Monday, November 16, 2009

Golly, modes aren't so scary after all... Part Five (last), dorian mode

This is the FIFTH (and last) of a five post series devoted to a VERY SIMPLE beginner level review of how to play in the most common modes.

Remember, the first mode we used in this little series of posts was the mixolydian mode. In the mixolydian mode, key of D, your Do-Re-Mi scale starts with the D tonic "1" note on the OPEN (zero fret) of the melody strings. Your strings were tuned DAD to be in mixolydian mode in the key of D.

The second mode we tried in this series of posts was the aeolian mode. In the aeolian mode, key of D, your Do-Re-Mi scale starts with the D tonic "1" note on the FIRST fret of the melody strings, not on the open string as in mixolydian. Your strings were tuned DAC to be in aeolian mode in the key of D.

The third mode we learned was the ionian mode. In the ionian mode, key of D, your Do-Re-Mi scale starts with the D tonic "1" note on the THIRD fret of the melody strings, not on the open string as in mixolydian. Your strings were tuned DAA to be in ionian mode in the key of D.

As we go through the four common modes one at a time, we are doing it in a logical order by moving our tonic "1" note, our 'home base' note, up the fingerboard a little more for each mode. We are staying in the same key of D, but are locating our 'home base' D note in different places on the fretboard, where we will have varying fret patterns in our scale.
That's why I started with mixolydian scale, where the 'home base' tonic note is on the open string, also known as the 'zero' fret...then i went to the aeolian mode
where the 'home base' tonic note is on the first fret. Then we went on to the ionian mode with its home base located on the third fret.

Now we will tune to the dorian mode,
where the 'home base' tonic note is on the fourth fret...

The four modes have the following places where their 'home base' tonic note is:
Mixolydian mode= 0 fret (open string)
Aeolian mode= 1st fret
Ionian mode= 3rd fret
Dorian mode= 4th fret

Talking now in the key of D where the D note is your tonic 'home note'- to make the tonic D note's location be on a higher fret, you have to lower the pitch of the string. This is an important concept- read that sentence again.

Starting in mixolydian DAD, where the melody string's D is on the open string... if we want to change to dorian mode and have the tonic D note on the fourth fret instead of the zero fret, we must LOWER the tuning of our open melody string all the way down from D to G. Use your electronic tuner, and lower your melody string several steps from D to G. See this chart for how your dulcimer will be tuned in dorian mode for the key of D:
Now you are tuned DAG (the last G being your melody string or strings). Notice again we are not changing the tuning of your other (drone) strings at all during this mode-learning series. I'll talk about why that is so at the end of this series of posts- it's easy!

Go back and read my earlier post on Cluck Old Hen in dorian mode, DAG tuning: Cluck Old Hen.
Remember, even though that tab is written for EBA tuning, both EBA and DAG are dorian tunings, and therefore if you play noter style you can play the tab fret numbers exactly the same way for either dorian tuning. Cool, huh?
EBA is simply DAG but bumped up one step higher. You might like to try EBA if it makes the song easier to sing for you, but also you might like EBA because in DAG the melody string in G can feel a bit slack or loose and might feel nicer tuned up one step higher to the A in EBA.

Once you've read the post on Cluck old Hen and played it in dorian mode, try re-reading the post on Little Sadie and play that tab in DAG dorian tuning as well! In that post I've put the song in the key of G instead of D, and presented two dorian tunings to try: GDC and 'reverse' tuning DGC (which is pretty easy to get to from DAD by the way).....BUT AGAIN- you can just play that dorian tab the very same way tuned to a basic DAG dorian tuning for the key of D.

To review-
We've now gotten through the four most common mountain dulcimer modes: mixolydian based on the zero fret, aeolian based on the 1st fret, ionian based on the third fret, and dorian based on the fourth fret. YAY!

Notice if you will that among those four modes, ionian and mixolydian sound rather cheerful, while aeolian and dorian sound haunting or mournful. So you might wonder- why would you need two cheery modes and two haunting modes, instead of just one of each?...why not just use mixolydian and aeolian and save yourself a lot of tuning back and forth? Well there's a good reason, and I'll explain that in one of the very next posts, if you haven't guessed it already. I'll also talk about how we tune the drone strings for various tunings and keys...and it's super easy, so don't worry!

For now, rejoice in your new ability to retune back and forth between all these four modes on your dulcimer! Go back to earlier blog posts here and try out your new have broken through those scary mode and tuning barriers of the mind!

Remember, when looking over the tabs I have written for this blog, it doesn't matter what key I wrote tabs in. If the tab says ionian mode then you can tune to DAA and play it just the way the tab is written. If the tab says it's in aeolian mode, then you can tune to aeolian DAC (or aeolian mode in any other key as well) and play the tab just as written. Same thing goes for mixolydian (DAD) and dorian (DAG).
Even if the tab is written for a 'reverse' tuning, you can still tune to the same mode's simple tuning and play the tab just as the frets numbers are written. For example: here I tabbed Black is the Color in the key of G, aeolian mode, in a DGF 'reverse aeolian' G tuning. Never fear!- see how it says aeolian?- that means you can use ANY aeolian tuning, even good old DAC, and still play the tab exactly the same way it is written on the page.
This is why playing by mode is so logical and simple once you 'get' the main concept of moving your tonic note/home base higher up or further down the fretboard. This is one of the beauties of noter style playing- we don't need to worry about changing the tab to accommodate any complex chord fingerings.

In the simplest terms:
The mode name simply tells you where your home note or 'key note' will be on your fretboard.
The key you want to play in tells you what that tonic/home note will be- a D note, or a G note, etc.

So, when playing in mixolydian mode in the key of G for instance, you know your open melody string will need to be a G note. When playing in ionian mode in the key of D, you know that your third fret on the melody string will need to be a D note.


  1. Nice guide lisa - in the future post, could you mention which modes are equivalent to major and minor, and maybe say which notes are sharpened or flattened in each mode, for example Mixolydian:Flattened 7th. That's the bit I've never been able to get my head round!


  2. Hi Barnaby,
    Sure, I'll make such notations about major and minor and flatted this and that...when I understand them myself!
    I'm afraid I don't much get into that aspect of music theory... I mostly concentrate on the practical issues of tuning my dulcimer to a mode that just works for whatever tune I'm trying to play. ;)

  3. Thanks so much for starting this blog and diving into the "mode" issue. I play pennywhistle and sure have run into it a lot. It is frustrating to pick up a D whistle and while playing the melody run out of holes. This made me spring for the music theory book and I do find it fascinating. All the other musicians run though when I even mention anything to do with theory. Makes me lonely in that area but it also shows how hard the concepts are for people to wrap their brain around. After not playing music for years I fell into a pennywhistle obsession a year ago and now am known as the pennywhistle player. I am not the best player there is but I am the only one in my group and that is what counts. I love your article on being to old to learn. We need to take the music back from the pros and put it into community where it belongs. I play in church on the worship team (whistle and q-chord a very high tech instrument) but in my heart I get the most joy out of jamming with friends. It would not bother me in the least to never play in a performance type mode again as I don't like it at all. I am now on my path to the dulcimer. I am facing a few terrifying surgeries in the next few months so taking on the dulcimer will be one of my paths to deal with it as I have always loved the sounds. I have no teacher but am confidant with the net that I can get it down. With people like you that put out the effort to keep music in community you provide a valuable service to that cause and I say thank you.

  4. Rosemary, Thank you for posting your message. I am so glad you are finding this blog and also Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer website to be helpful.
    I wish you luck and healing wishes in your coming surgeries. Music is a great healer and salve for the soul!

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You write so clearly. Your explanation and demonstration make it very clear, because you are showing us "how-to" in a very real way upon the instrument. In other words "It ain't just theory...we put it into practice". Nicely done!

  6. So if I wanted to play something in the key of E major in Dorian, I am wanting to tune to E3,B3,& A3?

  7. Monterey, I'm afraid that's a bit more than i can figure out with certainty! I'm just a hands-on home player. Thanks for reading my blog though!! :)