How to play the Hammered Dulcimer
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...
...you 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.
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:
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.
This is just what it sounds like - the One-Octave Exercise extended to two octaves, as follows:
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.
This tune is in D major, working across the treble bridge within the D major 4&4 box:
All right, let's play:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The next two notes are F#, or one string down from G. Play them L-R.
- Then come two E notes, yet another string down, played L-R.
- And then there's another longer note on D, played with the left hand.