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TUNING YOUR MOUNTAIN DULCIMER

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. You can also learn how to tune by taking lessons from companies such as takelessons. 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)