All Those Strings!



What is a dulcimer? A psaltery? A lyre? And why did our forefathers sometimes refer to the Psalms as the Psalter? As we read through the Old Testament, we find numerous mentions of stringed instruments. Sometimes we see different terms used for the same instrument. Understanding what instruments were used in Old Testament worship can enhance our knowledge of the Bible and our own enjoyment of the worship experience.

Old Testament Stringed Instruments

One of the better known stringed instruments mentioned in Scripture is the harp. This instrument is mentioned many times in the Bible, from Genesis 31:27 to Revelation 18:22. The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine’s September-October 2014 issue contained a quite interesting article about the history of the harp and a brief mention of Old Testament passages dealing with this well-known instrument. Other musical instruments mentioned in the Bible are not as familiar to modern-day readers. The psaltery still exists, but very few people have attended a psaltery concert. What is the difference between a psaltery and a lyre?

The psaltery finds early mention in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 10:5) with a number of references in the Psalms; collections of the Psalms, along with other devotional material, were often referred to as a psalter. This small instrument had as many as 15 strings and was usually plucked with the fingers or some sort of pick. It was popular until the 1500s, when the complexities of baroque compositions were more than the psaltery was capable of producing.

The lyre was somewhat similar in structure to the psaltery and played much the same way. Depending on the Bible translation used, the term “lyre” may or may not appear. The King James Version of Psalms 57:8 (for example) uses the term “psaltery,” whereas the New American Standard Bible and other modern translations use the term “lyre.” The two instruments were very similar in construction and mode of playing, so the word could be used to describe either instrument.

The term “dulcimer” is mentioned in the King James Version three times in Daniel (chapter three). In other versions, it is translated as “bagpipes,” and most commentators indicate that this was not a Jewish instrument. The word “dulcimer” comes from the Latin and Greek terms meaning “sweet sound.”

Construction of the Dulcimer

There are two major types of dulcimers in use today: the hammered dulcimer and what is colloquially called the mountain or Appalachian dulcimer. The hammered dulcimer will have somewhere around thirty strings and is played by striking the strings with wooden mallets. This article will focus on the mountain dulcimer, which commonly has three or four strings and is played with a pick or by being plucked with the fingers.

The dulcimer is usually about 27 to 35 inches in length. The two most common shapes are the hourglass and teardrop shapes, both usually with small heart cutouts (see figure). One unique traditional dulcimer is the “courting dulcimer,” which is essentially two dulcimers connected facing one another so that the couple could be close and face-to-face while playing duets.

The mountain dulcimer is a fretted instrument, similar to the guitar and the mandolin, but there are differences in the spacing of the frets. For the guitar and mandolin, frets are spaced so that each fret represents a half step from the next note. The dulcimer, on the other hand, has some frets spaced at whole-step intervals. The tuning for a dulcimer is in a single key (often D major) and shifts to different keys frequently requires retuning. A more recent development is the chromatic dulcimer, with the frets spaced at half steps, allowing the playing of any key in the repertoire.

Tuning the dulcimer is determined to some extent by the particular selection to be played. The most common tunings are DAA or DAD. The first note designates the tuning for the lowest string (often a wrapped string), located the farthest away from the player. The second note is the middle string and is above the first string in pitch. The third note is on the string closest to the player and is an octave above the first note. Often, a four-string dulcimer is used; the extra string provides additional volume. In this case, the third and fourth strings are tuned in unison. The convention for writing tunings uses capital letters for the first and second strings since they are in the same octave, with a lower-case letter for the third (or the melody string). Properly, the tuning of DAA would be written DAa, and the tuning for a double-stringed DAD would be DAdd.

Playing the Dulcimer

There are three major ways to play the dulcimer: noter-drone, strumming with chords, and finger-picking.

The noter-drone approach is the easiest and most traditional. The melody string is fretted with a “noter”—usually a short, rounded piece of wood. All the strings are then strummed, and the two lower strings provide a drone-like sound, similar in some respects to a bagpipe. Since many of the early settlers to the Appalachian region of the U.S. were Scottish and Irish immigrants, this may explain (at least, in part) the enjoyment of the drone sound. Strumming was originally done with a goose quill (and still is by some very traditionally minded folks.) Nowadays, a plastic pick of some sort (like a guitar pick) is commonly used.

Here is Amazing Grace played noter-drone style. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80R05EtmDeI]

At some point (probably in the early twentieth century), the use of chords on the dulcimer was developed. This approach involved fingering all the strings during the playing of a song. Strumming was accomplished either with a pick or fingers. Advanced players then developed more complex approaches to playing by using finger-picking to play both melody and harmony.

Here is Amazing Grace played chord style. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31Zq_a8PgXs]

A number of videos are available on YouTube and elsewhere that illustrate dulcimer playing. Both lessons and examples can be found to show the variety of styles and the music of the dulcimer.

Music for the Dulcimer

Playing the dulcimer originally was an accompaniment for singing ballads, and doing so often still serves that function. The dulcimer repertoire today has expanded greatly and encompasses a wide variety of music. Many dulcimer pieces are instrumentals, either original compositions or adaptations of fiddle tunes, hymns, or sometimes even popular music. Hymns and gospel songs are available from a variety of sources, either in print or on the Internet.

Most music for the dulcimer is scored in tablature form to show the fingering of the individual strings. Illustrated here are the opening bars of Amazing Grace.

DAD indicates the tuning of the three strings with the melody line (highest note) on the bottom. The notes at the top show the vocal part while the tablature designates which strings are fingered and at what fret.


The dulcimer is indeed a sweet sound—easy for beginners to play, yet versatile enough for advanced musicians. This instrument is an inexpensive investment that has contributed to the musical enjoyment of many people.


History of the mountain dulcimer, www.bearmeadow.com/smi/histof.htm 

Sources of Dulcimer Tablature:

Western North Carolina Dulcimer Collective, bearmeadow.com/smi/histof.htm 

Everything Dulcimer, everythingdulcimer.com/tab/index.php 

Online dulcimer groups can be found. Look, particularly, for one called Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer.

Biographical information

Donald F. Calbreath (Ph.D. in biochemistry) has been involved with homeschool science education for several years, writing materials, working with local groups, and teaching online science courses. He bought his first guitar in 1959 and developed a lifelong interest that eventually focused on bluegrass, old time string band, and gospel music. His first dulcimer was purchased in 1970, his second was a gift, and his third was purchased on his thirtieth wedding anniversary!

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Fall 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.