Timothy's Blog

Timothy's blog on dulcimers, music, nature and life!

The scale, the melody, the chords, and time!

The scale, the melody, the chords, and time!

Often people think of music design as a mysterious, arcane art that can only be done by gifted geniuses who just have a special knack --- or, alternatively, that new music (improvisation or composition) can be made only by highly trained technical experts.  Not really!  There are only a few basic concepts that make it all come together, and here's what I've seen as a lifelong improviser:

1) Everything in normal "tonal" music is built out of a diatonic (do-re-mi) scale: seven scale steps in an octave, and nothing more.  In elementary school music or elsewhere I hope you've gotten the chance to hear that that scale is a "whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step," easily seen in the key of C on the piano.

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The beautiful sound of a hammered dulcimer's triangular shapes

Do you walk past your hammered dulcimer sometimes, deciding not to play it because you feel that working on a tune would just be more work than you need right now?

Then don't work on a tune! Just mess around with beautiful sounds without a definite plan! The hammered dulcimer is perfect for that!

Three-note chords on the dulcimer come in triangular shapes. The only simple skill needed to get a gorgeous sound is to coordinate your right and left hammers into a simple shape, say, R on bass bridge, then L on right side of treble bridge, then R just above that, then back to L on the same course it had just done --- thus the only movement is the R hammer, and the L is playing the same note in between the R notes. Repeat over and over on those same notes for a while.

A specific example of a regular chord would be the notes D-F#-A-F# (R-L-R-L). If you repeat this for a while it gives you a beautiful D major chord. But don't think specifics! Think shapes! A major or minor chord shape is the triangle described here, but there are also lots of other shapes.

If you make the triangle more acute by playing courses right next to each other on the treble bridge part, it sounds "natury" and impressionistic (like G-D-E-D); if you spread that part of the triangle farther apart, it sounds more hollow and stark --- say, if you play all marked courses, like the notes G-D-G-D or any shapes of that kind.

Then try all sorts of other triangular shapes and listen for the interesting sounds.

You may want eventually to develop one of these explorations into a finished composition that you come back to and maybe you'll even perform it for others! BUT what I want to encourage you to do here is to to break away from a project-driven mentality and develop a sense of freedom and joy in the moment --- and you can do it at any time with no sense of pressure, thus you will be playing your dulcimer and enjoying it at any time!

Don't walk past the dulcimer!

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Hammered dulcimer improv: all blacks, all whites!

When I go to play my hammered dulcimer and don't know what I want to play, sometimes I just start playing notes pretty randomly in the following patterns, and it sounds amazingly good even if I'm not thinking about it at all!  You ought to try it too....

The "marked courses" on my model of dulcimer (Dusty Strings D600) are white, as they seem to be on most brands these days.  When you play them in a rectangle you get the first, fourth, fifth, and eighth (octave) scale steps of one key.  Try it!  It sounds intriguingly hollow and rustically sophisticated.

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Free improv on the hammered dulcimer or whistle!

Yesterday I posted a blog about using the black keys of the piano to come up with your own music in the common pattern of a pentatonic scale.  But this can be done on any instrument, you know!

My two main instruments are the hammered dulcimer (ancestor of the piano but laid out very differently) and the flute family, which includes the whistle (tinwhistle, pennywhistle), so for players on those instruments let me adapt the idea and you won't have to go to a piano!

The piano's black keys, though they're all flats or sharps, have exactly the same relationship of scale steps as "Do-re-mi, sol-la," or "1-2-3, 5-6," or G-A-B, D-E.

On hammered dulcimer, then, just find the notes G-A-B, D-E and have fun exploring!  Just make sure you stay on those notes (any octave) and don't try any others till you've become sure of how the pentatonic pattern sounds and looks.  You'll find that all the ringing of the hammered dulcimer causes a very pleasant windchime effect with that set of notes!

On whistle (and also on concert flute or bamboo flute, for that matter), you just locate the same set of notes!  I find that the motions of the pentatonic scale are very natural for the fingers, and I can sound very virtuosic when doing something very simple!  D and E are at the bottom of the range of a whistle, but G tends to sound like the main scale step (the "tonic" or "root").   For the note D you put all six fingers down on the holes, then lift the rightmost one for E, lift two more fingers for G, then one more for A and one more for B (now only one finger is down), and start mixing and matching these fingerings and you'll find yourself coming up with real music!

Please try this!  It is one of the most freeing and quickly satisfying skills you will ever have!  Why, you can carry a whistle while hiking in the mountains and pull it out during a rest break and listen to the pentatonic scale reflect off the trees, or pass by the dulcimer in the living room and grab the hammers and fill the room with beauty for a few seconds...

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