I may be confused about traditional sounding dulcimers

Richard Streib
Richard Streib
@richard-streib
4 years ago
191 posts

So well said, Strumelia. Great thinking, understanding and putting it into words.

Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
4 years ago
2,112 posts

Sounds like lots of fun Robin.  I hope you inspire some folks to make local music!  hamster

There were many wonderful home musicians, and musical families, in the Appalachias before the time of radio.  Regular people sang while they worked, they sang at the end of the day to unwind, they sang during worship, and in play. Jean was considered unique for sure when she 'burst upon the folk scene' in NYC in the 1940s!  However, there were many others in her time and place who were formidable musicians, particularly traditional singers.  Her own sister Edna came a few years before Jean and was a great singer/dulcimer-accompanist in her own right. These ballad singers were much respected in their communities. As Jean said, it was the songs that led the way among the music she grew up with- she considered herself first and foremost a singer, not a dulcimer player. Jean also played guitar, banjo, and recorder and I don't know what else.. likely some piano because she did some school teaching as well.

Jean described how she was disappointed to later discover that she did not 'invent' her method of singing the melody while playing the harmony... she came to realize it was something other creative music makers did as well.  As a young person she thought she had invented the method for the first time... because she invented it for herself to solve the problem of not hearing the dulcimer when she played and sang the same notes in unison.  Don't we all 'invent' things and marvel at our own genius, only to discover others invented the same thing long ago? sigh

I strongly believe that some of the more creative music makers within any broader population, no matter what their education or background, will experiment with playing, instrument construction, tunings, songs, strumming patterns, etc.  After all, that's how the 6.5 fret came into favor. Yes for sure musicians can settle into a favored way of doing things, but just because people described them as doing things one way, I always allow that they tried out a few variations at some point...even if it's as minor as trying a different material for a pick.  I know I do such experimenting all the time!  When i stumble into a tune on the banjo where the notes are not easily accessible.. the first thing I do is fool around with the tuning to make it more playable. 
Despite the scarcity of documented writings and recordings of very early dulcimer, I maintain my conviction that inquiring-minded musicians of any time and place will twist pegs and have their own 'eureka! moments'. bananadance  Thus, you'll never see me saying that people didn't do this or didn't do that.  I may say a tuning was 'the most common' (and ionian certainly was the most common, likely followed by unison such as used in Galax...one can play 90% of American folk repertoire in them), but I never will say something was 'not done' or never done'.   :) 

I have two epinettes des Vosges.  Their fretting patterns and stringing are almost identical. Yet I keep one in major ionian and one in aeolian or dorian mode to play the simple minor folk tunes I love.  I keep a Hummel in major tuning to play cheerful dance tunes, and I am having a bowed langspil made now that I'll be playing probably only in minor tuning.  Interestingly, the oldest surviving Icelandic langspils in museums had variations in fretting patterns, indicating variations in tunings.  And some are pure diatonic as we know it, and others are chromatically fretted.  They were strummed, plucked, and bowed.  According to what I've read, there is no documented 'original' traditional tuning that survived in descriptions, so people during a later langspil revival simply adopted the tunings that worked for them.  Those revival tunings are now generally accepted as 'standard', but we don't really know how players may have tuned the earliest langpils.  
I know there are many, many folks who only play major tunes, or who play only in one tuning.  But i can't imagine not playing the soulful minor tunes of Jean's time!  Ah, but I digress...(and blab...)

In any case, here's to our each having enough Eureka moments in our playing journey to keep us inspired!




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Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990

updated by @strumelia: 02/15/18 12:41:36PM
Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
4 years ago
1,970 posts

Great idea, Robin;  wishing you much success!

Richard Streib
Richard Streib
@richard-streib
4 years ago
191 posts

Sounds exciting. Let us know what kind of response you get.

 

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
4 years ago
237 posts

Strumelia:


heheh... Robin I think we'll just have to remain in disagreement concerning this groaning board of specifics and conclusions.   kittyscratch catdance   


 


Richard, the one thing I think we can all reliably agree on is that there is no 'one only' for mountain dulcimers-  no one only tuning, no one only playing style, no 'one only' size, or shape, or kind of music...  And that doesn't even take in to account the whole decades-long debate about what 'traditional' means in the first place!   duck



HUG   Strumelia - I think it is good we can have these debates.  And I am more than prepared to shift my position as new information comes my way, because that's how we learn!   Jean Ritchie was sooooo unique, in my opinion, in the way she used the instrument with her voice to play and sing the ballads from her cultural reference.  But we can go into that another time!!!! blinders


What you say about a plethora of 'traditions' is so true - as is the debate about what 'traditional' means!  Particularly when we are focusing on very few people over a very small period of time in a very young and dynamic culture!  And that history has been clouded by the early folklorists lens on 'simple mountain folk'.


I made a box dulcimer just before Christmas (the story is here  ) and I left it with the pile of scrap wood from the village shed build.  A friend of mine found it and has tucked it away in a cupboard at the village hall.  He said "You know that someone is going to find that box in 100 years time and write a PhD about it" nerd  Laugh


That certainly got me thinking about 'tradition' and how it starts with something new.  So I thought I'd see if folks in the village wanted to make a new Welsh instrument, based around what we've come to call the Tennessee music box (which David Schnaufer thought may have been distributed by the Romani families originally from Wales), but with some modifications such as zither pins, nut and bridge, to suit the Welsh hymns, folk songs and twmpath tunes carried to the parish where I live by the Romani Cymreig families when they visited each year.  The flyers are written and will be distbuted this weekend - so we'll see what happens!


Robin

Kusani
Kusani
@kusani
4 years ago
134 posts

Thanks folks..... that helped a lot. 

Richard Streib
Richard Streib
@richard-streib
4 years ago
191 posts

I agree Strumelia. So glad for all the responses. They reinforce what I had thought was correct. What a versatile instrument we all love.

Dan
Dan
@dan
4 years ago
164 posts

Kusani:

Ok, need some help here; I have missed something in my reading.  Please explain 1-5-5?  I do tune the dulcimers I build to Dad. Thanks for any help....

1 is the bass string. It can be tuned to any comfortable tension related to its mass. The middle 5 is the center drone, it is tuned to a perfect fifth above the base string. The last 5 is the melody string and it is also tuned a perfect fifth above the bass string. If you are setting your intonation to contemporary DAd, then you are tuned 1-5-8. With this tuning your melody string is tuned an octave above the bass string.

Kusani
Kusani
@kusani
4 years ago
134 posts

Whew...... thanks Strumellia!!!  dulcimer

Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
4 years ago
2,112 posts

heheh... Robin I think we'll just have to remain in disagreement concerning this groaning board of specifics and conclusions.   kittyscratchcatdance   

Richard, the one thing I think we can all reliably agree on is that there is no 'one only' for mountain dulcimers-  no one only tuning, no one only playing style, no 'one only' size, or shape, or kind of music...  And that doesn't even take in to account the whole decades-long debate about what 'traditional' means in the first place!   duck




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Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Richard Streib
Richard Streib
@richard-streib
4 years ago
191 posts

1-5-5 tuning can be DAA or CGG or others where the middle and melody strings are a fifth above the bass string.

Kusani
Kusani
@kusani
4 years ago
134 posts

Ok, need some help here; I have missed something in my reading.  Please explain 1-5-5?  I do tune the dulcimers I build to Dad. Thanks for any help....

Richard Streib
Richard Streib
@richard-streib
4 years ago
191 posts

Wow. I thank all of you for your comments. I guess I wasn't confused after all. While I have not done as much research as many of you have done, it did seem odd that this gentleman insisted that DAdd was the "traditional" and only tuning for the dulcimer.

What a great community we have here on this forum.

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
4 years ago
237 posts

Yes, Jean was exceptional.  It was her I was thinking about when I picked the 40s (I should have gone earlier!).  But she was exceptional - as a musician.  And her teaching herself to re-tune for minor tunes sort of reinforces that in her community players didn't re-tune.  Her father didn't re-tune and therefore neither did Ed Thomas (Jean sat at the feet of them both).  If Ed didn't re-tune then neither did players in the areas he passed through.  He was supposedly quite a player so you could be darn sure he would have shown an interest!  The Mawhee family (1870s onward) never re-tuned - I got a message through to Don before he died who confirmed that.  The Meltons never re-tuned up until Raymond, and it could well have been Phyllis Gaskins who showed him minor tunings.  The Hicks, Presnell, Glens, Proffitts - N Carolina families never re-tuned; I asked RLS.  And there are recordings of Nettie playing minor tunes from a major tuning.  The Braxton County core of players never re-tuned beyond some of them moving from unison to 1-5-5 in the 40s (perhaps 30s) - that's in Play of a Fiddle.

I'm sure that someone would have worked out how to re-tune for a minor song somewhere.  But in some respects the weight of examples we actually have where families/communities did not retune makes the instrument even more unique don't you think?

What I would say is that I don't think (due to the actual evidence we do have - scant though it is) that switching 'modes', particularly to minor modes, is part of a traditional playing style on the dulcimer.  Remember we had this conversation with Stephen Seifert a few years back?  He said he'd played a number of antique dulcimers and couldn't get them to tune to minor modes well.  I was of the same opinion as you at the time - there must have been re-tuning because all the other mountain instruments re-tuned.  Well I've changed my mind on that.  I just haven't found any evidence (and I've looked!!!!).  And, having played a number of antique instruments I'd have to agree with Stephen that because the fretting in not in equal temperament (usually closer to just intonation because it is easier to set by ear) the minor modes are 'out'.  So, if you did tweak a tuner or two the end result is not going to be pleasing particularly in Dorian.  I've not played a Thomas but I have played an Amburgey and that fret pattern was possibly OKish in Aeolian - which was where Jean tended to go for minor tunes.

I'm pretty convinced that the 'modes' as we teach them are just not a part of dulcimer history.

And interestingly I've noticed that I'll take say a Glen dulcimer away with me for a week in my campervan, play dozens of tunes every day and not move from 1-5-5 or unison if that's where I start.

Dan
Dan
@dan
4 years ago
164 posts

Robin Clark, have you read "Folk Songs of the Southern United States" by Josiah Combs?

DAN

www.dulcimore.com

Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
4 years ago
2,112 posts

Robin, Jean Ritchie is an example of a player experimenting with various tunings before 1940.  I highly recommend anyone interested in dul;cimer history to read her very entertaining account of growing up in her book "Singing Family of the Cumberlands".  In it, she describes being a little girl who snuck her father's dulcimer off the wall when no one was around, and sitting on the floor behind the couch, picking out her favorite tunes from her family's huge traditional repertoire.  She describes figuring out that she had to retune the melody string in order to play some of the tunes on the melody string... to have all the notes she needed.  She then tells of her father Balis coming home and taking the dulcimer off the wall and commenting that "The wind must have gotten to these strings again."  (he knew)  Laugh

Anyway, Jean was born in 1922, so if she were 8 or 10 at that time, that would have been 1930-32.  But aside from Jean, I find it impossible to believe that other traditional mountain musicians had not also done such obvious experimenting.  They did so abundantly with banjos, after all.  And it seems highly unlikely to me that they would have given up on playing all the wonderful spooky ballads and hymns popular at the time simply because they didn't realize they could turn a peg and get all the notes needed.  They turned their pegs all the time, just to get in tune after all.  I experiment with tunings on various instruments myself, and I'm no music scholar or professional.  I just think there is precious little written documentation from those times and remote areas.  These were pretty isolated mountain areas, with not so much formal education available pre-1930.




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Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
4 years ago
2,112 posts

Keep in mind too, that Galax dulcimers have the opposite of shallow narrow bodies... yet because of their repertoire and playing style, most folks seem to regard them as very 'traditional sounding' as well.  grin

and.. One can play many old tunes in DAd tuning in noter drone style and sound 'traditional'.  But it's not 'because' they are in DAd tuning. Likewise, one can play Shady Grove on a traditional-replica dulcimer in DAG tuning, in modern chord style, ...and NOT sound very traditional.  The many variables come into play, but I would consider the least influential of those to be the tuning.




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Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
4 years ago
237 posts

I agree with Strumelia that traditional 'sounding' has as much to do with playing style, dulcimer set-up and repertoire as tuning.

Both Kens make some great points about the tunings that were used prior to the folk revival of the 60s.

From the research I have done, I would say there were primarily two 'traditional' tunings for the Appalachian dulcimer.  These were some sort of 1-5-5 tuning (such as DAA or CGG or Gdd etc) and some sort of unison tuning such as Ccc or ddd(d).  Both centred the scale at the 3rd fret (Ionian scale) but unison could also be played from the nut (mixolidian scale).

Different communities built different dulcimers and generally would have used one of these two tuning systems and pretty much stuck with it.

There were very good reasons why you may choose either tuning as a dulcimer maker and player.  Unison tuning only needs one gauge of piano wire - so you could buy one roll of wire to make all your strings.  Mind you, you can get away with some 1-5-5 tunings on some old dulcimers also just using one gauge of piano wire (the Mawhee dulcimer was tuned to G,d,d for example that was strung with No8 wire for all 3 strings).  But it is nice also to have that root note in the drones rather than just 5ths, so 1-5-5 was popular with some makers, who were prepared to use different wire gauges.

There is very little (none that I've found) evidence that pre 1940s players shifted tuning - they were more likely to move the tune to fit the instrument's tuning than change the tuning to fit the tune!!!

Unfortunately, there's lots missing in our knowledge of the traditional dulcimer sound.  You really have to search to piece the evidence together about tunings, playing styles, dulcimer set-ups and repertoire and there are very few early recordings to help.

What I can say is that DAd was not used traditionally.  You certainly couldn't get into it with just one string gauge (it is a struggle with two as tuning the one gauge to both A and that high 'd' is problematic for wooden pegs) and it is limited to just the mixolidian scale from the nut.  It is not a natural or pragmatic tuning for an old dulcimer.

Robin

 

PS I was writing while Dan and Lisa posted.  Dan makes some good points about traditional design and bridge/nut position.  And Lisa, I'd be hard pressed to 'hear' the difference between DAd and DAA played noter drone - the non traditional aspect of DAd is not the tuning's sound but its practicality.


updated by @robin-clark: 02/14/18 04:54:45PM
Lisa Golladay
Lisa Golladay
@lisa-golladay
4 years ago
108 posts

I bet "DAA is really Mixolydian" was a typo and they meant to say DAD.   

As for SOUND, I don't get why people think DAd sounds fundamentally different from DAA.  Think about it.  The drones are D and A no matter which tuning you've got.  The melody, which you're playing in the key of D, has the SAME notes.  You find the notes on different frets, but a C# is a C#.

In DAA you start the scale fretting the melody string at the 3rd fret; you are playing the notes D, A and d (one octave up from the bass string).  Now tune the dulcimer to DAd.  The scale starts at the open fret and once again you are playing the notes D, A and d.  The only reasons why DAA and DAd might sound different are:

1) the melody string tension is tighter when tuned up to d (if you use a different string gauge this becomes less of an issue)

2) a fretted note sounds different from an open one (particularly when using the noter to slide up into the note)

3) some dulcimers have intonation problems between open and fretted notes (fix the dulcimer)

4) the melody dips down onto the middle string more often in DAd than DAA

So OK, it sounds a little different, but not much.  I don't believe most listeners could tell the difference between DAA and DAd.  If anybody tried to tell me DAd "sounds" more traditional, I would call hogwash. 

It's worth noting that someone who's been building dulcimers for 30 years started in 1988.  They don't necessarily know beans about tradition.  Laugh

Dan
Dan
@dan
4 years ago
164 posts

""Traditional dulcimer sound" comes not from the tuning, but from the shallow/narrow bodies of 'traditional' dulcimers which have much less interior volume that a conventional modern dulcimer.  Modern dulcimers with a 27" VSL are roughly 2.25" deep x 7-8" wide x 31" long (minus the head);  a traditional dulcimer with the same VSL is roughly 1.25" deep, 6-7" wide and 28" long.  When tuned to the same tuning,  the lesser volume traditional instrument tends to give a more "high silvery" sound; where the modern dulcimer tends to produce a deeper more "mellow", sound."

I will add that the nut and bridge are well over the ends of the piece. This is the traditional placement and facilitates "that sound" we refer to as traditional. I will also add that the intonations are different from contemporary pieces. Getting a good intonation across four different modes is at odds with a contemporary equal temperament and adds to that slightly out of tune sound from a traditional piece! I hope we are not muddying the water too much.....

I will also add, Richard you have an authentic traditional piece, they don't get no more traditional than that!!!

 

DAN

www.dulcimore.com

 


updated by @dan: 02/14/18 04:18:42PM
Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
4 years ago
2,112 posts

Lots of great replies already!  sun

Personally I find that the concept of 'traditional sounding' (meaning I suppose 'old' sounding when it comes to dulcimers) has less to do with a specific tuning than with other factors.  Such other factors can include style of playing, physical characteristics of the instrument, and the repertoire of music being played.  

It is perhaps splitting hairs, but the practice of retuning to the various modes can facilitate playing in a drone style (thus DAA or DAG are quite useful, for example).  But I wouldn't go so far as to say it's the tuning that sounds traditional there...  I'd simply say the tuning might make it easier to play in the drone style... and most people feel the drone style definitely has an 'old' sound to it... you can describe the dronal sound as old, archaic, traditional, ...or whatever word you'd use there.




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Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
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nigelbleddfa
@nigelbleddfa
4 years ago
33 posts

Strumelia's post of February 5, 2014 addresses this issue

http://dulcimer-noter-drone.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/why-i-like-daa-tuning.html

 

Ken Longfield
Ken Longfield
@ken-longfield
4 years ago
893 posts

Richard, I find that "traditional" means different things to different people depending upon their knowledge of mountain dulcimer history. Many of the older instruction books used a 1 - 5 - 5 tuning and quite a few used CGG. In the area around Galax, VA a unison tuning was quite common and one could say traditional for that area. As Ralph Lee Smith says, when he asked an older Appalachian man how the dulcimer was tuned, the man replied you tune the thick string to a "good" note and the others in relation to it. I think that meant that the bass was tuned to a key to fit the player's voice and the drone and melody were tuned a fifth above that, but I didn't talk with the man. I think we should be less concerned about trying to emulate a "traditional" style and just play the way we enjoy playing.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song,"

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
4 years ago
1,970 posts

I've been playing Noter & Drone for some 40 years.  I don't know who you've been talking to or where they got their information but what they seem to have been saying is completely at odds with all other knowledge about Modes and tunings that I've ever encountered -- and I read a LOT!!

You can play N&D in ANY, repeat ANY,  tuning and it is a "traditional" way to play.  You can play Fingerdance style in ANY tuning at it is also a "traditional" way to play.  Playing Chord-Melody style is not "traditional" it is a late 20th century (post 1950) invention.

DAA and other 1-5-5 tunings have ALWAYS been called Ionian Modal Tunings (well at least since the 1500s)

DAd and other 1-5-8 tunings have ALWAYS been called Mixolydian Modal Tunings (same disclaimer)

Both Ionian and Mixolydian are MAJOR scales, not minor scales.  However the Mixolydian scale's 7th note (the solfege note  we call "ti") is flattened from what that note would normally be (if that 7th note is supposed to be F# for example, it becomes an F).  This is what happens if you tune to DAd, for example, and play the Mixolydian scale -- which begins at the Open fret -- and have no 6+ fret on your dulcimer.   VERY few melodies which Europo-Americans have created in the last thousand years use a scale where the 7th note of that scale is flatted from its natural note.  A huge number of dulcimer tunes which are tabbed in DAd are not, in fact, Mixolydian/DAd tunes -- they do not have that 'flatted 7th note in them.

Players from the late 1800s through the 1960s often (but not always) tuned "Octave" or what we now call Galax tunings, NOT Ionian or Mixolydian tunings.  Octave tunings are things like Ddd or Ccc, Galax tunings are usually ddd or ccc.

"Traditional dulcimer sound" comes not from the tuning, but from the shallow/narrow bodies of 'traditional' dulcimers which have much less interior volume that a conventional modern dulcimer.  Modern dulcimers with a 27" VSL are roughly 2.25" deep x 7-8" wide x 31" long (minus the head);  a traditional dulcimer with the same VSL is roughly 1.25" deep, 6-7" wide and 28" long.  When tuned to the same tuning,  the lesser volume traditional instrument tends to give a more "high silvery" sound; where the modern dulcimer tends to produce a deeper more "mellow", sound.


updated by @ken-hulme: 02/14/18 02:23:35PM
nigelbleddfa
@nigelbleddfa
4 years ago
33 posts

At last I can help somebody !  I am in Wales and so is Robin Clark, a member here. Please look at his excellent videos on YouTube. They explain all you need to know and can be found by searching for Birdrock Dulcimers.


updated by @nigelbleddfa: 02/14/18 12:15:32PM
Richard Streib
Richard Streib
@richard-streib
4 years ago
191 posts

I prefer noter drone style of play and have thought for several years that the "most traditional" sound would be produced in 1-5-5 tuning. However in discussing this with a person who has played and built dulcimers for more than 30 years, I have been told that the most "traditional" sound has to come from DAdd tuning.

Also somewhere recently I have read that DAA is really a mixolydian tuning not ionian.  So I feel confused. Can one of the members here with more experience and knowledge help me understand this?

Thanks.