Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by GIOVANNI. GIOVANNI Wonders, “Musical instruments.” Thanks for WONDERing with us, GIOVANNI!

Imagine you’re enjoying a beautiful day of hiking in the mountains of Appalachia. Suddenly, you hear the music of a stringed instrument. It doesn’t sound like a guitar. What could it be? Maybe it’s a banjo, a mandolin, or a fiddle. Or it might be a dulcimer!

Dulcimers have a long history. Musicians in Asia and Europe have used them for hundreds of years. Many of these are played with small hammers. They’re called hammer dulcimers.

Today, though, we’re talking about the Appalachian dulcimer. It’s also called the mountain dulcimer. This instrument developed in the American Appalachian Mountains in the early 19th century. It’s part of the zither category of string instruments. Some historians trace its roots all the way back to the ancient lyre.

Why is it called a dulcimer? The name comes from words that mean “sweet sound.” Those who enjoy dulcimer music agree that this phrase describes the instrument’s lovely notes.

What does an Appalachian dulcimer look like? It’s shaped like an hourglass. Some people think it looks like a guitar, but it’s a very different instrument. Instead of holding it upright, musicians play it from their laps. The instrument can have anywhere from three to eight strings. Some musicians pick the strings with their fingers. Others play them with a bow like a violin. These techniques can produce different sounds.

The mountain dulcimer’s range makes it a good instrument for many different types of music. You’ll hear it in folk, classical, jazz, blues, ragtime, Cajun, gospel, and rock and roll. Some areas have special festivals for dulcimer music. This includes the annual Mardi Gras dulcimer music festival.

Have you ever played a mountain dulcimer? To hold it correctly, you should find a low, comfortable chair with no arms. Place the dulcimer in your lap. Hold the peg side toward the left knee. The bridge end should be on your right, close to your body. Make sure the instrument is well balanced. Pressing or strumming the strings should not cause it to tilt.

How are Appalachian dulcimers made? They’re hand-crafted instruments. Looking at one, it’s easy to see why many people call them works of art. The holes in the soundbox are often made to look like various objects. These might include flowers or animals.

When playing the dulcimer, your strumming pattern is very important. You can strum away from your body or toward it. Most players alternate patterns to create special rhythms and unique sounds.

Have you ever heard a mountain dulcimer? These beautiful instruments are very popular, especially in folk music across the U.S. Many people love dancing along to the “sweet sound” as a musician plucks or strums a new tune.

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1

Wonder What's Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day takes a look at those times when pencils are like paintbrushes!