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One of our favorite questions to ask new dulcimer players is what sort of music they plan to play. Many of the answers have been the same for 35 years ("hymns," "Celtic music," and "Stairway to Heaven," for example), but these days there is also a liberal sprinkling of "I'm a film composer." We've been hearing this more and more lately, and when a co-worker mentioned noticing hammered dulcimer in the Game of Thrones theme, I decided to compile some examples of the ways this fascinating instrument is used in movie and TV scores.
Unless otherwise noted, all comments concerning the whys and wherefores are my own speculation, and may have nothing at all to do with what the composer originally intended.
It's also worth mentioning that hammered dulcimer has a number of close relatives, and it can be difficult to distinguish them by sound alone. It's likely that at least some of these examples actually feature cimbalom, the dulcimer's larger European cousin, but who am I to discriminate? (Also, I can't always tell which is which, and not every film composer keeps a detailed blog like Bear McCreary does to explain exactly which instruments he or she is using.)
Now on to the music!
Given the hammered dulcimer's roots as a folk instrument, it's not surprising that it's commonly used in film to evoke a folksy, down-home atmosphere. A great example of this is Howard Shore's hobbit music from the Fellowship of the Ring. The dulcimer starts around 0:25.
And now look what happens in The Two Towers when the dulcimer and the hobbit are taken out of the Shire and twisted into something else (Gollum). Folksy and comfortable becomes creepy and jittery. (By the way, this is not my idea - I read somewhere that Howard Shore said that, but I can't find anything official to quote.) The dulcimer comes in softly around 1:13 and again at 2:21.
In "Discombobulate" from Hans Zimmer's score for Sherlock Holmes, the dulcimer doubles the melody, giving it a sharp timbre and adding to the Eastern European folk flair of the music.
Gladiator was scored by both Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (of the band Dead Can Dance), and dulcimer is the only melodic instrument in the atmospheric track "The Emperor Is Dead." In this context, it feels somber and meditational instead of folksy.
Lisa Gerrard departs even further from the folk element in her score for Whale Rider. The combination of a thick, synthy pad and light but driving dulcimer rhythm underscoring the melody creates a feeling of epicness and space. The dulcimer comes in around 00:50.
Another great example of that epic feeling comes from John Powell's score for How to Train Your Dragon. The percussive broken chords in the dulcimer (starting around 1:07) drive the feeling of motion and excitement and something big, and perhaps there is a bit of a Celtic connection going on as well.
Alexandre Desplat uses cimbalom to great effect to represent the folk music of a fictional central European country (Zubrowka) in The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Read more here.) Ever so slightly out of tune and played with padded hammers, it also reminds me of an old tinkly piano, which seems to fit with the hotel's aura of faded elegance.
In the two following examples by Thomas Newman, the dulcimer is used in a very similar way, adding subtle bits of texture and sharp accents that cut through the other instrumentation. In Road to Perdition, this contributes to the feeling of tension in the music, but the same gestures have a quite different feeling in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where the dulcimer fits into the cheerful fabric of a busy day in India. Listen for the dulcimer around 00:35 in both tracks.
Bear McCreary, who has composed the music for a number of popular TV shows, keeps a blog where he explains some of his ideas and techniques. This is great, because we actually know what he was thinking! In the Outlander TV series, he uses hammered dulcimer to represent the Duke of Sandringham, choosing to use a change of instrument rather than a change of musical theme. To quote his blog, "I finished the Skye Boat Song melody with a dulcimer, played with soft mallets. The sound emulates a harpsichord, evoking Baroque upper class society, without that instrument's uniquely piercing timbre." Unfortunately, I couldn't find a video clip to illustrate this one!
However, there is a great video that Bear McCreary put together about one of his other shows, The Walking Dead. In this score, he chose the dulcimer and other bluegrassy folk instruments for their associations with the setting and culture in the rural American South. And then he horribly de-tuned them because, well, zombies.
And though it is quite short, we have to share the original inspiration, the Game of Thrones theme by Ramin Djawadi. Right at the end (around 1:34), the bulk of the orchestra drops out and the dulcimer briefly echoes the theme by itself. Perhaps the choice of instrument is a nod to medieval times, or perhaps it's just meant to convey a feeling of stark loneliness.
Here are two more examples that were brought to my attention because they feature Dusty Strings dulcimers!
Kenneth Burgomaster's score for The Boxcar Children is full of dulcimer music played on a PD40 piano dulcimer.
Ragamuffin is a recent movie about the life of popular Christian musician Rich Mullins, who played a Dusty D25 and was responsible for inspiring a lot of other dulcimer players. The dulcimer in the soundtrack is a D650 played by Garrett Viggers. (Music by Sam Stewart.)
Fun story that Garrett told us: His D25 is the one pictured in the movie. He said when he got the dulcimer back, the producers were very apologetic because they had broken a pair of his hammers, but Rich Mullins' brother wanted Garrett to have a pair of Rich's hammers instead. Would that be ok? Garrett says, "They could have broken the whole dulcimer and it still would have been a fair trade!"