What is a zither?

 Seems like a simple question… but it doesn't have a simple answer. First, the term zither is used by musicologists to refer to a whole category of instruments that have strings which stretch over a resonating chamber but do not extend beyond it. Those technical folks, including a couple named Hornbostel and Sachs who developed a thorough classification scheme in 1914, would call a fretted dulcimer a zither. They'd also say that a hammered dulcimer, a guitar-zither, an autoharp, a concert zither, and plucked and bowed psalteries, are all zithers.

Then there's another problem. There are at least 4 different instruments which are usually called zither by anyone who knows about them. They are:

So when you hear someone talk about a zither, the reference could be to any of these. The best way to avoid confusion is to use more specific terms, like those in the list above, but folks'll use the terms they're familiar with.

Over the past couple of years, I've been working with noted instrument collector and historian Gregg Miner to provide clarification of this terminology.  You can see the result at the Fretless Zithers page on Gregg's website.  (Spend some time at the Museum - there's plenty of interesting information on stringed instruments of every variety.)  So -

Fretless zither is the best term to use for describing any of the instruments on this site.  (The exception, of course, is the concert zither, which is included on the site simply to show the type of zither that I'm not researching.)


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Last update - 11 May 03