Monday, March 28, 2011

A Musical Sorbet: Newmarket Polka

The far-off sound of cackling that you hear in the murky distance is me, experimenting, switch-flipping, strumography. It's nice to be in the lull zone and, you know what they say; I'd rather be in a lull zone than in a null zone. Because you know, they say that, you know.

Thanks for being the test group for some new music methodology that I've been conjuring. I am proofing as I go, so if something sticks out that ain't right, more than likely it's some forgotten setting in Tab|Edit.

As a sorbet separating that first sumptuous course of diatonic-friendly key studies and the inevitable divide that begins the second course, I present a happy little polka. This one caught my ear, and it goes much faster than the recording, but first - we play; then, we shred.

Newmarket Polka.mp3

Newmarket Polka.pdf

I'm working on a book of these tunes, which will focus on very accessible-yet-challenging pieces that are fun to play and sound incredible when you get them up to speed. Other tunes from the book include "A Boy's Lament For His Dragon" and "Johnny Don't Get Drunk."

Lots of recording going on right now - a great, rainy week for that! Bring the spring. Have fun and thanks again for visiting Nowhere, Nevada.



Monday, March 21, 2011

Minor Chord Leading

We're leaping right into it with a look at the minor side of A Major.

A    B    C#    D    E    F#    G#
I   ii    iii   IV   V    vii   vii°

Each one of the seven notes is given a scale degree. Uppercase Roman numerals denote Major and lowercase represents minor (lowercase with ° is diminished.)

When songwriting, certain intervals of chord changes have deeply resonant effects of conflict and resolution. Certain chords just "feel" like they need to go somewhere in particular.
I chord leads to any chord
ii leads to IV, V, vii° chords
iii leads to ii, IV, vi chords
IV leads to I, iii, V, vii° chords
V leads to I chords
vi leads to ii, IV, V, I chords
vii° leads to I, ii chords

Beginning the A Major scale on the sixth note gives us the F# minor scale and through our scale degrees remain one through seven, those numbers change from Major to minor and vice versa. The notes maintain their intervals within chord structures:

F#   G#   A   B   C#   D   E
i   ii°  III  iv  v    VI  VII

i leads to iv, VI, VII, III chords
ii° leads to III, iv chords
III chord leads to any chord
iv leads to VI, VII, and ii° chords
v leads to iv, VI, i chords
VI leads to III, v, VII, ii° chords
VII leads to III chords

Each scale degree has a name that describes its distance from the root chord or tonic. You don't need to memorize them, though it always helps. What's more important is hearing the cadences, distinct movement in the music, that result from different chord progressions.

The TONIC is the first note of the scale, whichever key you're in. We're in A Major, so let's call it A. Think of the TONIC as 'home.' No matter where you take a song, always bring it back home.

The SUPERTONIC (literally "above" TONIC) is from the second note of the scale. B minor.
Goes well to the fifth note of the scale.

The MEDIANT is the third note of the scale and shares two notes with the TONIC. It can resolve anywhere. C# minor.

The SUB-DOMINANT is the fourth note of the scale. To the TONIC or to the LEADING TONE. D Major.

The DOMINANT is the fifth note of the scale. It wants to pull the most towards the TONIC. E Major.

The SUB-MEDIANT is the sixth note of the scale. Most naturally flows towards the second or SUPERTONIC, but also goes to the DOMINANT. F# minor.

The LEADING TONE is the very pivotal seventh note of the scale. It pulls towards the TONIC. Remember, this is a diminished scale and a G# diminished chord, so strange things are afoot anyway.

There are a few different schools of thought on building chords off of the natural minor scale versus the harmonic or melodic minor scales. I promised I was going to bring that up at some point and I see no better time and place than right now and right here.

I swear, I'm not trying to murder you. Really. This stuff makes sense in context. I have to rub my brain all over it every day to make it stick - so you're going to suffer with me, yeah? Okay. We move on.

Minor scales and other harmonizations

Since this has already been hinted at in the worksheet material for this study, I'll get it out of the way first. It's been hanging over my head now for about a week and it just needs to get out there.

We talked about building chords (triads) by stacking them three notes apart.

A    B    C#    D     E     F#      G#

Just skip every other letter, starting with the TONIC of A:

I = A - C# - E = A Major
ii = B - D - F# = B minor
iii = C# - E - G# = C# minor
IV = D - F# - A = D Major
V = E - G# - B = E Major
vi = F# - A - C# = F# minor
vii° = G# - B - D = G# diminished

There you have your chords - now, remember that each of these scale degrees have a personality, from TONIC to LEADING CHORD. While keeping their personalities in tact, we re-arrange the order of the notes to create the relative minor scale, also known as the natural minor. Same chords, different order. Some would suggest rather using the harmonic and melodic minor to generate chord progressions, but as a modal instrument, the diatonic dulcimer was made for this approach (and it's easier.) Fundamental. There's a better word.

Here, the 'b' represents flat, down a half-step.

Major Scale

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 0ctave

minor scale (also called descending melodic minor scale)

1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 Octave

harmonic minor scale

1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7 Octave

melodic minor scale (also called ascending melodic minor scale)

1 2 b3 4 5 6 7 Octave

Chords and other scales can be built from each of these notes and, combined, the incredible treasure of combinations begins to evolve. Let's talk about seventh chords and how to build them from a Major scale.

A    B    C#    D     E     F#      G#

Once again, skip every other letter but do it four times. 

I = A - C# - E - G# = AMaj7 
ii = B - D - F# - A = Bm7
iii = C# - E - G# - B = C#m7
IV = D - F# - A - C# = DMaj7
V = E - G# - B - D = E7
vi = F# - A - C# - E = F#m7
vii° = G# - B - D - F# = G#m7/b5

Whammo! Instant jazz chords! To review the building of each kind of chord:


Root - Major 3rd - Perfect 5th


Root - minor 3rd - Perfect 5th


Root - minor 3rd - diminished 5th or flat fifth or b5
(in other words, the 3rd and 5th are both flat.)


Root - Major 3rd - augmented or raised 5th.

Dominant 7th or Seventh

Root - Major 3rd - Perfect 5th - Minor Seventh or Flat Seventh (or LEADING TONE)

Major Seventh

Root - Major 3rd - Perfect 5th - Major Seventh

Majorminor Seventh

Root - minor third - Perfect 5th - Minor 7th

To play some of these chords, it's helpful to know your scales, arpeggios, across the fretboard so you can see (and hear) where the various parts of the chord are lurking.

Then, we drop out the root, in most cases, and leave the other three parts of the chord, which register in most cases as an honest-to-goodness seventh chord of some complexity.

I know, we're losing some of the diatonics here. This stuff is all covered in the chromatic hand=outs.

Going To Tra-La-La in F#m

Great - now all I can hear is that guy.

Here's some movement for F#m:

F#m - Bm - G#° - A - D -- F#m -- Bm

Bm - C#m - D - F#m

What I've done is just plotted the path of least resistance in seeking out "home" and passing through sequences of changes. You can clearly hear just how extraordinary a diminished chord can be when used in a certain progression and this is a diatonic transcription - all of this is possible on neo-standard mountain dulcimer (and I mean 6+ fret.) Any chromatic players out there who can't figure out the transcription, e-mail me and I'll send it to you.

I'm toying with the idea of writing out a solo. Maybe. After I live with it for awhile, yeah? There's nothing like throwing some chord changes into Band In A Box and just improvising over them in loops. It's the best way to find out what things work and what don't, without having to do all of the math. Ultimately, music theory is just putting to words what you are already putting into practice. Hearing and feeling the music is the key.

Have fun with the chord studies and mp3 file! We're going to do some different things for the next few key studies, so hang in there diatonic players - we'll have stuff that you can work on as well!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dulcimerica 186 - "Kesh Jig"

Studies in A for Diatonic and Chromatic Mountain Dulcimer

[For a reference starting point to this series, please visit the link for Studies in C for Diatonic and Chromatic Mountain Dulcimer.]

A Diatonic Scales.pdf

A Chromatic Scales.pdf

A Chromatic Scale Harmonizations.pdf

As we continue our study of the 15 Major keys and their relative minors (30 keys in all!) this year, I'd like to point out that the traditional Appalachian mountain dulcimer is not stuck in the key of D Major like some folks think. In fact, when tuned to dd-A-D (also written DAD or known as 1-5-8 tuning), performers of mountain dulcimer can easily play in six different keys without ever re-tuning or applying a capo. Beyond that, some fudging is necessary (such as barring and bending to omit or find missing notes.) In creating the worksheets for each of the keys, I was hesitant to include some of the more difficult-to-attain notes, chords and scales for diatonic (standard) mountain dulcimer, but decided to do so anyway. On the diatonic dulcimer scale sheet for each key, I show both Major and minor scales plus some scale harmonization. You'll notice that with the minor scales, there are some half-frets that you probably don't have on your instrument. For instance, in the A minor scale tablature, you'll find a 4+ to indicate the F natural. Whenever you see a + next to a fret number, you can bend that particular note to get the tone that's missing from your fretboard. It'll sound funky, but at least you'll be able to still join in on the studies (and bending notes is a good technique to have in your toolbox.)

In fact, diatonic players, it's not a bad idea to go ahead and download the chromatic worksheets as well, as they are chock full of extra information.

For example, harmonic minor scales are listed with the chromatic sheets as well as ascending and descending melodic minor scales. I figured that might be a little too much information for diatonic students, which is why that's not covered in the diatonic materials.

As we begin exploring the key of A Major, I'll give a rundown of the characteristics of each scale here. First off - the key of A Major has three sharps: F, C and G.

A  B  C#  D  E  F#  G#

Remember how to build chords from these notes? Begin with the root (A) and skip every other letter to form triads. Some chords will be Major, others will be minor and one chord will be diminished:

A C# E = A Major

B D F# = B minor

C# E G# = C# minor

D F# A = D Major

E G# B = E Major

F# A C# = F# minor

G# B D = G# diminished

In any Major scale - chords or scales built from the 1st, 4th and 5th degrees are Major. Chords or scales built from the 2nd, 3rd and 6th degrees are minor. Chords or scales built from the seventh degree are diminished.

Begin the Major scale from the sixth note and use the same notes (just in a different order) and you've got the relative minor scale. In this case, that scale would be F# minor. This is also known as the natural minor.

F#  G#  A  B  C#  D  E

Same chords are formed when skipping every other letter.

Now, what happens when we keep the same root and switch to a minor scale? Let's go from A Major to A minor. What's the difference? We take the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes of the Major scale and flatten them; take them down a half step.

A  B  C#  D  E  F#  G#


A  B  C  D  E  F  G

If you've been following along with our studies since the beginning of the year, this scale should look familiar to you. Why is that? Because A minor is the relative minor scale to C Major, which is the very first scale we took a look at! (No flats and no sharps.)

This is an important distinction to make: relative minor scales are the same as natural minor scales, no matter what. However - when you are comparing a Major scale and its relative minor, none of the notes change - only their order changes. When you are comparing Major and minor scales that share a root, then three of the notes will be flattened. Does that make sense? Let's recap what keys we've looked at so far:

Major keys and their relative minors:

C Major -> A minor (no flats/sharps - both share the same notes in different orders)

G Major -> E minor (1 sharp - F# - both share the same notes in different orders)

D Major -> B minor (2 sharps - F#/C# - both share the same notes in different orders)

Major and minor keys that share a root:

C Major (no flats/sharps) - C minor (3 flats - Bb/Eb/Ab)

G Major (1 sharp - F#) - G minor (2 flats - Bb/Eb)

D Major (2 sharps - F#/C#) - D minor (1 flat - Bb)

So now, we're at A Major - the relative minor is F# minor. Both have three sharps. F#/C#/G#. When changing A Major to A minor, the result is no flats or sharps. Do you see a pattern here?

Each time we've added a sharp, we've removed a flat. I won't go into detail on this yet (in fact, I'll save a look at the harmonic minor scale and melodic minor scale for two posts from now), but how in the world can you keep track of it all without having to memorize every single key? That's where the Circle of Fifths comes in.

The Circle of Fifths shows all of the relationships between the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. It can be quite handy as a visual or mental tool (which is why I highly recommend memorizing this simple version of it and then discovering what it's good for along the way.) At the top of the circle is C, with no flats and no sharps. Then, as you move clockwise around the circle, you are moving in fifths; each of the notes around the edge of the circle are a distance of a fifth as you travel clockwise. What's more, beginning with G, you add a sharp for each note name (up to seven sharps total.)

Now, if you move counter-clockwise around the circle, let's start from C again, then all of those notes are a fourth apart. In addition, beginning with F, you add a flat for each stop around the circle in a counter-clockwise motion, up to seven flats. Some people call this image the Cycle of Fourths but it works out to be six of one and a half-dozen of the other!

So, someone calls a tune in the jam that's in the key of A. Flip around the circle in your head clockwise until you come to A. Remember not to count C, since it has no flats or sharps. Counting G, that's three total "clicks" around the circle. So, three sharps are in the key of A.

Also, notice the interior of the circle. There, you have all of the relative minor keys right next to their relative Majors. There's another way of finding this. First, choose the Major key on the outside of the circle and then move "fifteen minutes" (four total note names) clockwise around the circle. The note you arrive at, simply call it minor and there you have it! See how that works counting from D Major (you arrive at B - so call it minor.) Remember to count the note that you start with.

A couple more things to mention. This is a simplified version of the Circle of Fifths, but I wanted to introduce it to you (if this is, indeed, your first encounter with it) without it being too terribly intimidating. One thing that you'll need to know about music theory is that some notes, intervals and key signatures are exactly the same as other notes, intervals and key signatures but spelled differently. For example, take a look at the Circle of Fifths and find Db. That's D flat Major. It's the same thing as C# or C sharp Major. We'll get more into that later on.

Also, it's not a bad idea to memorize the order of sharps and flats as they appear on the musical staff.

Sharps = F, C, G, D, A, E, B

Flats = B, E, A, D, G, C, F

If you look at the Circle of Fifths, you may see some patterns emerging. Look closely.

This is where it gets interesting.

I know that there are many musicians out there who have been studying along with us and they play other instruments besides diatonic and chromatic mountain dulcimer. This broad overview of music theory applies to the general musical language. However, diatonic instruments are somewhat limited by design, so after this particular pair of key studies, I'll be taking a slightly different approach to materials for the mountain dulcimer. You may have noticed in the initial workshop materials for each Major key, I've presented the scales and harmonizations in a straightforward manner, although sometimes I've switched up a chord shape or two here and there. For diatonic, that has been necessary to make up for the lack of available notes within immediate range, so you'll see a little zig or a zag instead of a perfect staircase of notes, in the case of harmonization. Also, with the chromatic worksheets, I have been using a couple of different general chord shapes. Some, as you can see, are tightly bunched together. Some are spread out with spaces in between the next closest note. These are alternately known as closed voicing and open voicing. Again, we'll get more into that as we go along.

It's my sincere wish that you'll plug along with me in this general study of keys. Along the way, there are lots of music theory bits and bites that will come into play. What I've discovered in my years of study is that what seems confusing at first will slowly begin to fade into understanding, light bulbs will go on, patterns will emerge and once you've got a toe hold there - the world of music unfurls itself before you and you simply cannot get enough. Thanks for taking the journey with me!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Go Ahead: B minor.

I hope you hung out in the key of D Major for awhile and had some fun exploring! I've been exploring the joys of spring cleaning here at the studio (and in the guest room and in the bedroom.) So sorry about the delay in posting the follow-up to our Major key study by delving into the relative minor key:

For every Major scale there is a relative minor or natural minor scale that shares the same notes, albeit in a different order. To find it within the Major key, simply begin on the sixth note of the scale and play the seven notes in sequence:


D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#
1  2  3   4  5  6  7


B  C#  D  E  F# G  A
1  2   3  4  5  6  7 

Though we keep the scale degrees the same, the character of each tone remains the same as it was in the Major scale.



D    E    F#    G    A    B    C#
I   IIm  IIIm  IV    V   VIm  VII°


B    C#    D    E    F#   G    A
Im   II°  III   IVm  Vm   VI  VII 

This is as good a time as any to talk about more complex scale harmonization. As discussed in the last post, one of the foundations of harmony is taking a Major or minor scale and then adding a second note and then a third note on top to form a chord. For each note of the scale comes a full three notes played at the same time or a triad. You play one chord for each scale note and this creates harmonies all the way up the scale. To get the chord tones, just look at the scale and skip every other note.

Based off of the 1st minor scale degree, a B minor chord would be B (skip a letter), D (skip a letter) and F# as the notes. G Major would be G, B and D. See the pattern?

I'm going to write something in B minor, just to play with some chords a bit:

i - iv - VII - III

VI - iv - III - VII | ii°

which translates into:

Bm - Em - A - D

G - Em - D - A | C#dim

Okay, there are the changes. Eight measures with that final measure being three counts of A and then one count of C#dim as a passing chord. Passing chords can be viewed as "filler chords" to assist you in getting from one chord to another. Chords built off of the Major seventh scale degree (the same as the minor second in this minor scale) carry an inherent tension that leads naturally to the roots of these two scales. (6 1/2 - 6 - 8 will form a C#dim chord for you. Try playing that and then going to Bm. Then play the C#dim and go to D Major. Hear the resolution?

Quick review on chord building:

Major chords consist of a root - Major third - perfect fifth

In the case of D Major - skip every other letter from the root:

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

D - F# - A = D Major

Minor chords consist of a root - minor third - perfect fifth

In the case of D minor - skip every other letter from the root.

D - E - F - G - A - Bb - C

D - F - A = D minor.

Another way to do that is to use the Major scale and simply take the Major third (F#) down a half-step (F).

Diminished chords are like minor chords but you also take the perfect fifth down a half step as well.

If you have a 8+ fret on your dulcimer, you can play a 6+ - 6+ - 8+ chord, which is C# Major. Then flatten, lower the third and fifth a half-step. What was C# - F - G# becomes C# - E - G. C# diminished!

In this exercise, play through the above chord progressions and then work out a melody that will fit neatly over the top. Generally speaking, when writing melodies, you should select notes that can be found within the scale of each chord. For example - melody notes for Bm should come from the B minor scale. Melody notes for A should come from the A Major scale and so on. Some of your melody notes will obviously be found in many different scales, which makes it easy to sustain melodies through the chord progressions. When you're ready to end your song, be sure to end it on the root of B minor.

For my tune, I've chosen a 3/4 time signature:

Go Ahead, B Minor.tef

Go Ahead, B Minor.pdf

Fun With 7th Chords

As promised, we'll have a quick look at 7th chords, of which there are a few. Please refer to the .pdf for D Scale Harmonization.

So, we've got Major chords and minor chords plus the odd-sounding diminished chord. What else is there? The answer to that question is "plenty." But for starters, we'll look at the different types of 7th chords.

When you see D7 - you're looking at the fundamental 7th chord, known as a dominant seventh. Is it bossy? Perhaps a little. I don't want to get into all of the scary music theory terms too early here, but suffice it to say that each of the scale degrees have names associated with them that are descriptive of their strengths and weaknesses. The fifth note of any scale is often referred to as the "dominant."

If you build a major triad starting with the fifth note of the scale and add a fourth note to the mix, you'll get a naturally occurring dominant seventh. Let's do this with D Major:

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

So, we're skipping every other letter, beginning with A, which is the fifth note of the D Major scale.

A (skip) C# (skip) E (skip) G

So, take A - C# - E - G and play them all simultaneously, you've got an A7 chord. Another way of thinking about this: take a Major chord and add the seventh note of the scale, flattened a half-step. In the case of D7 - we'd build a D Major chord:

D - F# - A and then add the seventh note of the D Major scale, which is C#. Then take that down a half-step to C. D - F# - A - C is a D7 chord.

As dulcimer players, we are often playing on three string courses, so how do we add a fourth note? By playing a rootless voicing. That is, taking the root out of the picture and playing only the remaining three notes. Believe it or not, it still works! Let's play an A7 chord this way.

Play 1 - 2 - 4 on your diatonic dulcimer. Now drop the A on the melody string down to the third fret, which is G. You're now playing, from bass to melody, E - C# - G which is enough to play the A7. Cool, huh?

Now, let's suppose you see this note: GMaj7. This is a Major seventh chord. Begin the same, with a Major chord. But now add the seventh note of the Major scale. In the case of G:

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

Skipping every other note: G - B - D - F#

Try this - Play a 3 - 1 - 0 chord, your G Major in diatonia. You're playing, from bass to melody, G - B - D. Now, on the melody string, replace D with F# at the second fret. Voila! You're playing a GMaj7! It's got a distinctly jazzy sound and a great chord substitution for G Major.

A minor seventh chord takes, you guessed it, a minor triad and adds the minor seventh to it. Let's take a look at Em7:

Beginning with the E minor scale which has, remember, one sharp (F#) - 

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

Skipping every other letter we get E - G - B - D

Play 8 - 6 - 5 and you've got E minor. Now play 8 - 6 - 7 and you've traded the B on the melody string for the flat seventh (D) and you've got an Em7! Remember that when the number 7 is there by itself, always use the flat/minor seventh.

So, what happens when you see AmMaj7? You play a minor triad and add the seventh note of the major scale, in other words, the Major seventh.

A minor scale

A - B - C - D - E - F - G

A Major scale

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

Play 6 - 7 - 8 and you've got your A minor chord. (A - C - E) Now, switch out the root (A) for the G#. 6 - 6+ - 8 (A - G# - E) and you've got an AmMaj7 chord. Sort of mysterious sounding, isn't it?

Of course, not all of these chord options are going to be available for diatonic dulcimer players, but it helps to know how to build these chords. If you're looking down at your fretboard asking "what are my options?" The best way to proceed is to know what scales you can play from every root spot on the fretboard. And once you know those scales, you can build chords and begin working with extensions, "color chords", etc. If you're playing four-string equidistant, you'll get even more benefit out of these exercises.

Okay then! We've explored the key of D Major and its relative key of B minor. Coming up next, we'll get into the key of A Major and I'll introduce the Circle of Fifths as a way of keeping all of this stuff together. Happy Playing! And thank you to all who have been donating through PayPal. I appreciate it very much!