Although the hammered dulcimer shares the same name as the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer, the two instruments differ considerably in form, sound, evolution, and manner of playing. Both have strings stretched across a neckless soundbox, which identifies them in certain classification schemes as belonging to the zither form. The mountain dulcimer relies on the shortening (fretting or stopping) of strings to produce many pitches with one or few strings. Guitars, banjos, and fiddles work in this way. The alternative is to have one string or course of strings tuned to each desired pitch, as in the harps, piano, psaltery, and hammered dulcimer. The hammered dulcimer is capable of a range of tones from a sort of music-box sound to powerful and percussive piano-like effects which can stand out in any band.
The name dulcimer comes from the Latin and Greek words dulce and melos, which combine to mean "sweet tune." The true hammered dulcimer is a close relative to the psaltery, the chief difference being that the psaltery is usually plucked and the dulcimer is usually struck.
The ancient origins of the dulcimer are undoubtedly in the Near East, where instruments of this type have been made and played for perhaps 5000 years. Santir and psanterim were names early applied to such instruments and are probably derived from the Greek psalterion. Today the dulcimer is known as the santouri in Greece and as the santur in India.
From the Near East the instrument traveled both east and west. Arabs took it to Spain where a dulcimer-like instrument is depicted on a cathedral relief from 1184 A.D. Introduction into the Orient came much later. The Chinese version is still known as the yang-ch'in, or foreign zither. Though its use in China is reported to date from about the beginning of the 19th century, Korean tradition claims association with the hammer dulcimer from about 1725.
Although the early keyboard string instruments could have been derived from either psaltery or dulcimer, it seems logical that the dulcimer provided much of the inspiration for the piano. One early form of the piano even bears the name of a 17th-century Prussian dulcimer, the pantaleon.
Dulcimers were reasonably common domestic and concert instruments in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. No doubt they were first brought to the colonies from England where they were used in the street music of the time. Portability and simplicity made the dulcimer much more practical than the piano for many settlers to go to and through the Appalachian Mountains. These attributes also probably led to its association with the lumber camps of Maine and Michigan. It is still referred to as a "lumberjack's piano" in the North. As names for the dulcimer go, the German term is "hackbrett," which literally means "chopping board!"
Once well-known, the hammered dulcimer faded into relative obscurity in America in the first half of the Twentieth Century due, most likely, to the popularity of the piano. Occasionally, old dulcimers can be found in the Appalachians, Maine, New York, and in various parts of the Midwest. Several dulcimer factories were thriving in western New York during the 1850s and 1860s. They employed salesmen who played and sold their instruments as far away as Missouri and into the southern states. For a time, even Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs sold them.
With its revival in the 1970s, the hammered dulcimer is once again being made and played here in the United States with growing frequency.