Traditional Dulcimer Tuning

by Cecil Fontaine
Learn the different tunings for the dulcimer.

Learn the different tunings for the dulcimer.

Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images

The dulcimer is a traditional fretted instrument that is used in American folk music. This instrument is classified in the zither family and is related to the autoharp and cimbalon. Most dulcimers have three strings, although some have an additional fourth string that is considered an extra melody string and is tuned to the same pitch as the other melody string. Four traditional dulcimer tunings are available, each of which is conducive to playing in a certain mode. Each of these four tuning options is based on the notes in the octave below and above middle C.

Ionian Tuning

Starting with the bass string, which is the thickest string, and ascending to the melody string, the thinnest string, the strings are tuned D-A-A. If there is a fourth string, it is also tuned to A. The bass string is tuned to the D below middle C and the rest of the strings are tuned to the A below middle C; each string is tuned to the same A and that there is no difference in octaves. This tuning is conducive to playing in the Ionian mode, which you can play on the melody string by ascending and descending each fret from the third fret to the tenth fret. When doing this, make sure to skip the 6+ fret.

Mixolydian Tuning

Starting with the lowest string, the strings are tuned D-A-D. If there is a fourth string, it is tuned to the same D as the third string. The bass string is tuned to the D below middle C, the A also below middle C and the high D above middle C. This tuning encourages playing in the Mixolydian mode, which can be heard if you play the open melody string and ascend to the seventh fret, skipping the 6+ fret as before.

Dorian Tuning

Tune your strings D-A-G for the Dorian tuning -- the extra melody string should be tuned to the same G as the other melody string. The low D is below middle C, as is the A and the G. This tuning keeps all the strings close together in pitch, but offers more note options that the previous two tunings. To hear the Dorian mode, play from the fourth fret to the eleventh fret and keep in mind to jump the 6+ fret.

Aeolian Tuning

The Aeolian tuning is D-A-C, with an extra C for the additional melody string. The D and A are below middle C, while the C is tuned to middle C. Get to this tuning from the Ionian and Mixolydian tunings since only the melody strings need to be re-tuned. Similar to the Dorian tuning, Aeolian allows for more notes to be played than the first two tunings. To play the Aeolian mode, start on the melody string´s first fret and ascend to the eighth fret, while omitting the 6+ fret.

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.

Photo Credits

  • Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images