Chris Peterson
Hammered Dulcimer, Guitar, Original Music

Hammered Dulcimer Roadmap

The standard hammered dulcimer consists of strings stretched over two bridges which sit atop the soundboard. The bridges are referred to as the treble bridge (on the left) and the bass bridge (on the right). There are notes on both sides of the treble bridge, and to the left of the bass bridge. The basic layout looks like this:

Diatonic versus Chromatic

Most of the music we play on the dulcimer, called western music (coming from Western Europe), is based on an 8-note, or diatonic scale, which you probably know as DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-DO. But there are 5 other notes among those 8, usually referred to as accidentals. On a piano, the key of C starts at one C, and follows all the white keys up to the next C, with the black keys being the accidentals. This grouping of all 12 tones (13, including the high C) is called a chromatic scale.

Most modern musical instruments are chromatic, in that they have all the accidentals within each diatonic scale. The piano is the most familiar, and also the easiest example to look at, in that it has a series of overlapping scales among the keys. If you were to think of each scale as a box, they'd look something like this.

This is a linear layout, in which all the notes from low to high follow a straight line from left to right.

The hammered dulcimer, by contrast, is a diatonic instrument, where each scale is laid out without the accidentals, and they're laid out spacially besides. If you also think of these scales as boxes, you'll see that there's a lot less overlap:

Notice that they don't just sit side-to-side like they do on a piano. Instead, they're like building blocks that sit next to and on top of each other. This makes the hammered dulcimer a spatial instrument, since you move up-and-down and side-to-side.

The Dulcimer's Basic Major Scale

Let's look at a little piece of the dulcimer:

Notice the markers on the bridges? These are the dulcimer's scale "anchors." If you narrow your field to just two of them, you'll find the eight notes of a major scale, four to a side (remember, this is a spatial instrument). If you were to place dots on each of the eight notes, you could actually trace a box around the scale. This is what it would look like on the D major scale on the treble bridge:

This is also the most basic scale pattern on the dulcimer, which I call 4&4, played bottom to top, right to left. The easiest way to do this is to start with your left hammer on the first note of the scale (called the root) and alternate left-right-left-right. If you do this, you'll find that after you play the fourth note, your left hammer is free to drop down to play the fifth note on the left side of the box.

This works the same for scales starting on the bass bridge, except that there, you're working across the valley between two bridges instead of across one bridge. Try playing it slowly, up and down, over and over.

If You Have a Sharp Eye... noticed something interesting. Let's look at a larger section of the treble bridge:

Once again, you can see the standard box pattern for the D major scale. But just above the fourth note (G, where you'd normally zig down to the left side of the treble bridge), you'll find an A (fifth note of the scale) -- the same note your left hand just hit on the left-treble directly across from the root note. What's going on here?

The answer is that the A needs to be there for the G major scale's 4&4 box pattern. But it also works within the D major scale, giving you an alternative to the A from the D major 4&4 box pattern. So now you have a second way to play the D major scale, as 5&3, starting this time with the right hammer.

And by now, you've surely also noticed the B (sixth note of the scale) just above the A on right-treble. Once again, this note is needed for the G major scale, but it also gives you yet a third way to play the D major scale, this time as 6&2, starting with the left hammer. These two patterns look like this:

At this point, your eye may have wandered further up the right-treble and found the D sitting up there. You may have even found it to be just like the D at the top of the box pattern, which it is. "Cool," you think, "I could just play the D major scale straight up!"

Not so fast. The note just below that upper D (at the bridge marker) is C natural, which is needed for the G major scale. In a D major scale, you need a C# there, so this pattern won't work.

So what does all this mean to you? First of all, it lets you play a major scale in all of the dulcimer's main keys -- D, G, C, F, and A on a 15/14 or larger instrument -- simply by moving these patterns to different bridge markers. And it works across the bridge valley the same way it works across the treble bridge.

Second, not every tune will fit neatly within the standard 4&4 box. Some are better suited to 5&3 or 6&2 (and sometimes even change during the tune) and many extend beyond a single octave.

In addition, you may find that you lead better with one hand than the other. That is, one hand may predominantly fall on the beat of the tune, and if you lead with your right hand, the 5&3 will work best for you.

One-Octave Excercise

Find every major scale available on your dulcimer that fits in a box, from the bottom up. On a 12/11 dulcimer, this will include G major, D major, C major, and, to a lesser extent, F major. 15/14 and larger dulcimers will also have one full octave of A major, starting at the bottom of the treble bridge.

Start with the 4&4, and play the scale up and down, over and over again, until you can play it smoothly and cleanly. The pattern will be:

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, etc.

Resist the temptation to speed up. Keep a smooth, even keel and only speed up as much as you can while keeping a smooth flow of music. If it gets choppy or uneven, slow down.

Play each scale all three ways (you'll only be able to play F major as 4&4 and 5&3). Start very slowly, and play smoothly and cleanly. Do not speed up until you can maintain a smooth and clear tone.

Two-Octave Exercise

This is just what it sounds like - the One-Octave Exercise extended to two octaves, as follows:

|-------second octave-------|

You'll need to start on the bass bridge, and on a 12/11, you'll be limited to G major and C major.

Start with your left hand. Note that the "8" of the first octave is the "1" of the second octave; don't stop there, but keep going, and keep the alternating pattern the same. Along the way, you should find that the first octave is played 4&4, while the second is played 5&3. Play this exercise back and forth until it comes easily.

Applying This to a Tune

To demonstrate how these patterns work within a tune, let's use "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," a tune that most folks know only too well. Here's the first part of the tune in written form (click on the notes to play the tune).

This tune is in D major, working across the treble bridge within the D major 4&4 box:

All right, let's play:
  1. The first two notes of the tune are D, which is the first note of the scale, at the bottom right corner of the box. Play these notes as L-R, where L=left hand and R=right hand.

  2. The next two notes are A, or the fifth note of the scale. You have two choices here: you could play on right-treble just above the next marker, but try moving across the treble bridge instead, to the lower left corner of the box. See how easy that is? Play those two A notes on left-treble as L-R.

  3. The next two notes are just one step up from the A, which makes them B. Play them on left-treble one string up from A as L-R.

  4. Then it's back to A for a single, longer note, which is played with the left hand. Notice that, so far, we're keeping a steady L-R alternating pattern.

  5. The next two notes (in the third measure) are G, which is on right-treble at the bridge marker, at the top right corner of the box. Play them L-R.

  6. The next two notes are F#, or one string down from G. Play them L-R.

  7. Then come two E notes, yet another string down, played L-R.

  8. And then there's another longer note on D, played with the left hand.

Here's the second part (click to play):

  1. The first two notes of this part are A, but if you play on the left-treble A as L-R, you'll find it difficult to get your left hand over to the next note (G), so this time, play these A notes on right-treble just above the bridge marker as L-R.

  2. The next two notes are G, so move down one string and play L-R.

  3. And then move down another string and play the F# twice as L-R.

  4. And down one more string for a longer note on E, with the left hand.

  5. Repeat steps 1-4, and you've played the second part!
The third and final part of the tune is a snap, because it's the first part all over again.

Although the tune was very simple this time, this the way most dulcimer players approach tunes -- commit them to memory and then find the notes on the dulcimer. If it seems like a daunting task right now, remember that you're just getting the lay of the land. It'll feel more comfortable after a while, and eventually, you'll know where the notes are practically without thinking.

Tune Exercises

Play "Twinkle" again, but this time in G major. Don't worry, it's easy! Just take the pattern you learned for D major and move it up one bridge marker to the next box. The pattern will be exactly the same, but you'll be playing in a different key.

Next, see if you can play it in C major, where the box starts on the bass bridge and crosses the bridge valley to right-treble. Again, the pattern is exactly the same. The only adjustment you have to make is for the slight offset because of strings passing each other.

Then see if you can find another tune on the dulcimer. Pick something simple that you know really well, perhaps another children's tune. Try to keep a steady alternation of L-R hammering. If something feels weird or uncomfortable, see if there's another way to approach it. Above all, be patient, and don't beat yourself up for mistakes.


Finding Duplicates on the Fly

On any dulcimer, a duplicate note can always be found to the right (across the treble bridge or treble-bass valley) and up four strings. From any given note, move right-1 and up-4, and you'll always find a duplicate, unless the second note is on a bridge marker.

Minor Keys

Minor keys don't present too many problems on the dulcimer, at least in traditional tunes, but you need to remember that a minor scale never starts on a bridge marker unless you're jumping around the strings.

It's also important to know that there are two to three different modes generally referred to as "minor." Happily, a lot of the traditional tunes we play on the hammered dulcimer (both American and Celtic) use what's called the Dorian mode, which falls as easily on the dulcimer as the major mode, in a simple 4&4 box pattern. On the treble bridge of your dulcimer, E Dorian looks like this:

...and you play it exactly as you would play a D major scale, but starting one note above the bridge marker. You can also use the 5&3 pattern for it. You get the same results with:
  • A Dorian, starting a note above the G marker on right-treble or on bass
  • D Dorian, starting a note above the C marker on right-treble or on bass
  • B Dorian, starting a note above the A marker on right-treble (15/14 or larger)
You can run the above exercises for the Dorian scales exactly as you would for the major scales, just remembering to start above a bridge marker.

Melodic Minor runs a straight line up one side of the bridge. This can feel weird when you're used to moving sideways, but the workarounds are fairly easy. Here's E minor on the dulcimer:

Here again, you can find the keys of A minor (on bass) and B minor (left-treble). A minor on right-treble and D minor on bass are a bit limiting because you run out of dulcimer before you get to the top of the scale and have to move to the left. You can also play these minor scales using the 6&2 pattern.

© 2000 by Christopher W. Peterson.