Music Theory for the Mountain Dulcimer

by Cecil Fontaine
The mountain dulcimer is an important instrument in Appalachian music.

The mountain dulcimer is an important instrument in Appalachian music. Images

The mountain dulcimer (alternatively called the Appalachian dulcimer) is a stringed instrument that is played in traditional American music, especially music originating in the Appalachian region of the United States. Typically strung with three strings (although some dulcimers can have up to six strings, including drone strings), the mountain dulcimer can be played in your lap or like a guitar. Serious students of the mountain dulcimer study theory for their instrument to gain a full understanding of the instrument and the scales and chords used.


Most mountain dulcimers are tuned in such a way that the strings are conducive to playing in a certain mode (this is due to the frets being spaced according to a diatonic scale). For this reason, it is important to familiarize yourself with the different possible tunings of the instrument and the different modes that they support. For example, to be able to play in the Mixolydian mode, the strings are tuned (beginning with the lowest string) D-A-D; for the Ionian mode, the strings are tuned D-A-A; for the Dorian mode, D-A-G; for the Aeolian mode, D-A-C. Familiarize yourself with these tunings and how they affect the scale when you ascend and descend the fret board.


To play a specific mode, you must be familiar with which intervals compose the mode. The common mountain dulcimer tuning (D-A-D) is conducive to playing in the Mixolydian mode, which is composed of the following intervals: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone. The Ionian mode is formed by these intervals: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. For the Dorian mode, the intervals are: tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone, tone. The Aeolian mode uses these intervals: tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone. The spacing of tones and semitones in each of these modes creates a distinct mood in the scale, which directly influences your sound when playing. Try the different modes to find which one you prefer.


Playing chords can be limited on a mountain dulcimer because of the number of strings that can be played simultaneously. On the typical three-stringed dulcimer, you can play three notes to form a chord. Since the notes that define a chord are the root, third, fifth and seventh, you will always have to omit at least one of these important chord components. However, this does not keep the dulcimer from achieving a beautiful sound when playing chords. To familiarize yourself with how basic chords are formed, consider a major chord formed in the following way: root, major third, perfect fifth, root (an octave higher than the root). Different chords can be formed by changing the intervals one by one: Lower the octave root to a major seventh to achieve a major seventh chord. For a dominant chord, lower the seventh a semitone, where it becomes a minor seventh. For a minor seventh chord, keep the minor seventh and lower the third a semitone (to a minor third). For a minor chord, keep the minor third and move the seventh back up to the octave root. Since you cannot play all of these notes at once, focus on finding different voicings (various ways of playing two or more of the intervals that make up the chord, not necessarily in ascending order) all over the fret board.

Tying It All Together

Putting all of this information together can be a challenging task, so it's best to tackle it slowly. Focus on scales first; work your way up and down the fret board, thinking about each interval as you play it. Focus on recognizing the differences between the modes. After you feel comfortable with scales, concentrate on finding the intervals that make up different chords and focus on effective ways to enunciate chords (focus on the thirds and sevenths).

About the Author

Based in Colorado, Cecil Fontaine has been writing and editing since 2009, specializing in Brazilian travel guides. He received his Bachelor of Arts in political economy from the University of California, Berkeley in 2008.

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