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
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
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.
top of page
list of AppLit pages on music