The work begins with a discussion about definitions of 'dulcimer', the various ways in which others have used the name, and how I arrived at the concept of an instrument having open strings which are selectively hammered by hand, or designed to facilitate such hammering. It then describes how I collected material, and how I dealt with it thereafter.
Chapter 2 deals with etymology, some 145 pronounced forms of dulcimer names in 215 spellings, grouped according to their sound and etymological roots, and where possible showing the earliest recorded use and whether each is practical or literary; some general characteristics are considered, and names for parts of the dulcimer, the player and playing techniques are also recorded.
Chapter 3 is a provisional history of the instrument, assembling material from very many fragmentary sources, and a few major essays, re-examining the hundreds of items collected, and restructuring them to a large degree as seemed necessary; the method in writing the history was to mention the first examples of innovations, to give an overall picture of each epoch, and to quote in full illuminating sources. The survey stops at 1800, from about which date regional characteristics as known today began to be established, these characteristics being discussed in the following two chapters.
Chapter 4 outlines the dulcimer in the British Isles since about 1800, drawing largely on my own field-work; seven regional styles are identified, and other dulcimer activity not identifiable with any particular area is considered, from before and after 1945. The material includes transcriptions of players talking and playing, photographs and drawings of instruments and their parts.

Chapter 5 considers the dulcimer in other countries since 1800, drawing much more on secondary sources - apart from Western Europe - but nevertheless presenting a view which is significantly more comprehensive than has previously been available.

Chapter 6 summarises aspects of structure and use, in the main presenting information which has already been discussed in chapters 3, 4 and 5, but along the third axis (features, rather than time and place).
Chapter 7 discusses in detail 18 controversies or misconceptions arising in the works of others; in the main body of the work I have described the situation as I understand it, while here I deal with points about which other writers express opposing views.

Three supplementary texts consider

  • a classification of stringed instruments relating to practical musical factors;
  • the European relatives of the Appalachian dulcimer ('fretted dulcimers');
  • and a reconstruction of the possible forms of a 14thC. 'trapezoid qanun'.

Seven appendices deal with

  • abbreviations
  • addresses
  • wire gauges
  • footnotes
  • discography
  • bibliography
  • index