CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.1: Definitions

1.1.2: How I defined the instrument

An examination of all the classification systems of stringed instruments mentioned above left me with the impression that none came near enough to identifying the essential character of the instrument with which I was familiar. Systems based on physical structure are obviously unsatisfactory, because a dulcimer can as well be built on a plank as on a box (fig.247), and indeed some are also built on a vaulted surface (fig.165) (Sach's 'vaulted' or 'long zither'). Similarly, so many stringed instruments may readily be played in a variety of ways, that playing technique is unsatisfactory for a classification base except at the last level, when all other features between two instruments are the same (e.g. plucked and bowed psalteries): a piano does not suddenly become a psaltery when someone reaches inside to pluck the strings by hand, in a performance of one of John Cage's works, for instance. The criterion of 'primary playing technique' has been suggested, but this has the disadvantages of being rather too subjective, and implying that there is somehow something less significant or even wrong about a dulcimer-player who plucks his instrument.

fig. 3: tambourin à chordes

click for a closer view

I then returned to basic principles, to determine what I considered were the features which distinguished the dulcimers I was working with, from other instruments which were similar, but which I intuitively did not consider to be dulcimers. These were five in number: trapezoid shape, multiple courses, strings divided by bridges, a hammered technique (not essential, but still rather common) - and the name dulcimer. It was immediately apparent that no one of these features was sufficient on its own to include all instruments I considered dulcimers, and exclude all others (respectively: plenty of trapezoid psalteries, not to mention xylophones and the like; multiple courses on psalteries, mandolins, pianos, etc.; bridges dividing strings on Arnoult's keyboard dulce melos and a 19th-century aeolian harp (41); a mass of instruments with struck strings, particularly the tambourin a cordes and the Tibetan beaten fiddle mentioned by Buchner; and all the Appalachian-, bagpipe- and bonnet-dulcimers mentioned above). Furthermore, there were instruments which I considered to be dulcimers which had none of these features in common: the Rynkeby and Milan angels, for instance (figs.17, 40), who are hammering oblong instruments with single-course strings undivided by a bridge, which can scarcely have been called 'dulcimer'; and the dulcimers of William Fell of Birmingham, which he plucks, and which are trapezoid and have multiple courses divided by a bridge. Clearly the problem was one to which the solution would not be simply found.

fig. 4: tambourin à chordes

click for a closer view

Considering the striking technique for a moment, I quickly realised that there was an important distinction between striking open strings and striking stopped strings: this filtered out the Hungarian gardon ('drumbassfiddle') described by Sarosi (42), Buchner's Tibetan rebab-like instrument (43), and the post-1783 English guitars described by Anthony Baines (44). It might also be considered to filter out dulcimers with ditals, but the ditals are not usually applied during a performance, so we may assume a definition of 'open string' which allows for this. Two rare instruments have hammers operated manually, but indirectly, through a mechanism (the Chromamétre of 1827 (45), and a zither of which I saw a single example, having little lead balls on the ends of strings, activated via rigid metal sleeves, one of each per note); these were excluded by the addition of the phrase 'operated directly by the player's hand'. The tambourin à cordes was excluded by saying that the strings must be individually selected, and the only hammered-string instrument which I considered not a dulcimer, but which was still included in my definition, was the bell machine specified by Wagner for Parsifal, which has four ranks of strings each playing a different note: and I concluded that perhaps this was a rather unusual bass dulcimer after all. The specification of the hammering technique which was indicative of a dulcimer - but not an essential characteristic - was thus 'selected open strings directly hammered by hand'.

Being unable to refine the other attributes in a similar way, I worked for a while with this notion: if an instrument had all five features of the common British Isles dulcimers, it was essentially a dulcimer, whatever its local name; if it had most of those features it was a close relative, and if it had one or two of them it was a distant relative.

Eventually, however, it became more and more apparent that of those five features, two were much more characteristic than the rest: the hammering technique and the divided strings; and I found in the end that all the instruments I considered to be dulcimers had either one or the other. It seemed illogical that my concept of an instrument should be determined by two quite distinct phenomena, and so seeking an organic link between the two, I pondered the function of the bridges and the dividing and crossing of the strings. It soon became apparent that whilst the crossing of the strings was valuable as a space-saving device, the primary function of the whole structure was in fact to facilitate the striking of the strings by providing a separation between adjacent courses. The organic link was now clear; and it was also clear that, subject to the remarks made above about the nature of the hammering, the essential condition of a dulcimer is that it is

an instrument having open strings which are selectively hammered by hand or designed to facilitate such hammering.

Having expressed the concept, it sounds quite obvious, but in fact it has not - to my knowledge been stated before, and is the only one which fits all dulcimers and excludes all instruments which are not dulcimers. There is no doubt that, in the nature of things, cases will be noted which will show this concept to be inadequate, but it was nevertheless found to fit the present study, and it is presented here with a degree of 'provisional satisfaction'.

In the course of these deliberations, Dr. Stanley Sadie extended to me the invitation to recommend a structure, which could provide the framework for the new Grove articles on all the instruments falling within the Hornbostel/Sachs category of 'zither'. All the existing classifications seemed to me to bring together instruments which were only rather distantly connected, and to separate many which were closely linked, or else to be insufficiently comprehensive; so I applied my thinking about the functions of stringing arrangements to the universe of string instruments. Several points became apparent: the first was that such a system requires more detailed information about many non-Western instruments than is generally available; but that, given sufficient data, it was as meaningful for those instruments as it was for those from the West; a musician is likely to be able to play more easily an instrument lying close to his first instrument than he is one lying further away, a point which I find of some importance; instruments having an organic relationship may yet have stringing systems with different functions (e.g. fretted and unfretted lutes; crwth, talharpa, lyre [cruit?]). To present the whole classification here would pose severe ergonomic problems, since it covers eight A4 sides, but a summary appears at Supplement 1. It alone is the result of some three weeks intensive work, and although some modifications have since been made, it is still subject to detailed amendment. This system is believed to be quite new, although its seed was sown by Anthony Baines (47). As he has suggested, the study of an existing system of classification may not of itself reveal anything (48), but certainly the detailed comparison of a number, of systems, and the evolution of my own, increased my awareness substantially: one example was that of the relationship between the Ukelin and the violin zither, which have the same two elements, but laid out differently on the soundboard, a point which was not realised until it came to placing both in the classification. It also helped to show unsatisfactory definitions of the dulcimer, for until the final concept was evolved, different dulcimers appeared in different places on the chart.

A word may be in order here about typology: having determined that the bridge dividing the strings is of central importance to determining whether or not an instrument is a dulcimer, it follws that the extent to which this fundamental feature varies should be the main element in establishing a 'typography', (i.e. a listing of types, as distinct from 'typology', the study of types). The various bridging types are therefore considered as primary, and shape as an interesting secondary basis; of course, which-ever basis is taken as primary, other aspects are bound to be masked (unless a very complex cipher is used); thus, it has not been possible to evaluate exhaustively the suggestions of Norlind and van der Meer that differences of body structure (49), ditals, and the extended side-piece (50) constitute distinct forms. They are here considered simply as alternative features of basic types.

Another important point is that, in the same way that the name 'dulcimer' has so many different meanings, so too have many of the names for dulcimers in other languages an important corollary, mentioned in specific cases later, is that conclusions cannot therefore be drawn from literary evidence without more identifying detail than simply the name. Specific examples of alternative meanings for dulcimer names in other languages are given in Chapter 2; and such diversity is, of course, not restricted to dulcimers: a few examples of secondary meanings of other instrument names are given below and many more may be found in the literature:

The position is further complicated by the fact that when instruments and names travel between groups of people speaking different languages, they do so sometimes together, sometimes separately:e.g.

Another interesting point is that one's concept of what an instrument is must be conditioned by the way its name is used in one's native language; thus, in French, for instance, psaltérion is used for the types of instrument known in English as dulcimer and psaltery, and for the ancient Greek psalterion even though there are great differences between them: thus a Frenchman's concept of psaltérion is often of a single instrument carrying on through the ages and undergoing very major changes, rather than of three separate instruments: the Baroque dictionary entries mentioned later show this to a certain extent, but it is naturally more marked later on in time, for instance in Kastner.

Exact parallels in English are hard to find, but 'cornet-(t)' is a similar case, if one ignores the spelling, and perhaps 'guitar' is even closer.