Modes and Tunings for the Mountain Dulcimer

The mountain dulcimer, even in its simplicity, holds more than a few secrets. Those who pick it up for the first time are struck with its unique droning tones and find they can play simple melodies rather quickly, sometimes within a matter of minutes. What many beginning players don’t realize though is that there is no such thing as “standard” tuning for the mountain dulcimer.

There are two common tunings for mountain dulcimer, DAA and DAD. In DAA, the bass string is tuned to D with the middle and paired melody strings tuned to A. In DAD, the bass string is tuned to D with the middle string tuned to A. In this tuning, however, the paired melody strings are tuned to D. At Music Folk, we commonly tune our instruments to DAD.

To introduce a bit of music theory to the discussion, these tunings can actually be referred to as modal tunings. Because a standard mountain dulcimer does not include a fully chromatic scale (12-tone), it is considered a modal instrument. That is, the unusual pattern of frets on a mountain dulcimer renders a seven-tone scale. These seven-tone scales are known as modes.

A mode is then a pre-determined relationship of notes, in this instance, defined by the open strings of the dulcimer. So in DAD tuning, the relationship between the open strings of the dulcimer in turn define the resultant 7-note tone. Modes can be major or minor depending upon that relationship.

Let’s dive in a little deeper now… The ancient Greeks developed seven different modes. In modern dulcimer music, only four are commonly used. They are:

Major Modes
Minor Modes
Mixolydian
Aolian
Ionian
Dorian

Mixolydian is a major key mode and is probably the most common of all modes for the mountain dulcimer. Of the mixolydian modes, the most common tuning is DAD. The notes of the mixolydian mode are:

D E F# G A B C D
1 1 1/2 1 1 1/2 1

Notice the half steps between the F# and G and again between the B and C. Keep in mind, it is the relationship between the notes of the open strings that define the mode, not the actual note. So, if the strings were tuned to EBE, it would still be a mixolydian tuning but in a different key. This is an important distinction.

The ionian mode is the other prominent major mode. It differs from the mixolydian by its placement of the second half step of the scale as shown below:

D E F# G A B C# D
1 1 1/2 1 1 1 1/2

Two common ionian tunings have the melody and middle strings at the same pitch, a fifth or octave above the bass string. Other tunings include the melody and bass strings an octave apart with the middle string a fifth above the bass or the strings tuned to create either a major or minor chord. A common ionian tuning is DAA.

Aolian is a minor mode. Again, it is the placement of the ½ steps in the scale that make it different.

D E F G A Bb C D
1 1/2 1 1 1/2 1 1

To tune your mountain dulcimer to aolian from mixolydian, you can use two methods. The first method is probably the simplest-leave the bass and middle strings the same and tune the paired melody strings down one full step. An alternate method would be to raise the bass and middle strings up one full step. Each method is completely acceptable and has its own merits. The most common aolian tuning is DAC.

The last mode we’ll look at is dorian. As with the other modes, it is the placement of the ½ steps that make it different. Dorian is sometimes called “mountain minor” due to its unusual scale.

D E F G A B C D
1 1/2 1 1 1 1/2 1

From mixolydian, a dorian tuning can be achieved by raising the bass string one full step. A common dorian tuning is EAD.

The mountain dulcimer can be tuned into any of these modes. However, due to string gauges and the action of the strings against the fret board, you are likely limited to only four or five keys.

Gary Gallier at a recent concert

Many players never explore beyond mixolydian and ionian, perhaps with good reason. 1987 National Mountain Dulcimer Champ, Gary Gallier plays almost exclusively in DAD, a mixolydian mode. He contends that while understanding other tunings can help a player advance their skills, he recommends to his students “to stick with one tuning in order to gain a complete mastery of it”.

Likewise, Lee Rowe says, “I use DAD most of the time. It allows me to play in all of the modes using a capo and it gives me a full octave across the strings for cross-picking or fingerpicking”. Lee is the 1999 National Mountain Dulcimer Champ.

Lee makes a great point about capos. By using them, you can experiment with different modes and keys without retuning.

Whether you are a beginner or approaching master level, we’re hopeful that this look at modes and tunings has sparked your imagination to experiment even further.

6 Comments on “Modes and Tunings for the Mountain Dulcimer

  1. Maharat, Professor, Judge, Doctor, and Baroness ELYAS FRAENKEL ISAACS

    As one who studied classical piano as a child and later fell in love with traditional folk music from many cultures and nations, it is refreshingly inspiring to encounter and engage with an articulate, knowledgeable, and intelligent discussion of music theory for, of all things and wonderfully, the Mountain Dulcimer. Top ‘O the mornin’ to you all. From: Dr. Isaacs

  2. Hey Now! Thanks for a great post. I am trying to get my mothers old dulcimer back into playing shape and when I got finished – I realized I had no idea how to tune it!

    Thanks again for posting

  3. Many thanks for these definitions, and the differences between modes. Apart from the mountain dulcimer, I also play the tin whistle which is a modal instrument, and your description also unlocks an understanding of some of the haunting melodies I’ve learned on that instrument (Banish Misfortune, for example).

    For clarification, why does a standard (“white note”) scale in the key of C not qualify as a mode given that it has 7 tones, with the octave note being a repeat of the starting note, as in the modes you mention in your post. Or does it?

    • The scale you describe is Ionian mode, a standard major scale. Compare the whole step/half step for Ionian described above with the C major scale, and you’ll see it fits. Cheers!

  4. Ha…I have a mandolin and the top string keeps breaking, so I have been playing on the bottom 3 strings, thinking that they would be tuned like a mountain dulcimer since it is so easy to pick out a melody and two-note chords.
    I didn’t know that the mountain dulcimer is like a tin whistle, which plays seven notes in a particular major scale and you generally have to have one whistle for each “key” you are playing in. There are ways to play in one other key besides the basic key of the instrument, but I am not sure how that works yet.
    So I guess my mandolin usually has four strings, tuned G-D-A-E, Someone told me that that’s the way violins are tuned?
    But I have enough frets to play a chromatic scale, so my exploration down dulcimer lane was interesting but wouldn’t help me learn 2-note chording with a melody line. I just broke 2 “E” strings in a short period of time, so I’m not much in the mood to buy a new set of strings.
    The lower ones seem to last MUCH longer than that skinny one at the top.
    Anyway, enjoy your mountain music and stay healthy and happy!

  5. Twenty years or so, my husband bought a kit from Cripple Creek Dulcimer Store in Colorado. He glued it together, then put it in a box. I am now finishing it! It has many for frets than you talk about. It reminds me more of a guitar.

    I have looked at several DIY videos. Some have the 2 top strings close together. Others don’t. Which is the most practical way to assemble them?

    I am excited to see what will happen when I get it all together.

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