Music Theory And Dulcimer Playing

Music theory and dulcimer playing

Most  musicians I admire understand music theory. They may understand music theory intuitively or they may have formally studied the theory of music but either way they know what is going on. These musicians may or may not be able to articulate what they are doing or thinking musically but they can tell if  a note sounds right or wrong, hear underlying rhythmic, harmonic and melodic patterns, and have the ability to express themselves with a large pallet of musical colors to choose from.

In current dulcimer culture there are a relatively small number of players who embrace the idea that the mountain dulcimer has strings and frets that produce notes; a majority of players think of strings and frets as lines and numbers on the tablature they play from.

Tablature offers quick gratification; you tune the dulcimer, put your fingers where the paper tells you, and music comes out of the dulcimer. This is a valid approach to playing the dulcimer enjoyed by many players.

If a dulcimer player prefers to have a broader understanding of why the tablature tells you to put your fingers in certain places they will need to learn the theory and structure behind the arrangement. Once this structure is understood the dulcimer player can generalize the information and begin to see and hear coherent patterns in other tunes they play. This in turn makes learning to play by ear much simpler; music becomes rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic (harmony, chords) patterns rather than appearing to be a random assemblage of rhythm and pitch.

In 40 years of teaching dulcimer very few students have wanted to take this plunge. When teaching classes on how music theory applies to the dulcimer usually half the people in the room have said they didn’t learn anything. In this context “not learning anything” usually means they didn’t leave the class with tablature and a new song under their belt. About a quarter of the people usually say they got some interesting ideas from the class. The last quarter usually get excited and say they finally understand how the dulcimer works as an instrument and they have ideas on how their playing can grow beyond current limits.

There is no right or wrong way of playing the dulcimer. If  you want to play from tablature and feel musically fulfilled then there is no need to go further. If you want a better understanding of how music works, if you want to learn melodies by ear and would like to know what chords will work with a particular melody and want to be able to converse with other musicians about musical ideas then getting a basic grasp on music theory will open many doors for you.

My only formal training in music theory took place during my first year of high school. Compared to many musicians my knowledge of music theory is fairly basic. Still, this knowledge was enough to enable me to learn to play the dulcimer and hammered dulcimer. I was able to learn and understand how dulcimers worked as musical instruments and find my way around them.

There are many books available on basic music theory and I link to one available on line for free to help you get started.

Rock on!


Ocean Of Wisdom

Ocean of Wisdom is my “greatest hit.” I first released it on a cassette in 1990. The cassette was originally going to be manufactured in the UK and picked up when I arrived there to do a six week tour. Three weeks before I was going to go to the UK I learned that the agent I had worked with did not have his act together and the tour would have been a disaster. The first gig would have been in the North of Scotland and the second gig would be a week later in the South of England. The rest of the tour had many holes in the schedule. The agent said he was still working on the tour and not to worry. Fine, except he had been working on booking me for a year and I had no confidence that in three weeks he would come up with the 15 or 20 gigs to make the tour viable.

I ended up releasing the cassette in the US in 1990. Since then several people have learned to play it and a few other folks have recorded it.

I wrote the tune while living in the San Fernando Valley. I moved there from Boulder, CO because a woman I loved got a job there.

I never quite understood Southern California culture. I grew up in New York City. Life in Southern California was like living in some strange parallel universe. In New York most people I met communicated with a direct and blatant honesty. I knew who was a friend and who was conning me.

In the LA area I found it difficult to differentiate politeness from being blown off by people. I did make some good friends but more often than not I would think I was connecting with people personally and/or professionally but it was just surface-level interaction. Calls wouldn’t get returned, agreements were not kept, etc. Again, I did meet and work with some great folks but that wasn’t the norm.

One day I was driving from The Valley so I could busk by the La Brea Tar Pits. Yes, I used to play and put out the hat next to a tar pit. I have led an interesting life.

While driving through Laurel Canyon I heard beautiful rumba music from Zaire via the magic of radio. During a news break it was announced that the Dalai Lama had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

When I got to the tar pits I set up my hammered dulcimer and this tune just sort of happened. It had been percolating during the car ride.

I rerecorded Ocean of Wisdom on the CD “The Sadness Of Common Objects” in 2007.

After a year in Southern California the relationship I was in came to an end and I moved back to Boulder. And six years later I moved to Michigan. I’m still here.

I Am Here

This song was inspired by a quote of Sri Ramana Maharshi.  As he neared the end of his life he comforted his devotees by saying, “You say I am going away, but where can I go? I am always here. You give too much importance to the body.”

I wrote the song many years ago and recorded it in 2007 on my album “Songs From My Past – Music With Mountain Dulcimer.”  I’m singing and playing dulcimer and through the magic of recording technology I’m also playing harmonium.


Ocarinists Are Not Freaks!

Well, maybe some ocarinists are freaks, but I am, among other things, an ocarinist, and I am not a freak, though opinions on this do vary.Ocarinists Are Not Freaks!According to the above listing taken from “The American Educator, circa 1919” ocarinas are “classed with musical toys and freaks.”

This statement can be taken a number of ways…

Ocarinists Stand Together! – We Have Nothing To Lose But Our Chains!

I’ll stop now.

Oustsider Folk From 1937

Fortunat Savard – “Adieu, Parents Et Amis Ou Red River Valley” (1937)

(vocals, mandolin, harmonica)

Anything I could say about this remarkable piece of music would be a mere shadow of it’s awesomeness!

Be amazed and perplexed!

Listen to this recording several times in a row.

Mysteries will be revealed and created!

Your life will change for the better!

Or not…

A Personal Note

I’ve mentioned before that I have been having adventures with back problems. After waiting a year for my insurance company to decree I was worthy of a needed surgery I had said surgery this past March. There were some complications and recovery was not as advertised.

Two months ago I was feeling about 75% back to myself. I was working in the shop a little more each day. Trained professionals told me I could expect a full recovery within a year and that seemed very likely.

Six weeks ago I started noticing my legs would tire more easily than they had a few weeks before. Then I started having some numbness, pain, and cramping.

An MRI revealed another vertebra was jealous that it didn’t get to play with the surgeon during the previous operation so it is now yelling for attention. “Hey, what about me!” says vertebra L-4. “Why couldn’t you cry for attention before the last surgery!” says Doug.

So friends, I will be having another surgery on November 14th.

I did not know an MRI could be taken while I played the dulcimer. Here is the MRI the surgeon will refer to while operating:

Interior support structure of a dulcimer builder and player.

Here are some of the tools the surgeon will be using. Or are these my tools?

The tools a surgeon will use to fix my back. Wait, those are my tools!

It would be dishonest of me to deny that I have had moments of frustration during the course of this adventure but in general I remain optimistic.

I have been organizing the shop and getting materials together to make it easy to begin making dulcimers after I recover from surgery. Depending on how things go I could be working on a limited basis within a month though it may take longer. I’ll keep you posted.

I have some beautiful sets of walnut, curly maple, Adirondack spruce, sassafras, and butternut ready to become dulcimers. I’ll be sharpening tools and getting everything ready so I can easily work a few minutes here and there as I am able.

I have not been able to work as much during the past few weeks as I had the weeks before but passion always finds an outlet.

I have been studying construction techniques used by those who make classical guitars, romantic guitars and other instruments. These luthiers often use just a few hand tools and rely on skill more than tooling and jigs. This is the direction I lean towards and I am feeling an inner growth spurt that I imagine will express itself in the instruments I make after recovery.

My study has also included musical explorations, primarily while playing mountain dulcimer. Here again I am finding joy in deeper simplicity. Perhaps I will record and upload some music during recovery as I am able.

I have a loving wife and a community of good friends near and far. I love making instruments and playing music. I live indoors and eat every day.

Life is good.


Playing Hammered Dulcimer With A Light Touch

When I began playing hammered dulcimer I was pretty much on my own. It was the middle of the 1970’s and in all of New York City I could not find a teacher.

I was able to find the three hammered dulcimer instruction books available at the time. By far the most useful book I found was “The Hammered Dulcimer – How To Make It And Play It” by Howie Mitchell. Howie said this was not a clear instruction manual but more a documentation of how he figured out how to build and play the hammered dulcimer. I later obtained the record that accompanied the book and could hear some of the possibilities the instrument offered when played by sensitive hands. If you can find a copy the book and record they are a fascinating piece of history from the early days of the hammered dulcimer revival in the Untied States.

"The Hammered Dulcimer - How To Make It And Play It" by Howie Mitchell

The other two books available were of limited help, offering little more than a tuning chart and a very basic overview of technique, the bulk of the books being collections of tunes from the author’s repertoire.

I was already busking as a mountain dulcimer player in a few old-time string bands in New City when I started playing hammered dulcimer so fiddle tunes were familiar territory for me and that is what I began to play on the hammered dulcimer.

Playing hammered dulcimer as a street musician gave me a lot of time to “learn as I earned.” It also caused me to develop the habit of playing very loud and very fast because the louder and faster I played the more money people threw in the hat.

When I started going to dulcimer festivals in the late 1970’s it seemed playing loud and fast were considered signs of being a good player. Taste and musical expression were optional but if you could wow the crowd you must be good. Hammered dulcimer contests were more akin to finding out who was “The fastest gun in the West” rather than who could play with feeling, creativity, and expression.

As I musically matured a bit in the early 1980’s I tired of unforgivably beating the hammered dulcimer. I played a lot of delicate music on the mountain dulcimer so why not try this on the hammered dulcimer as well?

Cultures with a long, unbroken tradition of the hammered dulcimer and related instruments have developed various techniques to play dynamically and expressively. I listened to recordings of players from China, Greece, Persia, India and Eastern Europe for inspiration. I imagine European hammered dulcimer players of the late Middle Ages and The Renaissance were influenced by the techniques of Eastern players since it is from these cultures Europe had  acquired the hammered dulcimer during the Crusades.

Damsel With A Dulcimer

The first thing I learned was that a light grip on the hammers and a light touch when striking the instrument allowed far greater dexterity, agility and dynamic range. I could produce more tonal colors and execute ornamentation not possible when playing more aggressively. Playing fast was also easier as the lighter touch allowed using the recoil of the hammers bouncing off the strings to my advantage.

The lighter touch allowed me to play with greater hand independence and this led to using more harmony and complimentary movement in my arrangements.

Playing hammered dulcimer with a light touch allows all the muscles of the fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders to be involved in controlling the hammers. This not only helps improve tones and control but also keeps the upper body more relaxed and comfortable while playing. If your shoulders and neck feel tense while playing this may be a sign you are working harder than necessary!

This has been my experience. Your mileage may vary.

Happy hammering!