Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why I like DAA tuning so much

These days, the majority of beginner dulcimer students are started out playing in the DAd tuning. This is the mixolydian mode. That means that if you are playing in the key of D, the beginning D note of the do-re-mi scale is at the OPEN melody string, which is tuned to the D note. In the key of D, that first "do" note of the do-re-mi scale is a D.
These days, we name the strings of a dulcimer tuning from bass string first to melody string last. If I were to say a tuning of DAd, then that last d is the melody string (the string or pair of strings which is closest to you with the dulcimer in your lap). So, if you tune your dulcimer strings DAd (or DAdd), then the first note of your D scale on the melody string will be the open string- or "0" (zero) in dulcimer TAB notation. In the key of D that first D note is also called the tonic note.

Most songs and tunes end on their tonic note. For example a song in the key of C will usually end on a C note (the tonic note for the key of C). But many tunes have notes in them somewhere that go a step or two below the tonic note... For example, sing the song Frere Jacques to yourself. The last line ends in "Ding, dong, ding". The song ends on the tonic note on that last "ding"....but the "dong" right before it is three steps below the tonic note. If the key was D and the tonic note was a D, then that "dong" lower note would be an A note 3 steps lower. Many traditional folk tunes and many fiddle tunes or old ballads that I like to play have these lower notes in them that are 1, 2, or 3 steps lower than the tonic note.
Now if your melody string is tuned so that it plays the tonic note when it is open (as in DAd tuning), well then that string can't play any notes lower than that tonic note. Thus you would have to go looking on your lower middle or bass strings to find those lower notes. People who play dulcimers in a chording style are used to fretting lower notes on the other strings. So to them, DAd is a perfect tuning which enables easily fingered full chords on all the strings. Lower-than-tonic notes do not present a problem to folks playing in chording style and fretting all the strings.

In typical noter/drone playing, however, the middle and bass strings are not usually fretted at all as part of the melody line, but are simply left open to drone. This droning gives the music an archaic sound that is distinctive and appealing to those who enjoy noter/drone playing. So where would we go to play those occasional notes that dip below the tonic note?

Well, if we tune our melody string(s) a little lower to begin with we can get those lower notes right on the melody string, like that "dong" note in Frere Jacques!

Thus, when I want to play in the key of D, I most typically tune either DDA or DAA, tuning my open melody string(s) to the A note which is 3 steps below the tonic D. This is not the mixolydian mode anymore. If your tonic D note is on the third fret now instead of the open string, then we now are in the ionian mode. :)

Here is another example of how handy this becomes-
Sing the first line of the song "I've been workin' on the railroad". The first and last notes ("I've" and "road") are the tonic note, and the "been" is a note 3 steps lower than that. If I was tuned DAA then, I could play all those notes right on the melody string, and in TAB the fret numbers for "I've been workin' on the railroad" would be: 3.../0/3/0/3/4/5.../3...
I hope this helps explain why I like tuning this way!

If we tune the melody string so the open string is the tonic note, it is in mixolydian mode. If we tune the melody string so the third fret is the tonic note, it is in ionian mode.
Another example... let's keep in mind that in music, notes go up the alphabet until the letter G, and then they start repeating from A again, but in the next higher octave, like abcdefg-abcdefg-abcd....etc. So if I were playing in the key of A and my open melody string was tuned to A, then I'd be in mixolydian mode. If I lowered that melody string to be three steps lower than A (and look at my alphabet layout above), I'd tune it down to the E that was lower than the tonic A. Then my tonic A note would be found on the third fret instead of the open string, and again I'd be in the ionian mode, but in the key of A this time, and again being in ionian mode would enable me to play some of those lower notes on my melody string.

So far, the TABS I have posted have been in the key of D, and in ionian mode. The tuning is DAA, with the last A corresponding to your melody string.
If you have any confusions about this so far, please do post a comment or question and I will get back to you on it and try to explain better.


  1. Lisa -

    Enjoying your blog. I've wanted to learn to play the dulcimer and you've now given me more impetus to do so.

    One thing, when you list a tuning as DAA, are the two A's in unison? I've always held the thought that octave tunings would be written as DaA, maybe, with the first 'a' drone an octave above the noter A strings.

    Just wondering.

  2. Hi Brad,
    You are basically asking what octaves each of these D's and A's are in. This depends partly on the gauge (thickness) of your strings. I will be getting into this further on the blog, but I need to give you a quick answer now...
    I am ASSUMING that you have thin gauge melody string(s) and that your middle string is a little thicker than that, and that your bass string is the thickest string on your dulcimer. This is a typical dulcimer setup. The thicker strings are meant to be tuned LOWER than the thinner strings.
    Thus, if you are tuned DAA, the first D is your heavy bass string and is a low D. Then the middle string is tuned to the A note that is 4 steps higher than the bass string (check your alphabet: D-E-F-G-A. Lastly, and YES, your melody strings will be tuned IN UNISON to the middle string's A note.

    In other words, if you start in the usual DAD tuning, then drop your melody strings LOWER and match them to the middle string's A.

    There are other factors involved in all this but I want to keep my explanations fairly simple.
    Thanks for asking your question! Things can so easily get confusing.

  3. Brad wrote: I've always held the thought that octave tunings would be written as DaA, maybe, with the first 'a' drone an octave above the noter A strings.

    Again- the middle drone string should definitely NOT be an octave higher than the melody string. The middle string is usually tuned either lower or the same as the melody string(s).

  4. Hello from Germany,
    if you want to listen to music played on a Hummel - the ancestor of the Dulcimer - you can go to Youtube and search for ulricus .
    There are 10 videos with different stiles how to do. If you search for ulricus at Google you can try the button translate and you will get many informations about Hummel in "fairly good" english .
    with musical greetings

  5. Wilfried,
    Thank you so much! I will definitely go look at those Hummel YouTube clips.
    This is good information for anyone who is interested in traditional folk instruments. It's also very exciting to me, knowing that people from Germany are reading this blog. Music brings people together.
    Kind regards, Lisa (Strumelia)

  6. Oh, I just now realized that you are the person who wrote the excellent hummel article I put in amongst the blog links! Wilfried Ulrich, I am honored indeed that such a fine instrument maker and traditional music lover has been reading here! :)

  7. Thanks. As a rank beginner, I didn't see the reason for DAA vs DAD until I read this blog entry and I have searched the web for several days.Other sites hadn't put the reason for the tuning so succiently.

  8. Thanks!
    I'm doing my best to learn from others
    rather than making ALL the mistakes as I go along
    (at my age ya gotta take the shortcuts!)
    and this DAA tuning just makes complete sense.

  9. I know it's a little late to post, but I have something I think should be said. I didn't realize that you read it that way. I always though DAD was Melody, Baritone, Base. It may have been written down somewhere, but I didn't catch it till I read this post. I have my instrument tuned DAD, but about 2/3 of my songs start on the third fret. The G. Partly because it allows me to get those lower notes, and partly because I'm used to that key from church. Anyway, thanks for setting me strait on how to read tunings. It's a real help

  10. Thanks, Lisa for the link to your post--excellent descriptions!
    Steve Eulberg

  11. Thanks everyone. Really helps explain the differences between the two modes.

  12. I've used FOTMD to help me locate, and learn, songs for the MD. Strumelia's beginner videos have also been very helpful in understanding the different modes. I'd appreciate any comments on my version of Aunty Rhody in DAA:

  13. I have a question if I am understanding this correctly...if I am playing in the key of D under ionian mode, I would tune my dulcimer to DAA so my D would be on the third that. But, if I was playing in the key of A, I would lower the melody string down to E, but wouldn't I also lower the bass and middle strings as well? So it would be AEE? Thank you!

  14. Hi Nancy,
    Ideally, AEE would be the normal ionian tuning for the key of A. BUT- an E note LOWER than the A's of DAA would be way too loose to play. And the E note in the next higher octave would be too high for your middle string (which is heavier than your melody strings). An if you lowered the DAA bass string from D way down to the lower E, it too would be too floppy to play.
    To solve these problems, we use a 'reverse' tuning- switching the notes of the bass and middle string so that it works better for both of them.

    Say you are starting from DAA...(D ionian)
    To retune to play in the Key A (and remain in ionian), here's what you do:
    From DAA, tune your low bass string UP one step from D to E. Leave your middle string in A. Tune your melody string(s) UP (not down as you said) from A to ee. You will then be in EAee or EAe (listing the strings from bass to melody). That would be a 'reverse ionian' tuning. The reverse ionian tuning is useful because the middle string would likely break if you tune it up from low A to high e. The melody strings can usually be tuned up to high e more easily because they are thinner.

    Here's an important thing to remember:
    Thinner strings can be tuned higher without breaking. Heavy strings need to stay tuned lower.
    Thinner strings can be too floppy when tuned lower.
    Heavy strings will still have a good tension when tuned lower.
    That's why instruments have strings of different thicknesses.

    Hope this helps?

  15. Hi all. I haven’t logged on for almost a year but here I am. And by the way, I am logged in as Donald, but for some reason I can only publish as unknown (things have changed since I was last here).

    I started out years ago in DAd but quickly changed to DAA, for the same reasons that Strumella listed initially, and frankly I find it much easier and more versatile. Except that I play in four equidistant strings, which allows me to play four tone chords. I won the Fla. State Old Time Championship back in the 90s, in DAAA.

    I am also a scientist, which means I’m nitpicky. As we play our tunes in DAA, we are NOT playing in Ionian. (That ought to stir things up!) Let me explain. If we played a dulcimer that didn’t have a 6+ fret, and started our tonic note at the nut, we would be in an Ionian scale, but what we are doing is starting our tonic note at the third fret, and playing our tune in a Mixolydian scale. Remember, the various modes are defined in terms of where, in the scale, the half-step intervals are. This is why we are able to play tunes in DAA with other players tuned in Dad.

    Now let the comments begin.

  16. Hi Donald! :)
    You wrote: "Let me explain. If we played a dulcimer that didn’t have a 6+ fret, and started our tonic note at the nut, we would be in an Ionian scale"
    I'm not seeing your logic. Ionian mode goes WWHWWWH steps, from the first note of its scale to the last. so if you started ionian mode scale at the nut you would need the 6.5 fret to get that pattern of intervals. Starting a scale at the third fret gives you WWHWWWH which is ionian mode, without a 6.5 fret added. Mixolydian is WWHWWHW which is exactly what you get when starting at the nut and without a 6.5 fret. Doesn't matter whether it's DAd or DAA, or anything else because we are simply talking about the intervals between the notes, and playing a modal scale on one string.

  17. Strumelia, you are absolutely correct! I'm a FOTMD member (Patty) but had to post here as Anonymous. The Ionian mode is WWHWWWH which is the major scale and the Mixolydian mode is WWHWWHW. Yes, I managed to learn some things from that free music theory class from the University of Edinburgh but my brain is still on overload from their last two videos, LOL.

  18. Where can I find more DAA music. I've been playing for a year now, but feel comfortable only in DAA. However, if I buy a book there is a lot of DAD included also. IS there somewhere to buy just DAA? marilyn

  19. Hi Marilyn- you should join Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer and ask your question there in our of our groups or forums. We have a great Beginner Group too. You'll get tons of great DAA tab suggestions there from more than just me! :) Keep in mind that you will be looking for "ionian" type tab, which is what DAA is.

  20. I know what you are saying. I play DAA(A) but I play by ear. I play several other instruments, so I can hear in my head what chords to play.
    You just aren't going to find much DAA tab... some tune books have a few tunes in DAA. Steve Siebert sells his tab book in either DAD or DAA. Visit his website to see.
    You can also go to and click on the DAA box for a little help in theory.
    Now here's what I think you should do: Can you play a simple melody on the noted string? Pick a few simple songs you know well. Play the melody, with drone strings open. Once you feel ready, try adding a bass note on the third fret (bass string) when it sounds right. It will be when the song fits a subdominant, or fourth, chord. Just do it.. you'll learn to hear when it's right or not. Once you can do that, experiment by trying notes on the middle string to make three-note chords (triads). Again you should be able to hear when it is right. That is the way I learned DAA. It's still the way I work out new tunes.

  21. I have heard people playing in Dad tuning doing some beautiful songs while fretting the non-melody strings. They are likely chording.

    Does tuning in Dad prevent this type of playing or make it more difficult?

    Where can I find tabs or youtubes of people playing intricate stuff in Daa tuning? Maybe here, but I just found this page and haven't explores\d it.


  22. There are a lot of D keys on a piano. I find plenty of online tuners for guitar and violin (example:, but NONE for dulcimer. It's pitiful.

  23. Can Dad and DAa be interchanged on the same dulcimer or does the string different ?

  24. Hi JW! Generally you CAN use both tunings on the same dulcimer... as long as your melody string is not 'too' heavy to tune up to the high d. I find a .010 or .012 gauge melody string will usually do this just fine. Keep in mind that all strings will break eventually, so always keep a spare set on hand, especially some extra melody strings, which tend to get the most wear and tear. -Strumelia