Mountain Dulcimers with a southwestern flair from New Mexico.Mountain Dulcimers with a southwestern flair from New Mexico.Mountain Dulcimers with a southwestern flair from New Mexico.

Mountain Dulcimer Lessons

Understanding Octaves

What octave are you tuned to?

Have you ever seen a dulcimer tuning written out either on tablature or in a dulcimer book and wondered which string was which and what octave they were tuned to? Sometimes the tunings are written out as "DAD" or "DAd" or "Dad". Another popular tuning is sometimes written "DAa" or "Daa" or "aad" or "DAA". These letters have meanings beyond the note name. They refer to different octaves! This is what one mountain dulcimer player has to say about this confusing issue once she was shown what these letters meant:

"Ok - I'll show my ignorance here. I didn't even know that it was refering to octaves at all. I never knew why some wrote it one way and some another. It took me forever to realize which letter referred to which string(s)! I still have to stop and think sometimes "Is that bass, middle, melody? Or the other way around." Probably 'cause I first learned DAD (DAd) (whatever) Hmmmmm. "

Most of the time, when you see a tuning written several different ways, it is still the same tuning, it is just that the writer of the article or tablature is probably unaware that these tuning names are indicating what octave the strings are tuned to. Before tuning your strings too high or too low, it is a good idea to determine if the person is, in fact, indicating what octaves to tune the strings to! If the tuning indications are not accurate, you could break a string by tuning it too high, or your string might be tuned so low that it sounds like a rubber band when you pluck it!

Most of us just play the standard dulcimer with standard tunings until we have been exposed to the instrument for a longer period of time and then want to start experimenting with different tunings or bass/baritone dulcimers. I have noticed also that some folks write DAA as AAD, starting from the treble strings instead of the bass string. Someone once explained to me that it is because they are "out-strummers" instead of "in-strummers" (I won't open this discussion here!). The thing to remember is that the largest wound string will be tuned to the lowest note. I know there is some resistance to "standardization" in the dulcimer world because we all want to express our freedom of creativity, but I think this is one area where we need to start getting standardized -- using the above player's comment as an example.

It can be very confusing to new students! Then, as she said, it was confusing to her and then it was quite a while until she got it figured out. Now that she is a more accomplished player, she is ready to absorb this. If she had been introduced to it in the beginning, it would come natural to her.

The tunings are written differently in different books. The new students pick up one book and see it one way and then pick up another book and see it another way. It is too late to change books that were written years ago, but perhaps we can start now to change all this confusion. The following are examples of the proper expressions for different octave distinctions.
The octave which includes middle c
is written: c   d   e   f   g   a   b
The octave which includes middle c.
The octave below middle c
is written: C  D  E  F  G  A  B
The octave below middle c.
The octave below that would be:
C'  D'  E'  F'  G'  A'  B'
The next lower octave with marks.
In the next lower octave, the little "mark" should be to the left and BOTTOM. Like this:

  ,C  ,D  ,E  ,F  ,G  ,A  ,B

It is the same as you go up the scales. In the octave ABOVE the octave that contains middle c, the lower case letters have the little "mark" on the top and to the right. Like this:

  c'  d'  e'  f'  g'  a'  b'

This indicates that they are higher in tone. And so on it goes up the staff. When you get to a higher or lower octave that I haven't mentioned, the little "marks" are doubled, like this:

  c"  d"  e"  f"  g"  a"  b"

This relates to the dulcimer tunings as follows:

DAd ... The first 2 notes, the bass string and the middle string, are below middle c, and the treble is tuned to the note just above middle c

DAA ... all strings are tuned to the notes below middle c

Baritones are usually tuned A' E A

Bass dulciners are usually tuned D' A' D

This is not only the correct interpretation, but it is in most of the college level music textbooks on music theory. I remember learning this method back in the '50's when I was taking piano lessons and my piano teacher made sure we all knew this so we could communicate accurately which octave we were in when we played duets in a group.

I am wondering if everyone will continue to write their dulcimer tunings differently. Some write DAD and some DAd and some Dad, etc. It is okay when we are familiar with the tuning, but it can be confusing if we are not familiar with the tuning to know which octave we are in. Anyway, it confuses ME!!! because I am used to writing the letters upper case or lower case, with or without the little "marks", according to the proper octave.

I am hoping this explanation helps to clear up some confusion as to how your dulcimer should be tuned and also how to interpret new tunings you are not familiar with!

E-Mail Kerry
P O Box 1005
Capitan, NM 88316


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