The English name “dulcimer” derives from the Latin dulcis (sweet) and the Greek melos (song), but refers to two very different instruments.
The Hammered Dulcimer has metal strings stretched across a trapezoid shaped frame and is usually played with small hammers. Its origins are lost in history but it probably came from the Middle East, before spreading across most parts of the world. In each country, it has a different name: in Hungary a cimbalom, in Germany a hackbrett, in Mexico a salterio, in the Middle East and India the santur, and in China the yangqin.
As a loud, versatile melody instrument, it was found in orchestras, village bands, palaces and pubs – and was used particularly for dancing, where its percussive sound drove the rhythm. It was very popular in the UK before the advent of affordable pianos and they were both hand made and factory produced.
In the 20th Century, the hammered dulcimer still had a foothold in East Anglia, Birmingham, London, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, but was re-discovered for a wider audience in the folk revival era of the 1970’s. Players such as Sue Harris and Chris Coe featured the hammered dulcimer in folk-rock supergroups such as the Albion Band and the New Victory Band. Film composers continue to value its particular colouring in scores for films such as Lord of the Rings and Sherlock Holmes. And now a new generation of players is being introduced to the instrument.