Modes and the Mountain Dulcimer

[ Definition | Fret Map | The Capo | Mode Chart | 6+ Fret | What Mode/Key? | Example Tune ]

In its original, traditional form, the Appalachian, or Mountain, Dulcimer is a modal instrument. With its diatonic fret pattern only under the melody string, and drones tuned to play the key note and a note a fifth above the bass drone, it was difficult to impossible to play in anything resembling the modern multi-modal or chordal styles. To play in different keys, to change from major to minor or any of the other modes required actually retuning the instrument.


But first, what is a “mode” anyway? Basically, a mode is a way of playing a musical scale from one arbitrarily chosen note increasing in pitch until you reach a note one full octave above the original. Usually, when we talk about modes and the dulcimer, we’re talking about the heptatonic (seven note) “Church Modes” that were first described by the Swiss scholar Glareanus in 1547. A mode then, is simply an arrangement of whole and half steps in such a way as to end up at the octave after seven steps.

Fret Map

Here’s a picture of a fretboard with DAd tuning indicated on it. If we ignore the 6+ fret,

and start on the open melody string, playing each note up the scale in succession, we play a mixolydian scale. In the case of DAd tuning, if we play only on the melody string, without using the 6+ fret, and allow the other strings to drone unfretted, we play tunes in the mixolydian mode. Old Joe Clark and Going to Boston are examples of mixolydian mode tunes. The mixolydian mode’s sequence of Whole and half steps is W-W-h-W-W-h-W. Looking at the note names, we can see that the notes in a D-mixolydian scale are D-E-F#-G-A-B-C and the octave is D.

If you were to play in the traditional, dronal style, and wanted to play one of these tunes in the key of D, you’d tune to DAd, because the because the key note is D (The bass string) and the mixolydian scale starts on the open string (or zero fret). Therefore you want the start of the scale to be a “D” as well. This is why DAd tuning is often called “Mixolydian tuning.”

If you were to tune to DAA, the so called “Ionian tuning” the scale starts on the third fret. Why? Because the Key note is D (the bass string), so the third fret of A string is where the “D” is. You can see this by looking up at the middle string of the figure above. The sequence of whole and half steps for an Ionian scale is W-W-h-W-W-W-h. In the key of D, the notes are D-E-F#-G-A-B-C# and D again for the octave. This is the standard “do-re-mi-…” major scale. Whiskey Before Breakfast is an example of an Ionian Mode tune.

The Capo

Notice that if you use the 6+ fret instead of the 6 fret, you can play an Ionian scale in D from the open melody string in DAd tuning. By the same token, we can play an Ionian scale in the key of G while tuned to DAD, simply by starting at the third fret of the melody (or of the bass) string. Of course, the drones would be wrong, so we’d never really want to do this in practice.

Or would we?

The notes required for drones in the key of G are the G (of course) and a D. If you look back up at the fretboard map, you see that these are the notes on the bass and middle strings stopped at the third fret. So if we had a way of holding these two strings down at the third fret while we play the melody string scale based on the third fret, we can play Ionian mode tunes in the key of G while in DAd tuning.

This, my friends, is what a capo is for. The capo simply clamps all the strings down at a fret, leaving your hands free to play melody as you wish, without having to worry about holding down the drones with two of your fingers. In DAd tuning, starting with the capo at the third fret, (and ignoring the 6+ fret) the G-Ionian scale has the notes G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. So by using a capo at the third fret in DAd, you can play in the key of G just the same as if you were in DAA tuning playing in D. Not only that, but just remove the capo and you can still play in D, using the scale based on the open string (either ionian with the 6+ fret, or mixolydian with the 6 fret).

You might think that if you can change modes from mixolydian to ionian by simply putting the capo on at the third fret, that you might be able to change to other modes by capoing elsewhere. If you did, you’d be right. Here is a table showing the names of the heptatonic church modes, their traditional associated tunings for the key of D, and the starting fret for the scale.

Mode Chart
Mode Name
Trad. Tuning for D
Start FretStep SequenceKey when using Capo
from DAd
MixolydianDAd0WW hWW hWD
AeolianDAC1W hWW hWWE
LocrianDABb2h WW hWWWF#
IonianDAA3WW hWWW hG
DorianDAG4W h WWW hW
PhrygianDAF5 h WWW hWW
LydianDAE6WWW hWW h

If we use the capo to get into one of these modes while tuned to DAd, the result is no longer in the key of D. For example, suppose we want to play a tune in the Aeolian mode by capoing. We put the capo at the first fret, which makes the open strings sound the notes EBe. The keynote is, therefore E. The aeolian scale starts on the first fret, so the notes in the scale are E-F#-G-A-B-C-D and E. This is the common minor scale. If someone says, “This piece is in E-minor,” usually they mean it is in the Aeolian mode of E.

Notice that when we use the capo to get into a mode, wherever we put the capo, the notes that we use stay the same, The scale just starts in a different place. i.e., the notes in a D mixolydian scale are the same notes as in an E aeolian scale, as in a G Ionian scale, etc. If we retune to get into the mode, the notes change. This should come as no surprise. If we retune, we’d expect the notes to change. The notes in a key of D aeolian scale, for example, are D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C, and D. This is what you’d get if you tuned to DAC and played the scale starting at the first fret. I determined this by looking at the step sequence and starting at D. A whole step up from D is an E, a half step up from E is an F, etc.

If you have the 6+ fret, there are always two places you can start a mode, one using the 6 fret as indicated above, and one where you use the 6+ fret. I’ve already touched on this, when I mentioned that you can play either the mixolydian or ionian modes in the key of D while tuned to DAd, by using the 6 fret for the mixolydian, and the 6+ fret for the ionian. Here is a table that shows which modes you can play starting at at given fret and playing up the scale using the 6 fret or the 6+ fret.

6+ Fret
Starting Fret number Mode using the 6 fret
Mode using the 6+ fret
5Phrygian Aeolian
(starting at the 6+ fret)
What Mode/Key?

So how does one tell what mode and key a tune uses?

Basically, the process I use is first to determine the tonic for the piece of music. In 95% + of all tunes the tonic is the final melody note of the tune. This rule is not 100% valid, but it works the greatest percentage of the time. Next, check the notes that are used in the tune, watching for any notes that are consistently sharped, flatted or naturaled. Write the notes that are used in order up from the tonic note, and look at the pattern of whole steps and half steps. Find the mode that matches this pattern from the chart above, and you’re done!

For example, below is the melody for the “A” part of an Irish dance tune called The Humors of Mullin-a-Faunia.

Example Tune

The last note of the tune is an A, so this is probably the tonic of the piece. i.e., this tune is probably in the key of A, though we don’t yet know what mode it is in. The key signature is for two sharps, F# and C#, which we normally associate either with D-Major (ionian) or B-Minor (aeolian).

Looking at the music, however, we see that some notes are “naturaled.” This is a clue that all is not as it may first seem. ALL of the C’s in this tune are C-Naturals, not C-Sharps, as indicated in the key signature. So, let’s list the notes that are used in this tune. Starting at the tonic, they are A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, and the octave A. The pattern of whole steps and half steps is WhWWWhW, which is the pattern for the Dorian mode. (Remember, there is only a half step between the B and the C.) You might say, then, that this tune is in the key of A-Dorian.

In some cases you will run across tunes that don’t fit any of the modes, when you go through this procedure. They may be tunes that have accidentals in the melody, (occasional notes that are not in the basic scale), or that they are in one of the “non Church modes,” the harmonic minor, for example, or that the piece is simply not modal.

Anyway, this piece can be played on your dulcimer in a scale starting on the 4th fret (using the 6 fret in the scale) or on the first fret (using the 6+ fret in the scale.) If you want to retune your dulcimer, you could use either DAG tuning, and play the tune in the key of D-Dorian starting at the 4th fret, or you could tune to DAC and start the scale on the 1st fret, using the 6+ fret to play the dorian scale. In both cases you end up having to transpose the tune from A to D. That is, A goes to D, B goes to E, C goes to F, etc.

If you want to play it in the key as written, which you might need to do so that it’s within the singer’s vocal range, for instance, you could retune your drones and melody string for the key you need. In this case, you could tune the bass string to A, the middle string to E, the melody string to G, and play the melody out of the scale starting on the first fret (with the 6+ fret). I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader what the melody string would need to be if you wanted to play the scale from the 4th fret. (HINT: you want the note sounding at the 4th fret to be an A.)

You could also tune you dulcimer to DAd, and use your capo at the fourth fret to play this. This puts it into the key of A-dorian automatically. The only complication with this method is that you have no notes on the melody string lower than the tonic. If the melody goes lower than the tonic at any point, (it does, in this example) then you have to play these notes on the middle and/or bass strings, or maybe play the melody in the next higher octave.

You can also play in different modes without capoing, by playing chords in a pattern that goes with the key and mode in question. An example of this is my arrangement of The Beggar Boy, a Phrygian mode tune which I have set in the key of F#, using the 6+ fret and starting the scale on the second fret of a dulcimer tuned DAd. The tablature and notation are here.

By use of the capo, or by playing a chordal arrangement, you have the ability to play your dulcimer in any of the “Church” modes without having to retune. This just goes to show the versatility of the mountain dulcimer. You can use it to play in a very traditional, dronal style one moment, then to a more modern, chordal arrangement the next. You are limited only by your imagination.

[ Definition | Fret Map | The Capo | Mode Chart | 6+ Fret | What Mode/Key? | Example Tune ]

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