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Here's a story I've heard countless times from dulcimer owners:

"I fell in love with the instrument, bought one while I was on vacation, took it home and played it some. Well, after a while it got so it didn't sound right. I put it away in a closet till I could find somebody to tell me how to tune it."

There are actually a confusing number of possibilities for tuning a mountain dulcimer. Since the dulcimer revival of the 70s, the majority of classes and dulcimer clubs around the USA tune to either D-A-A or D-A-D. Many teachers get their students started with D-A-A, and then introduce D-A-D.

Here are the instructions for tuning your dulcimer four different ways. Each one is designated with "D" as its tonal center, then one of the medieval church mode names [a mode is one kind of musical scale--a group of pitches arranged in order from low to high], followed by the actual tuning in parentheses.

NOTE: When your dulcimer is in one of these traditional tunings, only the melody string plays the mode, and you must skip the 6+ fret if it is present. Middle and bass strings are relegated to dronal accompaniment. Modes form the basic fabric of dulcimer music and of American-Anglo-Celtic folk music traditions in general.

A mode is NOT the same thing as a key or a tuning--but the tunings given below are ways of tuning into four of the most useful modes in Anglo-Celtic folk music. Discussion of the theory behind modes is often thorny and confusing--I wrote about them in a very bare-bones appendix to my book Music Theory and Chord Reference for the Mountain Dulcimer.

D Ionian (D-A-A)

D Mixolydian (D-A-D)

D Dorian (D-A-G)

D Aeolian (D-A-C)