Musings on Modes for the Noter Drone Player

Robin Clark
06/09/15 05:36:11PM

What on earth are modes? Well, it's a good question, so I'll try and put 'modes' and how we use them on the dulcimer into some sort of perspective.

First off, we are used to dealing with harmonic scales in modern Western music. By that I mean that we say a particular tune is in such and such a major key or such and such a minor key. For example: 'Sweet Home Alabama' is in G major and 'House of the Rising Son' is in A minor. We are used to hearing music that uses chords (harmonies) made up from the notes of the scale to 'flavour' the tonality of the music we listen to. We are used to hearing chord sequences played on guitar (or dulcimer) while the melody is sung over the top of the chords. Think of all of those folk songs written, played and sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash etc etc all are melody over chords and the chords shape the way we hear the song.

However, there was a whole older generation of folk songs that didn't rely of chords to shape their sound they were not harmonic tunes but 'modal' (melody without the harmonising chords of the scale). These songs used 7 note scales, but those scales varied from tune to tune. Theintervals between the notes of the various scales used changed from song to song. Folk song collectors such a Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams (and others) had to find a way to describe the old folk songs they were collecting. In general, they noticed that the vast majority of English, Celtic country and American modal folk songs used scales that could be related to the old Greek musical modes (or at least a 16th century interpretation of those modes by Glareanus). In particular, the scales used by Western folk singers when performing modal pieces were either Ionian, Mixolidian, Aeolian or Dorian (or as close as the song collectors could tell !!!) So, these folk song collectors used the modal names as descriptors when transcribing the folk tunes they discovered and recorded.

So how about the dulcimer? Well, it is an interesting instrument. Firstly, it was traditionally played modally (melody without accompanying chords). Secondly, it traditionally had a 7 note scale or rather multiple 7 notes scales depending on where you start and so it is capable of playing different modal scales (the word capable is in italics because, before the 1940s, there is scant evidence of the dulcimer being played in the minor modes but this doesn't mean that we shouldn't do so today). The dulcimer is effective over a range of around 11 tones in each of the 4 primary folk modes for both authentic and plagal range tunes so, we shouldn't have any trouble fitting old folk songs from English, Celtic countries and American heritage to the dulcimer.

As an aside: Authentic range tunes (nothing to do with authenticity!) are those where the root note of the scale is the lowest of the tune, such as 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' or 'Going to Boston'. Plagal range tunes are those where the root note of a tune appears in the middle of the range of notes of the scale being played, such as 'Angeline the Baker'.

We can quite happily play Ionian, Mixolidian, Aeolian, and Dorian tunes in both authentic and plagel range on the dulcimer! All is good so far!

Now it gets a little more complicated. Quite a lot of what we consider 'traditional' dulcimer music is not from the modal folk song repertoire! The tunes were written from a harmonic scale perspective for popular entertainment and then were adapted to become part of the Appalachian 'old time' repertoire. Think of tunes such as Golden Slippers or Red Wing or well basically anything written after the Civil War! So much of what we play (and what early 20th Century dulcimer players played) has been reversed engineered by dulcimer players from being a harmonic scale tune to a modal tune. Sometimes this works OK and sometimes it doesn't.

As a noter drone player I'm constantly aware of whether a tune I choose to play will 'fit' a dulcimer played in noter drone style or not and I have to say that I reject quite a lot of more modern 'folk' songs simply because they are too harmonic (or at least we are used to hearing them as harmonic).. However, there is a massive back catalogue of old modal folk songs that sound wonderful on noter drone dulcimer plus a few contemporary writers who produce lovely melodic tunes in a modal tradition. And many many harmonic tunes that successfully 'back engineer' to modal and work beautifully in noter drone style.

So, the modes were descriptors used by 19th/20th century song collectors to categorise the folk songs they collected. The primary modes for Western folk songs are Ionian, Mixolidian, Aeolian and Dorian. The dulcimer is capable of playing these modes and in authentic and plagel ranges. There is no evidence of the dulcimer being tuned for the minor modes prior to the 1940s. Although the instrument is 'modal' much of the dulcimers traditional Appalachian repertoire was actually harmonic. Tune selection and arrangement is a significant part of learning to play noter drone dulcimer. There are 1000s of tunes out there both modal and melodic that will fit noter drone dulcimer admirably.

I hope these musings have given you perhaps a slightly different perspective on the dulcimer and modes. Probably the most important aspect for the noter drone player to recognise is that whilst the instrument may be modal the traditional repertoire played on the instrument was not necessarily so. And that today we can select from either the modal or harmonic repertoire when arranging pieces for our instrument - however, not all attempts will be successful.

Enjoy your search for new tunes!

PS - One person who did use the dulcimer as backing for old modal folk songs was Jean Ritchie.

PPS - Try the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs if you are looking for modal folk songs to arrange for dulcimer