

The Basics

There are two different types of dulcimer; the hand held and finger plucked Appalachian dulcimer or the floor standing hammered. The floor standing is the most like the piano and is played by hitting it with two mallets. The hammered dulcimer originated in the Middles East around 900AD and was based on the much earlier instrument, the psaltry. The hammered dulcimer came to Europe around 1500 and got its name from the latin dolce to mean sweet. It has strings which go over bridges held at tension to create a tone, which are vibrated back by the soundboard.

The Appalachian variety is much more similar to the violin family with 3 to 5 strings and is played with a bow changing the pitch using the fretted neck

How Does It Work

The strings of the dulcimer pass from a hitch pin over two separate bridges to the tuning pin. This double bridge allows for each individual string to play two notes, that of a perfect fifth e.g. C and G. As the treble and bass strings pass under each others bridges, there is no risk of hitting the wrong one and versatility of playing is increased. The player uses wooden hammers in oval shapes to hit the strings. The hammers are covered on one end - usually with leather - to create a more muted sweet tone, and uncovered at the other end to create a harsher brighter tone from the hard wood. The dulcimer is therefore capable of quite nuanced dynamic range and tonal contrast.

Most dulcimers are tuned to a diatonic scale so that all of the notes sound good together and cover 2 or 3 octaves. The dulcimer is considered fairly easy to learn to play once you understand the tuning and scaling, although as with many instruments can take time and practice to learn to master.

The Differences

The dulcimer does not have keys nor the sophisticated chain reaction of parts that lift the hammer to and from the string; instead merely an accomplished player holds the hammers and hits the strings. The dulcimer has two strings for most notes instead of three like the piano and many less tones available. The tuning is diatonic with no chromaticism like the piano, so it is more restricted in what it can play and the colours it can produce. As a small instrument it is very versatile for travelling and playing in venues. The dulcimer can be amplified by modern microphones but otherwise is a quiet instrument lacking in the pianos dynamic range.

Special Effects

Some people experiment with the different types of sounds available on the Dulcimer by changing the hammers. Some people use sticks or different batons for striking, whereas others change the leather end of the hammer and dip it in thinned lacquer to create a much brighter crisper tone.

An example of finger played, hand held dulcimers, what came before the piano? The Dulcimer
An example of finger played, hand held dulcimers

Above are examples of the Appalachian dulcimer which is closer in resemblance to the violin family.

We hope that this short blog What Came Before The Piano? The Dulcimer has helped to understand the basics of this beautiful instrument. Use the references below to gain a greater understanding and watch it being played.


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