Sunday, March 8, 2009

The beautiful aeolian mode

If you've been following along with this blog, you have already tried playing in two different modes: the mixolydian mode (such a DAD) where you tune so that the base/tonic note is located on the zero fret (open string)....and the ionian mode (such as DAA) where you tune so that the base/tonic note is found on the third fret.
Now I'd like to get you playing in the truly beautiful and haunting aeolian mode. The base/tonic note of the aeolian mode is found not on the open string or the third fret, but on the first fret. Remember how I said most songs end on their base note or tonic note? Notice that the tab below for Shady Grove in aeolian mode ends on the first fret then.
The aeolian mode has a minor sound to it, often mournful, sad, or spooky. It's probably my favorite mode. Many of the loveliest and oldest ballads of them all are in aeolian mode... Some modern guitar players don't quite know how to accompany aeolian mode tunes, and as a result they sometimes play non-modal-y minor chords to them that are close, but don't 'quite' match, and they wreck the delicately mysterious aeolian sound of special intervals and dissonance, instead making it sound rather peppy and cheerful. Ugh. Try this tuning on your dulcimer and see how very special and wonderful the aeolian mode is just by itself. I bet you'll get hooked on it like I did.

Here is a simple tuning chart to help you get into aeolian mode. It is in the key of D because you are probably already familiar with tuning and playing in DAD, key of D.To get into aeolian mode from DAD mixolydian mode, all you have to do is tune your melody string(s) DOWN one whole step from D to C.
To get into aeolian mode from DAA ionian mode, all you have to do is tune your melody string(s) UP two whole steps from A to C.
Your end result either way will be DAC. DAC is an aeolian tuning for the key of D.

If you are now in DAC aeolian mode, you can play Shady Grove, one of the most beloved old-time ballads from the hills of Appalachia where the dulcimer itself was born. Shady Grove has various versions of lyrics that have been passed down, and I have collected a few of my favorite traditional verses here for you to enjoy. See if you can sing a verse while you play. See if you can play it after a while without looking at the tab anymore.
The beauty of noter style playing is that it is less complicated than constant chord fingering, thus it is easier to learn to play a tune without reading the tab. This is worth repeating:
We are giving up 3-finger chording here in favor of using open drone strings- but to use drones effectively we have to be able to tune into 2 or 3 different modes. After the first little learning hump, it is a much simpler method of playing. Is it not a ballad that somehow touches the very soul in a lonesome way? I could play it for years and never get tired of it.

Now I'll point a few things of interest...
You may ask Why should I have to learn to play in different modes? Why can't I just play Shady Grove in DAD or DAA anyway? Well, if you try to play the same ballad Shady Grove in mixolydian DAD tuning or ionian DAA tuning, you will quickly discover that it's impossible- you are missing some of the frets you need to play the tune, as though it were a piano with some of the keys missing. This is what they mean when they say the dulcimer has a diatonic fretboard. It is missing certain notes on the fretboard and was intended to be played in open tuned modes. If the dulcimer had no missing frets, in other words if it had a fret for every note and every half note on the fretboard, then it would have a chromatic fretboard instead of a diatonic one. A piano is a chromatic instrument, so is a guitar. They have 'all' the notes. That's why you can play them so easily in all the different keys with minimal fussing.
Some people have additional frets installed on their dulcimers to enable playing in various keys and modes without re-tuning so much. The most famous additional fret to the diatonic dulcimer is the six and a half fret (and it's corresponding 13 1/2 fret one octave higher). Most mountain dulcimers made today do have the 6 1/2 fret, but before 1965 or so it was almost never seen. We'll look more at why it's so popular and how it's used later on in this blog.
Other people have a couple more frets added, such as a one and a half fret (and it's corresponding 8 1/2 fret one octave higher). I myself have dulcimers with these added frets. I'll discuss their use much later on as well. We can get along just fine without them, so don't get all worried. ;)
Going to the end extreme we have the fully chromatic dulcimer, with no missing frets at all. Some people like them, especially people who like to play more complex modern music on their dulcimers, such as blues, jazz, klezmer, etc.

Besides having extra frets, another way to avoid retuning to play in different modes is to use a capo. A capo is a little clamp that raises the string pitches across all the strings at once without re-tuning them. Capos can be convenient, and we'll discuss them in the future as well, but for now we are learning simple basic things and we don't really need to mess with capos yet. Besides, capos really change the sound of the dulcimer- making it less resonant and more 'shut' sounding, so let's enjoy learning to do things without capos for a while. I actually never use a capo, so don't get all worried about capos either. ;)

So far on this blog we have been playing only simple folk music that can be played on traditional diatonic fretted dulcimers having no extra frets. We've been playing only in three modes: mixolydian, ionian, and aeolian. We won't be complicating our lives with having to learn any more than just these three modes until quite a bit later in this blog!
We've learned that we can re-tune from D ionian down to G ionian for instance, and then play a song using the very same tab/fret numbers...because we are in the same mode, just a different key. Thus, we have begun to understand that we can re-tune to play in a key other than D while still playing in the same mode (more on that later on).

The good news is that've already gotten past the most difficult part of playing your dulcimer in the traditional way! If you can re-tune your dulcimer into ionian, mixolydian, and aeolian modes, then you can play most common tunes easily on your melody string, and you will find there are more than enough beautiful and exciting traditional dulcimer tunes and songs played in these three modes to keep you thrilled and busy for a long time to come!

Although there are several other interesting and useful modes you could learn, just knowing these first three that we've tried so far is enough to cover most typical playing circumstances. The fourth mode that you'll probably discover you need eventually is the beautiful Dorian mode, but for now, using just these first three modes is fine. Another reassuring fact is that in old-time traditional music, you can usually get by just fine if you can play in only four keys: D, G, A, and C. And most old-time so-called "modal songs" or "minor songs" can probably be played in your aeolian mode tuning, if you can get into the key that's called for. Now, remember, if you find yourself in a jam with singer-songwriter guitar players with big egos who like to sing songs they wrote in keys like F sharp and E flat, then run like the wind. I tell you this for your own good. Just stay away from them and play your Shady Grove until it erases the strains of their whiny frou-frou songs from your brain.

Now, lest you start thinking I'm a stuffy old poop, I feel compelled to include here one of my favorite versions of Shady Grove....but it has almost nothing in common with the Aeolian beauty we are talking about in this post. But I still think it's darned cute! Here it is- Charlene Darling from the old Andy Griffith show, singing Shady Grove. Has anyone else ever been as impossibly perky as this??


  1. Hi Lisa!
    I too like those "delicately mysterious" modal tunings...but I got a question:
    I've always felt Shady Grove (and most others "minors" tunes/songs) as a Dorian tune more than an Aeolian tunes...
    It seems that most of them leaves the 6th anyway, so they can probably be played both way - or depending how the player feel (I've always found interesting that in the shape-note community, the songs are written in Aeolian mode, whereas the traditional singings sing them in the Dorian mode)
    Someone once said to me that he had the feeling that most of these tunes were originally Dorian, but since the Aeolian mode may be more "natural" (or familiar) to people nowadays (being the natural minor scale), the tunes had "slide" to the Aeolian mode...But it was just his opinion and a guess he had.
    What's your take on this?

  2. Hello Haik,
    Thanks for your comment- this is a very interesting question.
    I think you must know much more about this than I do. you could very well be right about many dorian tunes being switched over to aeolian merely for convenience.
    Frankly, I have only experimented in Dorian mode a couple of times up to now, but it would certainly be the next mode to try after the first three I've been exploring in the blog.
    You have really piqued my curiosity now.
    As soon as I have a bit of time I am going to sit down and try out Shady Grove in both aeolian and dorian modes, and see if I notice any differences in sound or playing ease that would indicate one to be preferred over the other. All I can really go by is whether the sound feels right to me, since I don't have as much mode background history as you do. I'll report back here once I've done this. I'll also try out a couple of 'dorian tunes' in the books I have, to see how much or how little I relate to them.
    Like most people, I still have much to learn!

  3. I had the same question. Last night I transferred by banjo modal tunes (Shady Grove, Coo-Coo, etc) to the Dorian mode for dulcimer, based on some tabs I found in a book, and thought I had found the solution. They sounded perfect. So tonight I will have to try Aeolian and see how they sound in that mode. Anxious to see what you come up with, Lisa.

    Ron Maness

  4. Ok, I tried playing Shady Grove and Pretty Polly in both Aeolian and Dorian modes today.
    What I am seeing is that I am playing exactly the same notes but just lower down or higher up on the melody string.
    The intervals between the melody and the middle and bass drones remain the same as well. So, I am not hearing any difference in the musical notes being played.

    I do however observe the practical/esthetic differences between playing these songs in each of the two modes...

    In Aeolian mode, because the distance between frets lower down on the fretboard is longer, my noter has to move longer distances to play the tune. In Dorian, the distances are shorter from note to note, and in general the melody string's length is shorter while fretting because it's being played higher up.

    The result of the difference in the string length when fretting the notes and the distances between notes is this:

    In Aeolian mode I have to cover more ground with my noter- less efficient use of movement. However, the advantages are that: A) I can get more luxurious slides, B) the longer melody string vibrating length creates more resonance in the melody part (this I can plainly hear)which seems to better match the very resonant open drone has a more 'open' sound whereas the Dorian melody reminds me more of the sound when I use a capo to get into a higher key...more 'closed' sounding somehow.

    Now, not only does the sound change when playing higher up on the fretboard, but the tension changes as well- the string action is higher and you must press down more firmly. To my senses, the feel is more silky and fluid in Aeolian mode. It's the same when I play high up the neck on my banjo- a more closed tone, stiffer feel.

    This leaves me with a question however-
    I see that Shady Grove and Pretty Polly can be easily played in either Aeolian or Dorian mode tuning. But can I assume there must be tunes that can be played in Dorian but *cannot* be played in Aeolian because of the diatonic fret arrangement of the dulcimer? Are there common traditional tunes that MUST be in Dorian to be played? I see in dulcimer books that "Bachelor's Hall" seems to always be presented in Dorian tuning. Can anyone of you play it just as easily in Aeolian with the very same notes?

    I am interested in your further responses.

    And Ron- why do you feel that Shady Grove and CooCoo sound 'perfect' in Dorian and thus less perfect in Aeolian? This I would like to know!

    Thanks's so fascinating- especially when, like me, one doesn't have all the answers! ;D

  5. Lisa--No, I was saying that as modal tunes they sounded perfect in Dorian when I tried them last night. But I had not tried Aeolian at all. That is what I plan to do tonight.

    Ron Maness

  6. Thanks for your answer Lisa!

    As for me, I only got questions, but no answers at all!

    I only play dulcimer on and off since about a year, and really get interested in modes since that time (even tough I start to read about them a bit earlier when taking up the banjo).

    As I've said, it seems lots of minor tunes "lack" the 6th, so it's hard to tell whether they're Aeolian or Dorian. On the plus side, it means they can be played on both tuning!
    Looking at the Sacred Harp, the tenor lines (the "main melody") in minor tunes seems to lack the 6th too - and the treble lines, providing a harmonized melody do have this 6th, written "flat" (Aeolian) and sung "sharp" (Dorian) (I'm no expert - just something I've read).
    Maybe that's the case with OT tunes too?

    That being said, I switch between Aeolian and Dorian tuning mainly out of convenience - I agree with everything you've said(I prefer playing in Aeolian tuning, down on the fretboard), but I also found that, when transcribing tunes I already know on the Banjo in Sawmill Modal tuning, I often need the low 5th (the low A when in the key of D)
    .As in "Falls of Richmond", or even "Pretty Polly"for example.
    In that case I tune to Dorian DAG, and everything is fine.

    There's one tune (song, actually) that gave me problems, but it's a French trad. song, so the "rules" there may not apply to OT tunes.
    In that case, I've learned to sing it in Aeolian: if in the key of D, the melody goes down to A below the tonic, then passing trough the A#.
    It can be played in Dorian - playing a B instead of A#.
    And I've found a way to play it in Aeolian, but it's "cheating" ;-) : I tune the dulcimer to DAF and use the 6+ fret...
    Both sounds ok - but the feeling is different...

    If you want to try, I've found a small transcription here:

    And scroll down to "Si je savais voler" (it's tiny tiny!)

    So well, see, I got a long way to fully "understand" the great power of modes :-)
    And it's great, since only the journey matters!

  7. Haik,
    Interesting point about needing that low fifth in many old-time tunes- I find that very true in so many fiddle tunes. As I explained in an earlier post, that's one important reason I like to play in Ionian more than in Mixolydian mode. (See my post about why I like DAA tuning so much)

    I tuned to aeolian and I see what you mean about Pretty Polly- that low note in the beginning. However- if you are singing it then you can just stay on the 1st fret through those two initial low notes while you sing them, play around between 1 and 3 while you sing the two lower notes on the second "Polly", and then continue on with the song as normal.

    I found that Jean Ritchie put Pretty Polly into key of C Phrygian mode (C-G-Eflat, scale starting on the 5th fret) in her book. But then she also seems to have written the tune out slightly differently in the beginning than the low phrase you and I are discussing.

    I now see that yes there are indeed old-time tunes that can be played in Dorian but not in Aeolian (unless you fake through it) because of those lower notes. So you are right on the money when you talk about the sawmill 'modal' banjo tuning.

    Shady Grove can be played in either aeolian or dorian, since it only dips down one whole step from the tonic, not three below as in Pretty Polly.

  8. Hi Strum,..I'm just starting to read all your wonderful rich with information. A zillion thanks. And how the heck did you find that Shady Grove on You Tube? I grew up watching Andy. Very sweet...but one time thru is fine. Too perky.

  9. This may be a silly question, but I'm not very familiar with modes, being a pianist and a guitar least that's what I'm blaming it do you know if a song like "Shady Grove" is in aeolian mode? I would like to play off sheet music I already have for my fiddle, so I want to be able to change my tunings to fit the songs. Any help would be apreciated. Maybe I'm just getting ahead of myself...only owning my beautiful dulcimer for less than a week!! Thank you!

  10. Hi Nancy,
    I use two clues to find out what mode a tune is in.
    1) does it sound sad or spooky or lonesome?- then it is very often in either aeolian or dorian mode. Does it sound 'normal', businesslike, or cheerful?- then it's likely in ionian or mixolydian mode.
    2) then I try to play it on my dulcimer- on the melody string only. I try to start the tune on various frets to try them out. If I cannot play it because i'm missing several notes on the melody string, then I start it someplace else and keep trying. Usually, a tune ENDS on it's tonic note. If Shady grove ends on the first fret, then that tells you it's aeolian mode. If it only works if it ends on the fourth fret, then it's a dorian tune. You are trying the tune out from different positions on your fretboard, and when you find a place where no notes are 'missing' on your melody string, then look at what fret it ends on. Nine times out of ten that will accurately tell you what mode the tune is.
    So start with step 1) and then further narrow it down with step 2). This is all a very simplified method, and bypasses the theory part. It's kind of a little trick you can use mostly successfully. :)

  11. Thank you so much Lisa!! I have learned alot from this blog and your videos!! You should write a book!!!

  12. Nancy, this blog *is* my book! lol!

    Thanks! :)

  13. I must tell you, Strumelia, that you made me laugh until tears squirted this morning. :-)
    I left a comment on one of your earliest posts, but somehow it didn't get posted...I said something to the effect, "You and I are going to be good friends."
    I eagerly anticipate the arrival of my first dulcimer today, a student Bill Berg model. Every day, I check in here for another "lesson". Thank you, so much, for the effort and enthusiasm that you have invested...for sharing yourself and your joy with the rest of us.
    With MUCH appreciation,

  14. Leslie, thanks for you nice comments.
    I am sure you will be happy with your new dulcimer when it arrives! :)

  15. try playing when johnny comes marching home again in aeolian, wow what a different take on it. Its a simple song for a first time dulcimer player.

  16. Thanks for the wonderful "at home classroom!" I have been trying to find your Tabbed music that I saw referenced in one of the videos but have not had any luck. Thanks! BP

  17. Barb, look at bottom right column of this page and click to sort posts by "Noter Drone Tab"- that will pull up all the posts in this blog that include TAB. Hope this helps. :)