sweet music index
Modes, Keys, and Tunings
Bonnie Carol

There are three concepts to consider when tuning a fretted dulcimer: modes, keys, and tunings. Dulcimer players sometimes say, "I am in the Mixolydian tuning," or "I am tuned in D." In the first statement, Mixolidian is a mode not a tuning. In the second statement, D is a key not a tuning. It is important to understand the distinction betweent these terms 1) if you wish to play with other instruments, 2) if you want to be in a particular key for singing, or 3) if you find that a particular melody requires notes not available in a particular tuning.

So welcome to the journey of understanding the music theory which makes the dulcimer a versatile instrument, capable of playing in any key, playing most genres of music, and playing in ensemble with other instruments.

Notice that the frets on a non-chromatic dulcimer (the usual kind) are unevenly spaced. The wide spaces represent a whole step distance from one fret to the next. The narrow spaces are half steps. (Note that guitars, banjos, and other chromatic instruments have evenly spaced frets--all spaces are half steps.) If you begin to play a scale on the dulcimer at one fret and play up seven frets you will have played the seven notes of a scale. The eighth note will be a repeat of the starting note an octave higher. (We will ignore the various extra frets, 1 1/2, 6 1/2, for this discussion.)

Notice that the fret you begin with affects the order of whole and half steps. For example, if you begin at the third fret, you get the following pattern of whole and half steps:

whole - whole - half - whole - whole - whole - half

If you begin at the fourth fret you get:

whole - half - whole - whole - whole - half - whole

The order of whole and half steps in the seven note modal scale changes based on the fret at which you begin.

A mode is simply a name given to a particular seven-note order of whole and half steps. It is a scale or sequence of notes or sequence of whole and half steps, but it is not a tuning or a key.

The names of the modal scales and the frets at which they begin are:

open -- Mixolydian
1st fret -- Aeolian
2nd -- Locrian
3rd -- Ionian
4th -- Dorian
5th -- Phrygian
6th -- Lydian

The mode of a piece is determined by the notes of that piece as laid out in the linear form called a scale. Further, if you learn at which fret each modal scale begins (the above list), the order of whole and half steps is automatic on the dulcimer due to the location of the frets. Each of the modal scales has a different sound and feel. Let me characterize each one.

The Ionianmode we know as the major scale: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. The Mixolydian mode has exactly the same whole and half steps as the Ionian, and therefore sounds the same, until we reach the seventh tone, Ti. It is a half step lower in the Mixolydian scale (Ti flat) than the seventh tone in the Ionian. It is, however, still a major sounding mode. The Lydian is the same as Ionian, except the 4th is a half step higher, another major sounding mode. The Aeolian scale is the same as the natural minor scale. The Dorian has the same notes as Aeolian and sounds minor, except the 6th is a half step higher than the Aeolian 6th. It is sometimes called mountain minor by old time musicians. The Phrygian is a minor sounding mode, and the 2nd tone is lowered a half step from the Aeolian. It is the scale that Flamenco music uses. All of the modes mentioned so far differ from the most common major or minor scale by only one note. That leaves the Locrian mode, a minor sounding mode but with a lowered 5th, which makes it sound most unusual for the structure of our usual western European music.

To summarize what you know about modes now: 1) A mode is a name for a set of seven notes (called a scale) with a particular order of whole and half steps. 2) The order of whole and half steps is determined by the arrangement of the frets. 3) Each modal scale has a unique arrangement of whole and half steps and therefore, a different sound; this implies that different sounding songs are in different modes. 4) You know from the list at which fret each mode begins on the dulcimer.

A mode is a name of a particular order of whole and half steps. A key is the pitch, or cycles per second, at which you begin playing those whole and half steps. Names of modes are Mixolydian, Ionian, Aeolian, etc. Names of keys are A, D, B minor, F#, Eb minor, etc.

Songs almost always end on the note of the key they are in and frequently begin on that note as well. If the last note in the melody is D, the song is probably in the key of D. If the last note is D flat (written Db) the song is in the key of Db, etc. This is true for any note in the twelve note chromatic scale.

To summarize: A key is a pitch where a scale begins, but the key does not define an arrangement of whole and half steps, the mode does. So you can see that all modes exist in all keys.

Note that in the discussion of modes and keys, we have not discussed tuning the dulcimer. We have only distinguished theoretically between the concepts of modes and keys. A tuning specifies the actual note to which each string is tuned. The names of some tunings are D A D, D G D, F# C# F#, C G Bb, E A AA, etc.

To tune, it's necessary to know the key and mode in which you want to play. To ascertain the key, first determine the last note and chord in the piece of music. The last chord very likely has the same name as the key. If that chord is a D, we are in the key of D. If it's B, we are in the key of B. If it's Gb, we are in the key of Gb. Probably the last note of the melody will also be a D, B, Gb, respectively, and this can give you a confirming clue about the key of the piece.

To determine the mode, again look at the last chord. If the last chord has an M or m after it (i.e. Dm, Gm, F#m) the piece uses one of the minor modes. If no M, it uses one of the major modes. Since all the minor modes only differ from one another by one note, there may be several possibilities to choose from. A particular melody may not have all the notes of its scale, and it may be missing the one note which distinguishes two modes from one another. There are other ways to determine the mode and key if you read music, but this is the easiest if you don't read music.

Now tune your melody string (which is usually the treble string, but not necessarily) such that the fret which begins the modal scale you have chosen sounds the key you have chosen. For example, you may have chosen to play in the key of D in the Mixolydian mode. Tune your melody string so a D sounds at the open string where the Mixolydian scale begins. If instead you chose key of D and Ionian mode, you would tune that same string so that a D note sounds at the third fret. (If it is a D when fretted at the 3rd fret, it is an A when it is open.) Your other strings, however many there are, need to be tuned to be in harmony with the key you have chosen. It happens that the first tone of a scale (the tonic or home tone, the note with the same name as the key, i.e. a D in the key of D) and the fifth tone of the scale (an A in the key of D) harmonize well with all the other notes of the scale, so the other strings will be tuned to some combination of the tonic and fifth of the key you have chosen. If in the key of D, these notes will be D and A.

Perhaps you can now see how to build the DAD tuning and the DAA as well. Sometimes the gauge of a dulcimer's strings limits which notes can be used on a particular string. If the string tunes well to A, it might not like D. So if you wanted to play in the key of G, for example, instead of making the tuning GDG, you might choose to make the bass the D, and the middle string the G for the DGD tuning. A likely use for this tuning would be to play in the key of G in the Ionian mode. This scheme creates the tunings some people refer to as "reverse" Ionian or "reverse" Mixolydian, etc. The name derives from the fact that the position of the tonic and fifth reverses. Their usual locations are on the bass and middle strings respectively, but in this type of tuning the tonic is on the middle string and the fifth is on the bass.

1) To learn the key and mode of a piece look at the last chord and the last note. 2) For a major sounding piece, you would probably choose Ionian, Mixolydian, and Lydian. For a minor sounding piece, choose Aeolian, Dorian, and Phrygian. The seventh mode, Locrian is infrequently used in Western music. 3) Match the mode and key on the melody string. 4) Tune the other strings to the tonic and fifth of the key you have chosen.

Tricks and Experiments
The above discussion tells you all you need to know to tune into any mode in any key, but there are other ways to play in different modes and keys than retuning. Any scheme which allows you to play the piece's modal scale and the harmony notes of the correct key will work.

The first method other than tuning is to use the extra frets common on many dulcimers these days. An extra fret gives you two modes per tuning. For example, if you have the six and a half fret, and you tune DAD, you have the Mixolydian scale with its lowered seventh (the sixth fret), and you have the Ionian scale with the usual seventh (the six and a half fret). In a Dorian tuning a six fret gives the Dorian mode and the six and a half fret gives you a Mixolydian scale. This enables you to play a piece which has both major and minor sections.

Another way of achieving the goal of different modes and keys than tuning is to fret to a particular key and mode. For example, if you tune DAD and have the home tone of a song be E, the second fret, and you fret your bass and middle strings to E and B respectively, you are playing in the Aeolian mode in the key of Em. If you tune DAD and the piece ends on the 3rd fret, the note G, and you fret your melody string at the third fret, you will have a G Ionian melody. You would fret your bass string at the third fret and have a G note, and the middle string has a D at the third fret. You can tune to an almost unlimited number of notes and achieve the proper melody and harmony by fretting to the mode and key you wish to use.

Capoing a Dulcimer
Another way to change the key and mode is to use a capo. On a guitar or banjo, a capo is used to change the pitch of the strings so they sound a new key using the old chord positions. On the dulcimer, you change the key when you put the capo on, but you also change the mode. And you change the mode of all three strings.

When you tune to a mode (rather than capoing), the bass string is always in the Mixolydian mode and the middle string is in the Ionian modes because the tonic of the key is on the open string and at the third fret respectively. An advantage of using the capo method of changing modes is that you can tune the three strings so their modes are compatible and then put the capo on for different compatible modes.

For example using the same tuning as above, DAD, your bass and treble strings are in the Mixolydian mode and the middle is in the Ionian. Because these two modes have most of their notes in common, chords made in this tuning are notoriously harmonious. If you put the capo at the first fret, you will be in the key of E with the Aeolian mode on the treble and bass strings and the Dorian on the middle string, another compatible set. In some modes the tuning method makes for difficult chording, but the capoing method may simplify chording. Some other tunings which work well with a capo include DAA, DGD, and EAA.

Many dulcimers these days are made with arches under the fingerboard which allow the use of a capo which wraps around the entire fingerboard. There are also capos made specifically for the dulcimer by various dulcimer builders.

Bonnie Carol is a musician living in Colorado. Do you have comments or questions about her article? Contact Ms. Carol directly by e-mail. To learn more about Ms. Carol, see the Contributors page of Sweet Music Index.


S'more a la Modes
There has been a flurry of debate (some may say a blizzard of polemic) on Sweet Music Digest lately about modal theory and the mountain dulcimer. In the midst of this, we at the Index found the following post to be refreshing.

From: DB
Subject: Modes and Human Sexuality
Date: Tuesday, July 07, 1998 9:37 AM
From the Irish Traditional E-mail list, last year:

All You Ever Really Need to Know About Modes--
Hopefully the Final Word on a Distressing Subject

(Sorry for the false advertising in the subject line. Footnotes available on request to adults only -- proof of age required.)

The five original modes were the Androgynous, Bubonic, Carthusian, Derranian, and Eucalyptic. All except the Derranian were quickly abandoned when it was discovered that they required a nine-note scale (although you could get away with eight and a half in the Eucalyptic if you had to).

The reason for this anomaly was never made clear, but after an initial flurry of curiosity during the
first few months of 43 B.C., no one really seemed too interested in pursuing the matter further. The Greek philosopher Ctesiphon (or "the big C," as his friends used to call him) reportedly wrote a lengthy treatise explaining the whole mess, but most of the scrolls comprising the only extant copy of this work were erased and re-used for a collection of really dirty Corinthian limericks. (i.e. "A daring young girl from Mycenae / Wore naught but a bright purple beanie," etc., etc. - the translation work continues).

The Derranian mode survives today, but it is used primarily by finger-pickers blessed (cursed?) with seven fingers on each hand, for which reason it is also referred to as the Polydactylic. (Cats may also experience this condition, but surprisingly it does not seem to enhance their finger picking abilities.)

Other fascinating mode facts:
- Efforts by Pythagorean mystics to unite the properties of the mathematical relationship between a circle's radius and its circumference with the arrangement of musical tones led to history's first known example of pi a la mode.

- Playing of tunes in the Euthanasian (also known as the Kevorkian) mode is not presently permitted within the city limits of Columbus, Ohio (but is encouraged in Michigan - go figure!!)

- Bodhrans are usually played in the "duh" mode (also called the Jurassic mode) which consists of two notes (duh and DUH) and a rimshot. This is believed to be the most ancient mode, according to some experts predating even the Amoebic, which apparently makes it pretty doggone old.

- Princess Di, Edgar Allan Poe, Mickey Mantle, and Leonid Brezhnev were all born to women whose first names rhymed with various edible fungi and whose initials comprise the first four notes of the Cetacean mode!! Coincidence...??

- Newsweek magazine recently reported that secret Chinese labor camps were heavily involved in reproducing counterfeit modes in violation of all cultural treaties. "We know nothing of this," said spokesperson Wei Lin Chung, "and we accept no responsibility for interference in your decadent Western music. Long live Socialist pentatonic-ness!"

- Biologists recently discovered that removing the two hind legs from a certain species of Amazonian frog resulted in a noticeable change in its mating call. Musicologists who should have known better have christened the new note series the "Slowed Toad Mode".

I hear the phone ringing. I hope it's a telemarketer -- I get so lonely sometimes.