The hammered dulcimer could be classified by the Hornbostel and Sachs system as a struck zither chordophone. Trapezoidal in appearance, it is a wooden box with strings attached to both ends and tightened to produce different pitches of sound. Traditionally, wooden hammers are used to strike the tuned strings to sound them. By striking different strings, different pitches will emerge thus making it possible to create a musical piece from the zither. The strings are specifically designed to sound best when struck by these hammers.

The origins of the dulcimer are in dispute, but one popular theory is that it originated in the Middle East late during the first millennium, thus making it one of the oldest stringed percussion instruments. The Crusades would have then been the reason it became acculturated in Europe later in the 12th and 13th centuries. Once it arrived it England, it became fairly popular; in fact, the Latin word for dulcimer means "sweet sound." The King James version of the Bible mentions a dulcimer in Daniel 3:5, but today scholars know this was an anachronism and that the translators simply made a mistake with what instrument they were trying to describe. In the late 1600s, a musician named Pantaleon Hebestreit improved upon the dulcimer, making it so that it had nearly 200 strings. Although he was popular during his time, his music was improvised; therefore, there was never any notation.

The modern incarnation of the ever famous piano evolved from the dulcimer. By mechanizing and attaching keys to the hammers of a dulcimer, the struck zither chordophone known as the piano was born in the late 1600s and popularized later. This was the beginning of the keyed dulcimer.

In more recent times, the Appalachian dulcimer, named for its geographical origin, has developed and become fairly popular in the United States. It's also known as the lap dulcimer or fretted dulcimer. Another of its nicknames is the "lumberjack's piano." Because of the size, frontier men were able to accommodate these piano-like instruments in their humble abodes in place of a traditional piano.


Source: http://www.bearmusic.com/Darcy/hdhistry.htm

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