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The Dulcimer is a Modal Instrument

For the purpose of this instruction, all references to the dulcimer fretboard assume the melody strings are tuned to D, and no extra frets are present.

The dulcimer fretboard is designed to play the major scale.  This is called a diatonic fretboard, as opposed to the chromatic fretboard of guitars, banjos, and just about every other fretted instrument.

The dulcimer fretboard is just like the guitar fretboard, except that the dulcimer fretboard is missing some of the frets.  The notes that are missing are all the notes that are not in the G Major scale.  A guitarist can play the Major scale in any key.  The dulcimerist can play the major scale in G, with the scale starting on the 3rd fret.

Of course, we can play other scales and keys on the Dulcimer.  In fact, we can play all the modes of the G Major scale.

Here you see the seven Modes of the G Major scale.  Only four of the modes are commonly used in American traditional music; two major and two minor modes:

G Ionian - the G Major scale

D Mixolydian - the D Major scale, but with a dominant (flat) 7th

E Aeolian - the E Natural Minor scale, the relative minor of G

A Dorian - the A Minor scale, but with a major 6th instead of the minor 6th of the Natural Minor scale.

In the same sense that every key has a relative minor key, so every key has a relative Mixolydian mode and a relative Dorian mode.  For example, if you had a piano that had only the white keys, and none of the black keys worked at all, you would still be able to play the C Major scale just fine, because that scale uses only the white keys. The C Major scale is: C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C.  Just like with our Dulcimer G Major scale above, the 6th mode of the C Major scale is the relative minor - A Minor.  So you need only the white keys of the piano to play the A Minor scale, and likewise, the D Dorian mode and G Mixolydian modes of the C Major scale use only the white keys.  So you can play all the modes of the C major scale on a piano with only the white keys.

The dulcimer and it's modes work the same way, except the dulcimer is tuned to the G major scale instead of the C major scale of the piano's white keys.  So we can play in G Ionian, D Mixolydian, E Aeolian, and A Dorian because each of these modes use the same notes as the G Major scale.  The D Mixolydian and E Aeolian modes are usually played starting on the open string and first fret, respectively.  The tunings for each of the four common modes are as follows:

D Mixolydian -  dd A D

E Aeolian -        dd A D , capo on 1st fret

G Ionian -        dd G D

A Dorian -        dd G D , capo on 4th fret

The dulcimer is a modal instrument because it has a diatonic fretboard, which can be used to play all the modes of the G major scale. 

Dark Hollow Dulcimers  256 Durham Road,  Ottsville,  Pennsylvania  18942