West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature

The Mountain Dulcimer

The mountain dulcimer, also know as the lap dulcimer, is one of the few instruments developed in America by Americans. It is primarily found in Southern Appalachian. It may have had its origin in the British Isles with an instrument called the rebec. The rebec, like the lap dulcimer, has three strings of which two are "drone" (a repeated, sustained tone) strings. Others believe that the dulcimer also resembles a German instrument called a scheitholt, which is an oblong box with three strings. The plucked psaltery, from medieval times, also resembled the dulcimer.

Jean Ritchie of Kentucky, a noted dulcimer player, believes that the dulcimer originated in England, but the instrument was modified here in America since the tools needed to make the dulcimer were scarce. She also believes that the design of the dulcimer was simplified so that anyone with limited carpenter's skill could make one.

The dulcimer is tuned to an Ionian mode as opposed to the major or minor scales used today. Tuning it in this way provides a "lonesome quality," yet one that is attractive with the human voice.

The dulcimer is made of wood and usually has an oval shape. It is usually a yard long and nine inches wide. Tuning pegs are used to adjust the tension of the strings. A narrow fretted fingerboard is mounted on top of the body. The sounds holes on the body are cut into various shapes, such as flowers, hearts, or f's.

The right hand is used to hold the plectrum (originally quills from a wild turkey), which the player strums across the strings towards his body. The left hand holds the noter (a wooden dowel of chestnut or walnut) which moves along the first string to play the melody.

The dulcimer provides a pleasing accompaniment to the Appalachian folk songs.

 

Listen to Sharon Hood play the mountain dulcimer.


 

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"Hammered Dulcimer"

West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature is a self-contained teaching unit by Avis Caynor and Reneé Wyatt (1997), reprinted with permission in 2003 in the larger web site AppLit.

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