CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.1: Definitions

1.1.1: How others have defined dulcimers

- A standard classification?

The first question to be answered here is "is there a standard classification system for musical instruments?"; and indeed, scholars are not even agreed on this most fundamental of points. Mark Lindley, in his work as 'instruments' editor for the New Grove's Dictionary considers the work of Hornbostel and Sachs (translated by Anthony Baines and Klaus Wachsman (1)) to be unquestionably the standard reference point (2) and although Nettl discusses various approaches, he still refers to their system as "the standard classification"(3).

On the other hand, Montagu & Burton refer to this same system as "little used" (4), and did not even consider it a true classification, but rather a key(5); the number of alternative systems which have been used (some examples of which are listed below) testify to the lack of standardisation:

- Galpin (1937)
- Panum (1939)
- Donington (1949, 1954)
- Finlay (1953)
- McColvin (based on Dewey) (n.d.)
- Montagu & Burton (1971)
- Brown & Lacelle (1972)
- Baines (1961, 1966, 1968)

Many authors ascribe struck technique to the dulcimer and a plucked technique to the psaltery, quoting Sachs (6) (such a definition is not actually inherent in the Hornbostel/Sachs classfiication system as given by Baines & Wachsman: Hackbrett is mentioned as an example of a box zither, alongside zither and pianoforte and there is no mention of either dulcimer or psaltery; the plucked and struck techniques are indicated by optional suffixes for any chordophones). This distinction does not appear to have been made by earlier writers in English, but only those using French and German, and the translation of such terms as tympanon and Hackbrett as dulcimer, and psaltérion and psalterium as psaltery is by no means always appropriate, as discussed further in Chapters 3 and 7.

Most writers have defined the dulcimer by referring to other instrument names, an approach which is only meaningful if the other names have themselves already been unambiguously defined. In the nature of things this has, of course, rarely been the case, and there is to be found a fascinating diversity of usages:

- some writers have considered 'dulcimer' to correspond, exactly or approximately, to other instrument-names
- some say that it is a variation of another type
- while some have considered other instruments to be variations on 'the dulcimer'
- yet another approach is that which places 'dulcimer' side by side with other instrument-names, in mutually exclusive groupings.

Of those who equate the dulcimer with other instruments, Matthew considered it to be a psaltery:

"A favourite instrument was the dulcimer which even now may occasionally be met with. This instrument was also known as the psaltery"(7);

while Ogilvie cast the net even wider:

"In modern times the name is given to divers instruments, used by street musicians and others, of various shapes".(9)

Dulcimers have been considered variant types of psaltery and piano:

"it was, in the sixteenth century, customary to use beaters instead of the plectrum in Germany. From that moment a distinction was drawn between the hammer-psaltery (in Italy called Salterio tedesco, in Germany, Hackbrett and in England, Dulcimer and the true psaltery" (10);

trapezoid ...
double psaltery (arpanetta) ...
struck (that it, a dulcimer ....)" (11)

"a kind of hand-piano ...."(12)

On the other hand, the psaltery is sometimes considered to be a kind of dulcimer:

"Psaltery: A dulcimer, played with the fingers or a plectrum instead of by hammers"(13);

"... the psaltery ... could be played with the fingers, like a harp, or with a plectrum, like a zither, or with two little knob-sticks, like the dulcimer. Mersennus (b.1588) also identifies the psaltery with the dulcimer". (14)

It seems that the name 'psaltery' was almost totally out of use in English as a name for real instruments, between the end of the Middle Ages (1512 is the last reference quoted by Carter (15)) and the present era of scholarship; the exception is the MS of James Talbot, who lists dulcimer and psaltery side by side, but in the absence of a description such a listing is not very meaningful. It is only later writers who are accustomed to consider the two as similar but distinguished by their playing techniques, struck and plucked: such is the approach of Pulver (16), OED (17), Galpin (18), Sachs (6), Bessaraboff (19), Baines (20) and Marcuse (21), although Pulver mentioned that there were also differences in stringing which "a most careful observer"(16) might notice; it may have been this distinction which Bessaraboff had in mind when he mentioned the dulcimer as "distinctly recognisable" from the psaltery, from about 1400 (19). Chappell (1859) expressed it rather delightfully:

"... in the fourteenth century .... the dulcimer differed chiefly from the psaltery in the wires being struck, instead of being twitted by a plectrum, or quill, and therefore requiring both hands to perform on it" (22)

(The question of whether or not there actually was a dulcimer in the 14th century is not our concern here, but is discussed in Chapter 7.)

It is worth noting, in parentheses, that a number of writers have evolved systems in which dulcimer or psaltery find no place at all: examples are McColvin and Finlay.

Among writers using other languages, we find Kürzinger in German contrasting struck Hackbrett with plucked Psalterium (quoted in Chapter 3.5), while French writers seem to have been divided in their opinions as to the natures of psaltérion and tympanon for each has been described as both struck and plucked; similarly, the two have been variously considered to be mutually exclusive, and inclusive, one of the other:

- LaBorde illustrates a struck tympanon and a plucked psaltérion (23)

- while quite the opposite view is expressed by Furetiére:

"tympanon ... en usage en Allemagne .. Qu'on touche avec une plume, qu'on appelle icy psalterion"


"psalterion ... On le touche avec une petite verge de fer, ou un baton recourbé".(24)

Some writers mention both techniques, of whom Mersenne was one (quoted in Chapter 3.5.), and Kastner considers that "le tympanon n'est qu'une varieté du psaltérion", and adds reassuringly that "en point de vue generale on ne commet point d'erreur en confondant les deux instruments", 'from a general point of view, no error is committed at all in confusing the two instruments.'

Similar situations exist in discussions of the oriental relatives of the dulcimer: instruments named svaramandala, satatantri vina and katyayana vina are identified variously as dulcimers and as psalteries (see Chapter 5, India), and Sambamoorthy says that katyayana vina "became the santir in Persia" (where it always seems to have been struck) "and Psaltery in the Bible" (generally considered to have been a harp: see Chapter 7.17) (25).

Panum simplifies the problem drastically by ignoring playing technique in her nomenclature, and using the term santir for anything with a shape which might be related to the trapeze (26), and yet omitting it completely from her discussion of literary evidence and her conclusions. (27)

fig. 2 Appalachian dulcimer

click for a closer view

Two rather distant relatives of the 'zither' family (as Sachs and his school would say) are also called 'dulcimer':

- the fretted instrument of the Appalachian mountains - the instrument a majority of folk in the United States mean when they say 'dulcimer' (28), and about the practicalities of which there is far more literature than there is relating to the trapezoid instrument (29)(fig.2)

- and the Chordal Dulcimer designed to he made and played in schools, the description and construction plans of which are given by Ronald Roberts (30,31).

Quite another dulcimer was that marketed by the Premier Drum Co., in the 1930s in England, which has metal bars and is struck with hammers, an instrument which would be called 'xylophone' by most people today, but not being made of wood might be more appropriately called 'glockenspiel' (32); there was even a glass dulcimer, according to Scholes "Strips of glass struck with hammers .... also known as harmonica" (33), which one might classify as a 'vitrison' or 'hualophone'.

But not all dulcimers are stringed or struck; Chambers' 1972 dictionary reads:

"Dulcimer: a musical instrument like a flat box, with wires stretched across bridges: a Jewish musical instrument, probably a bagpipe"(34)

(the controversies and misunderstandings surrounding the Biblical references to 'dulcimer' are discussed in Chapter 7.17);

while OED quotes Maplet (1567):

"The elder ... Whereof are made a kind of Symphonie whiche the common sort call a Pipe: the learned and more civil kinde of men name it a Dulcimer" (35).

The situation was evidently so complex that in the days before the war Leslie Evans of Birmingham felt obliged on occasion to refer to his instrument as a 'string dulcimer' (36); and yet another use of the word is recorded in OED and Whitney, not a musical instrument at all, but a

"bonnet trimmed and flounced withal,
which they a dulcimer do call" (37).

My own conclusion may perhaps be best expressed by Virdung, that "what one man calls a harp, another calls a lyre" (38); and by Edgar Hunt: "the name of a thing is what people call it" (39).

Ian Clabburn put it even more succinctly in his Stevenage dialect:

"People don't half muck about with the names, do they ..." (40).