Major Scales and Harmony: Hammered Dulcimer - Beginner Level

by Susan Vinson Sherlock

Download this Article.       


Similar to the way the language we use is composed of 26 letters called the alphabet, the music we play, at least in the western hemisphere, is composed using only 12 tones, called the chromatic scale. If we begin with C the chromatic scale would look like this:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

The space, or interval, between each note/tone is considered to be a half step; two half steps make a whole step. You may be wondering where the "flats" are! For this example we will presume to be going up the scale, which is indicated by using "sharps". When the scale is descending, or going lower in pitch, it is indicated by using "flats":

C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C

To create a major scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do), eight of the twelve tones are arranged using the following pattern:

Whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step

The beginning note is the "naming note" of the scale. So start with "C" for a "C major" scale, "G" to start a "G major" scale, and so on.

A "C major" scale would look like this:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

Fortunately, the hammered dulcimer is arranged in such a way that we don't have to count whole steps and half step to find a scale. As you look at your instrument notice that the bridges have colored markers, usually white, at four note intervals. On a 12/11 (2.5 octave) dulcimer the white marker nearest the bottom on the bass (right) bridge is most likely a G. If you play this G then play straight up the bass bridge for three more notes (GABC or, do, re, mi, fa) you come to the next white marker, this is C. Now cross over to the treble (left) bridge and play the bottom white marked string on the right side of the treble bridge, this should be directly across from the first G you played. This is "D". If you play straight up, the three notes above D, (DEF#G or so, la, ti, do) you come to G an octave above the first G you played on the bass bridge. By playing these eight notes in this order you have played a G major scale In fact, if you play the same pattern beginning on any marked course, you will get a major scale.


Chords are created when two or more notes are played at the same time. Playing the first, third, and fifth notes of a major scale form three note chords known as triads. Therefore playing G, B, and D makes a G major chord.

Why are scales and chords important?

All of this is important because chords are the backbone of any piece of music. Chords are the frame work from which harmony, embellishments and back-up are created. All music is comprised of an arrangement of chords called the chord progression. Determining the chord progression for a particular piece of music can be challenging at first. But there are a few tricks and rules on the hammered dulcimer to make it easier.

First, let's presume that one starts the melody of a tune on the downbeat of the music or the ONE count (it isn't always the first note!). Once this note is found, then begin looking for possible harmony notes. As we have seen in our previous discussion chords are built on intervals of a third (1-3-5). So the most likely place to find a harmony note is by going three notes above or three notes below the melody note. To most ears, a harmony note sounds more pleasing if it is lower in pitch than the melody note. So occasionally it becomes necessary to drop the harmony note one octave, but more on that later.

Let's look at an example for a tune in the key of G: If the ONE count melody note is a D, we know from the illustrations above that D appears in three different chords in the key of G: a G major chord (GBD), a B minor chord (BDF#), and D major chord (DF#A). The task then becomes, at least in the beginning, to test each chord to see which sounds right. Sometimes all three chords will sound right and it is up to you to choose the one that works best. To test the chords it sometimes becomes necessary to switch the order in which the notes are play so that the melody note is the highest in pitch. This switching of notes is commonly called inverting the chord.

Author Bio

Susan Sherlock saw her first hammered dulcimer in the spring of 1995 while vacationing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Unable to forget what she saw, she acquired her own dulcimer a few months later and began learning to play by imitating what she heard on recordings of traditional American and Celtic music. Over the years her passion for the instrument and traditional music has led her on a rich journey of performing and teaching.

Although the dulcimer is Susan's first instrument, she is no stranger to music. The daughter of a mandolin player with a family history rich in traditional music, her childhood was filled with sounds of "Tennessee Waltz" and "Red River Valley" on a daily basis. Frequent family gatherings with her father's eleven brothers and sisters consisted of jam sessions that included fiddles, guitars, banjos, drums...and lots of singing!

Susan has been invited to teach and perform at numerous festivals including the Cork Dulcimer Festival in Ireland, South West Dulcimer Festival in Dewey, AZ, Queen City Dulcimer Festival in Charlotte, NC, Bay Path Dulcimer Festival in Northborough, MA, Cranberry Dulcimer Gathering, Binghamton, NY, and the Winston-Salem Dulcimer Festival in Winston-Salem NC. She is also very active the local music community where she performs, teaches lessons, and conducts workshops.

Susan is the founder of the Yorkville Music Weekend. This new music gathering emerged from Susan's desire to bring musicians together, to provide space for them to share their talents with each other and to perpetuate the tradition of folk music in her hometown of York, SC. The event began with hammered dulcimers, but has expanded to include multi-instrument workshops and jams.

Susan's solo recording, "Wateree," was released June 2001 and features traditional American, international folk and original tunes, accompanied by Albert Dulin (fiddles, mandolin), Ken Kolodner (fiddle, hammered dulcimer), Dan Bright (fiddle), and Fred McKinney (guitar). Her playing has been described as creative, expressive, versatile and "…so purely beautiful it will give you chills." Kerry Anderson, Gila Mountain Dulcimers. Susan's original tune "Garden Café Waltz" was featured in the February 2002 Dulcimer Player News and was chosen to be re-released (August 2002) on an Oasis CD "Acoustic Sampler" recording and distributed to over 500 radio stations nation-wide.

Susan has been selected to serve on the Arts and Science Council Talent Bureau 2004. She is also a performing member of "Indiegrrl." "Indiegrrl" criterion for being chosen is simple: "the music must be exceptional, no matter where in your career you are." She is a recipient of a Regional Artist Grant from the North Carolina Arts and Science Council, a member of the Fiddle and Bow Society, World Folk Music Association, the Triangle Folk Society, the Baltimore Folk Society and served on the Charlotte Folk Society Board of Directors.

During the summer months Susan is a full-time musician and spends much of her time teaching and performing. However, during the remainder of the year, she is also a full-time faculty member in Engineering Technology at York Technical College in Rock Hill, SC, where she has taught since 1986.

Susan Sherlock can be reached through her website,

Contact Webmaster   |   Visit our main web site -

To purchase Mel Bay products::
* Check your local music store
* Call 1-800-8-MEL-BAY (800-863-5229) or
* Online retailers

For a catalog: call 1-800-8-MEL-BAY (800-863-5229)
or e-mail

Mel Bay Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Mel Bay Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.