Diatonics

There were seven “Greek” modes and in no particular order;

Dorian

Hypodorian

Phrygian

Hypophrygian

Lydian

Mixolydian

Hypolydian

We now use the following, (they have also been referred to as the “Church Modes”)

Ionian is the name assigned by Heinrich Glarean in 1547. Ionia was one of the four ancient Greek tribes.

Dorian is the original Greek name. Dorian was one of the four ancient Greek tribes.

Phrygian is the original Greek name. Phrygian is named after the ancient kingdom of Phrygia in Anatolia

Lydian is the original Greek name. Lydian is named after the ancient kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia.

Mixolydian is the original Greek name. (Mixo-) is a reference to the half-Lydian mode in ancient Greek music.

Aeolian is the name assigned by Heinrich Glarean in 1547. Aeolian was one of the four ancient Greek tribes.

Locrian got its name sometime after the 18th century. (?) Locrian is named after the ancient Greek regions of Locris.

One of the first things I realized in our descriptions of the Dulcimore’s Diatonic scales was the scales starting with Ionian. Yes the Ionian scale is where the modes start, but the Dulcimore starts with Mixolydian off the nut so;

Mixolydian open

Aeolian first staple

Locrian second staple

Ionian third staple

Dorian fourth staple

Phrygian fifth staple

Lydian sixth staple

Of these seven Diatonic modes we play primarily four. Mixolydian, Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian; Mixolydian and Ionian being the two major modes and Aeolian and Dorian being the two minor modes.

Any of these modes can be played on one string provided the staples are placed in a Diatonic sequence. That is; wide, wide, narrow, wide, wide, wide, narrow. Each mode has five whole notes and two half notes. These are the white piano keys, there are no Pentatonic notes!

To play Diatonic, we add a lower tonic and a perfect fifth accompanying drone. We can refer to the tones by number. The base string lower tonic being (1), the perfect fifth being (5) and the melody note being the upper tonic (8). We must retune to get the placement of the melody string to adhere to the mode, which is to start on the staple we want the mode to start.  Once again,

Mixolydian is off the nut so;

Mixolydian open (1-5-8)

Aeolian first staple (1-5-7)

Locrian second staple (1-5-6)

Ionian third staple (1-5-5)

Dorian fourth staple (1-5-4)

Phrygian fifth staple (1-5-3)

Lydian sixth staple (1-5-2)

These are the straight Diatonic modes. We tune to these to play 1-5-8 on the staple starting our given mode. We play a lower tonic, a perfect fifth (dominant), and an upper tonic. This (1-5-8) is our note of final resolution and is where the scale starts.

What you may have noticed missing is any reference to “keys”. There are no keys in Diatonics. Yes, keys may be assigned to any given mode, but that is folks using Chromatics and music theory to describe how they understand the system. Diatonics by definition is absent “any” Chromatic influence, once you inject Chromatics you are no longer Diatonic. One mustn’t learn music theory in order to then learn Diatonics.

 

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Let Me Muddy The Waters…

About two thousand five hundred years ago the diatonic system was started and explained mathematically by Pythagoras. Some two thousand years later the church picked up the system and renamed a few things. If I remember correctly the upper or eighth note was named in the Greek system and the church called it by the lower tonics name?

Fast forward another five hundred years and the diatonic enthusiasts will tell you how simple the system is! It took me about three years to fully grasp the system and my “ah ha” moment was when I realized the upper tonic was a perfect fifth above the perfect fourth making it possible for reversed tuning’s!  We write our descriptions of how simple the system is and low and behold after about the third or fourth page of a dozen or so pages the readers glaze over……

Now to muddy the waters…

From the start we are combining a Greek system and the Middle Age Church system, and then we are confronted by the modern Music Theory.  The concept of, in the “key” of, can’t be differentiated from the diatonic system in most folk’s minds. Knowing the diatonic system is about the relationship between the strings and not the “key” is paramount!

The lowly Dulcimore is the product of an amalgamation of the settlers of the lower highlands of Appalachia. Cultures combined ideas and their names for things are carried on. And then there are the “dictionary folk” as described by HUBERT G. SHEARIN, M.A., Ph.D in British Ballads in the Cumberland Mountains. I believe folks can’t distinguish between dulcimore and dulcimer. Folks will try to email me and write dulcimerdan instead of dulcimoredan!  I will not get the email…..

Whether you call the name dulcimore a “colloquial name” or not, it is what “they” call it. There is no need to “correct” it! Is it a Coke, pop, or soda? Are any of these incorrect?

And then we describe the seven modes. But wait, they are also called scales, as is the description of the VSL (Vibrating String Length) set up or lay out. I’ve been asked what is it, scale or mode. The answer is “yes”, scale or mode.

Let’s briefly look at the names of the parts of the Dulcimore. Is it a top or belly? Is it a back or bottom? Is it a side or bow? “YES”!

Clear as mud……..

 

When do embellishments become truth?

  • Conjure up
  • Embellishment
  • Conjecture
  • Accepted truth

I’ve been told if you tell a lie long enough, some folks will begin to believe it. If this is true then the stories laden with embellishments will become history. I can imagine that one who conjures up ideas of stories will at some time or another share these stories. The ones who listen to these stories will have to use conjecture to solidify the meaning. Somewhere between historical accuracy and total scheitholz we find the accepted truth. This at times can be pretty far from the truth but is the best we can hope for I suppose.

I’ve been listening to interviews of prominent dulcimore officiodo’s for years who contradict themselves sometimes in the same interview, and quite often from one interview to the next. I know age has its senior moments and I suppose I must use conjecture to differentiate fact from misspeak or embellishment!  Living in Appalachia now for these few short years I’ve learned firsthand not to correct an individual’s recollection of an event, whether told to him by his elders, or experienced by him. Some folks even have a way of putting themselves into stories and after a short time they apparently believe it themselves! Who am I to object?

I was forewarned years ago about not becoming a #@$% academic in these parts!

Dulcimore Makers Method

In a discussion a few years back the late Mike Slone of the Hindman, Kentucky fame told me he believed if James Edward Thomas had had a CNC machine, he would have used it. I responded probably so but he’d had a time trying to plug it in!  I also recall in one of the many interviews Homer Ledford gave, he insisted the “tools” were simply extensions of his own hands whether powered or not. I agree whole heartily.

In our quest for preserving the Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore we seek to simply define in our own way the definition of the American instrument.  Each instrument made by the gentlemen one off or manufactured so many years ago serves in its own way as examples in the definition. What we look for are broadly used traditions, ones that are used basically by all makers historically. Everyone has their own definition based on regional or makers preferences, but the whole has to be taken into consideration.

Many have argued that using tools or methods not period correct disqualify a piece as being traditional. In my own introduction I use the phrase “In short, nothing that wasn’t used two hundred years ago”, but the reference is to the finished piece, not how it was made! My argument is the finished piece is correct. The methods used to get there will vary from region to region, maker to maker.  Again, most traditional pieces were made one off, or only a few in all. The manufacturers were the exception rather than the rule. One off pieces are a composite of problem solving to finish the piece; they really didn’t know how to make the dulcimore. What finally went into the piece will define it.  The basic design including staple placement, indigenous woods, period correct materials for strings and staples, brads as well as hide glue, and finishes.

When Homer “improved” the traditional piece, he did in fact change it. Arguing why is not relevant. My differentiation is the use of guitar pieces. Not that I have anything against the guitar I don’t I played guitar for over forty years, but I now celebrate the Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore. The guitar is a lute and the dulcimore is a zither. (Pronounced zitter) When a luthier builds a zither they inherently subconsciously build a lute. The disciplines required in lute construction are very different from dulcimore making!  When improving on the dulcimore as Homer states in the book by R. Gerald Alvey, he believes he is working on esthetics.   In fact he succumbs to customers request for a new instrument, the contemporary lap guitar!  (Modern Lap Dulcimer) It has a widened fret board set @ equal temperament with guitar frets so it can be chorded and is no longer diatonic. (Only missing a few frets to be fully chromatic) It has guitar tuners, guitar finish and it even has guitar strings.

The Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore is a zither! (A simple chordophone)  Every maker will follow either regional or previous maker’s influences, and we all experiment but that will not change the elements that make a traditional piece traditional.

If we call a spade a spade, shouldn’t we know what a spade is?

HPIM1442-800 I’ve only been at this “Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore” for a few years. I’m going to guess my insights are different as the result of my being a dulcimore maker. In my first recollection of early pieces there were references to the “play-ability” of many pieces. Some referred to the unplayable pieces as “wall hangers” and the makers were subject to unfavorable review.  What I find problematic with the review is; was the piece original, or had it in fact been “repaired”? Early on I found pieces that the intonation was set a particular way. The early pieces were generally Ionian, tuned a full note lower and played with a noter. The contemporary players tuned them Mixolydian a full note higher and lowered the action, then complained it “wasn’t right”. If you don’t know how a particular maker set his intonation, you can’t fully appreciate the piece.

Now for the next issue… Is it original? Jean Ritchie had two Thomas’ when she passed. They both reside at the University of Kentucky John Jacob Niles Center in Lexington, Kentucky. The problem child was shared at the second Hindman Dulcimer Homecoming. She had stated in an interview (I don’t recall where) that it “didn’t play right”. I played that piece, and the first thing I noticed was the nut and bridge had been reworked. They were bone and the string edge was broke off the center of the nut and bridge, not the inside edge as the originals were. This offset the VSL by as much as 300 thousands! Yes, the intonation was wrong, but not by Thomas’ hand.

Now for the thousand dollar question; should I alter the piece so I can play it? Do you want to play it, or are you saving the piece to sell for a profit later? Very often the concern of “devaluing” the piece is brought up. I don’t know of any individuals who would pay less for a Thomas because the strings had been replaced. Most hundred year old pieces have had the nut and bridge replaced as well, maybe more than once. These pieces were made to be played, and I would say probably in a way they were set up to be played…

“a thing of the past”

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Josiah H. Combs wrote that “the dulcimore is rapidly becoming a thing of the past” in his 1913 magazine article The Kentucky Highlanders.  In the book Folk-Songs of the Southern United States written in 1925, he says “The ‘dulcimore’ (dulcimer) is an instrument formerly much used, but now rapidly falling into decay.” How right he was! If we compare how many traditional dulcimore there were in 1913 to how many there are today, his observation was spot on! In 1925 “all” dulcimore were traditional. Today, possibly less than there were in 1925?

SWEET SPOTS

HPIM1310a

We talk of Mixolydian, Aeolian, Dorian and Ionian scale, but music theory has its hold on us! When setting scale we are actually adjusting the note placements for a string drawn to a specific tension. The Greek scale system has to do with the seven notes and what the string is adjusted to makes no difference. What I’m saying is; we can play all the modes on one string! So long as the note placement is correct for the tension of the string it doesn’t matter what mode we play. When we add another string is when it starts to change as the additional string gives us a reference point.

When we play Diatonic, we can experience a multitude of possibilities in tunings. The same tune played in a reversed mode has a new dynamic to it. When we say a scale is Ionian, what we really mean is the string has been noted at or about an A 220 hertz and the Mixolydian at or about D 293.7 hertz. If we stray from the contemporary tunings and just let the strings ring, we can find additional sweet spots. By adjusting the tunings around what the melody string is noted for, we have all the possible scales at our fingertips. By raising the melody string by one note or lowering it by one note we can seriously change the dynamics of a tune. (For the better) Not being slave to the electronic tuner, but listening to the way the strings harmonize with one another is key. When experimenting with tunings, a string may actually be sharp or flat by the electronic tuner, but ring nicely by ear! Adjusting a string sharp or flat may work in one tune and not another, being slave to the tuner will exacerbate the effect where as listening to the way the strings are working together will minimize it. Changing the tunings of the strings will change the tension on the fret board ever so slightly and this in turn will change the tuning ever so slightly. Again we can find new sweet spots!