A psaltery ( ψαλτήρι ) (or sawtry [archaic]) is a stringed instrument of the zither family.


The psaltery of Ancient Greece (epigonion) was a harp-like stringed instrument. The word psaltery derives from the Ancient Greek ψαλτήριον (psaltḗrion), "stringed instrument, psaltery, harp" and that from the verb ψάλλω (psállō), "to touch sharply, to pluck, pull, twitch" and in the case of the strings of musical instruments, "to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, and not with the plectrum." The psaltery was originally made from wood, and relied on natural acoustics for sound production.

In the King James Bible "psaltery", and its plural, "psalteries", are used to translate several words from the Hebrew Bible whose meaning is now unknown.


The strings of the medieval instrument were usually made of metal, unlike the finger plucked harp made with gut strings. There are many illustrations that show the instrument being played with a plectrum. While the harp had single strips, a psaltery could have multiple strings for one tone. It had a soundboard under the strings. The psaltery has been compared to the harpsichord and dulcimer, though the latter is not plucked but struck with hammers.

Medieval and Renaissance psalteries

From the 12th through the 15th centuries, psalteries are widely seen in manuscripts, paintings and sculpture throughout Europe []. They vary widely in shape and the number of strings (which are often, like lutes, in courses of two or more strings).

Modern psaltery

While psalteries had largely died out in Europe by the 19th century, the salterio remained common in Mexico well into the twentieth century and is still played in some regional styles.

The hammered dulcimer and related instruments such as the santur, cimbalom, yangqin, and khim, appear very similar to psalteries and it is often hard to tell which one historical images represent. They differ in that the player strikes the strings with small hammers rather than plucking them. As a result, they have much higher string tension and heavier frames.

In the 19th century, several related zithers came into use, notably the guitar zither and the autoharp. In the 20th century, the bowed psaltery came into wide use. It is set up in a triangular format so that the end portion of each string can be bowed.