Dulcimers are The Sweet Sound of Hammered Octaves
February 9, 2016
One of the neatest musical instruments I’ve found of late is the dulcimer, which is a middle eastern instrument that spread across Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. However, the association that comes to mind isn’t the period music – it’s watching Battlestar Galactica. Yeah, a crazy science fiction series got me way into dulcimers, because the musical director for the series uses them in odd and neat ways for themes throughout the show. There isn’t much difference between a “beginner’s dulcimer” and what a professional uses. Larger dulcimers have a wider range of courses (paired strings that reach different tonal ranges when struck), but there isn’t really a “training wheels” instrument you learn on before getting your “real one”. The thing that was innovative about the dulcimer of its time is that the courses are struck, rather than plucked. The dulcimer is the forebear of the modern piano! However, the tuning is interesting – it’s all done as a circle of fifths, which is one of the reasons why it has such a distinctive sound. What I enjoy about the dulcimer is that it’s an instrument that grows with you – it’s easy for a beginner to hammer out a melody, what the experts can do is breathtaking in its subtlety. Because it’s strung in courses, but the strings can’t always be in direct tuning with each other, the overall effect is a chorus effect on the piece. A dulcimer’s music is very distinctive. While the kind of dulcimer I’m fond of is the hammer (or traditional dulcimer), there’s a second type that’s a lot less common called the Appalachian or Mountain Dulcimer. The mountain dulcimer is smaller, and the strings are plucked or stroked with a feather to make their sound. It’s usually smaller – so it takes less time to set up, and won’t cover as many octaves. It makes for a much softer, smoother sound. What got me excited about dulcimers, like I mentioned, was Bear McCready’s use of them in the series Battlestar Galactica.When I found a local instructor, he put me in touch with two Renaissance music ensembles that I could try the instruments out with locally, one affiliated with my local university.