The storied past of the Appalachian dulcimer

Plus, a chance to hear the sweet tunes for yourself at an upcoming concert.

appalachian dulcimers hung on the wall

Take a look at these stringed beauties.

Photo via Flickr

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If you’re a fan of folk music, you’ve probably heard a dulcimer before — even if you don’t know what it is. Specifically, you’ve probably heard the Appalachian dulcimer (see: the Queen of Country, Dolly Parton).

First things first

Before we get deep into dulcimers, let’s get one thing straight. Today we’re talking about the Appalachian dulcimer (aka the mountain dulcimer), not to be confused with the hammered dulcimer. They might be similar in name, but they vary in origin and how they’re played.

With that squared away, let’s get down to business. The Appalachian dulcimer is a fretted instrument of the zither family (aka an instrument that has strings stretched across its body). To play it, you lay it across your lap and strum or fingerpick the strings. And if you think it sounds oh-so-beautiful, its name reflects that sentiment, too — the Latin word dulce means sweet, while the Greek word melos means song or tune.

Dulcimers hung up on a wall with a plant in the background.

The instruments come in all shapes and sizes.

Photo by Rob Swystun via Wikimedia Commons

To explore the origins of the Appalachian dulcimer, we have to take it way back to the early 18th century. Historians believe the instrument was created by people of Scottish and Irish descent who settled here in the Appalachian Mountains — but as is the case with many folk instruments, its inspiration goes back even further. Although the instrument is considered a distinctive piece of Appalachian culture now, many music historians believe it to be an evolution of other European instruments that came centuries before it, like the German Scheitholt, an ancient member of the zither family.

Tune in

If all this talk of the dulcimer is making you eager to hear it in person, you’re in luck. Head to the Enka-Candler Library on Saturday, Dec. 16 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. to bask in the sounds of the 17-piece Asheville Dulcimer Orchestra for its Holiday Concert. You’ll hear seasonal tunes spanning a variety of cultures and time periods at the free, family-friendly show.

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