The Psaltery and Dulcimer

Psalteries and dulcimers have a long history. They are very similar instruments, both consisting of a flattish wooden box with several metal strings stretched across it. The main difference is that on psalteries, the strings are plucked, either with the fingers, fingernails, or more commonly with a plectrum or quill. On dulcimers, the strings are struck with two small wooden hammers.

The difference in playing technique led to differences in construction. A typical medieval pasltery would have a characteristic "pigsnout" shape. This produces a double-sided harmonic curve, giving theoretically correct string length ratios to allow a scale to be produced using equal thickness and equal tension strings. There was usually a square section at the bottom, where the last few strings were of equal length, and therefore presumably graded thickness. This prevented the instrument being unwieldy - keeping the lower strings at equal tension would make them very long.

Dulcimers, by contrast, were generally trapezoidal in shape. This shape gives only very approximate length ratios, and requires more variation in tension and/or thickness of the strings. They were also generally heavier in construction. An early development was a central bridge, or a row of individual bridges for each string, dividing each string into two, and allowing one string to produce two notes.

The above notes are generalisations. Both psalteries and dulcimers have been made in many shapes and sizes. Both were often double or triple strung. It is possible that some instruments were dual-purpose; pluck it and it's a psaltery, hammer it and it's a dulcimer. Both instruments were common in early medieval times, and have been played, in various forms, until the present day. Both instruments became less common after the mid sixteenth century, perhaps due to the rise of popularity of stringed keyboard instruments. It is likely that the clavichord was originally a dulcimer with an added keyboard, and that the harpsichord shared the same relationship to the psaltery.

Finally, two modern instruments which often cause confusion :

Firstly, the Appalachian dulcimer, which isn't a dulcimer (here we go again with these names!). This was a nineteenth century American folk instrument, which may be derived from an earlier instrument which the Germans called a Scheitholt. It looks rather like an elongated guitar body, and generally has three double-strung courses. I gather that one course is melody, the others are drones, it sits on the lap, and is played with a plectrum. It's still quite popular in the USA, it's a fun instrument, it's nothing like a dulcimer, and it's much too modern for this website.

Secondly, the bowed psaltery, which you may see played at medieval fairs and suchlike events. This is a psaltery-like instrument, but it is triangular. The strings are arranged so that they are accessible at the edge of the soundboard, where they can be bowed, using the simple and very medieval-looking bow. The playing technique is awkward, and it's only really capable of simple melodies, but it has a very pretty sound. It was invented by a schoolteacher in Germany in the 1890s, and it is completely unhistorical.

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