The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

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The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby pristine2 » Tue Oct 11, 2011 12:46 am

Like many instruments, mountain dulcimers come in a variety of sizes designed to sing in different voices. Unlike other instruments there's no official nomenclature, which sometimes leads to confusion.

There are essentially five voices available (when I note tunings, the order is base-middle-melody. I use capital letters to indicate notes below piano middle C, and lower-case letters for middle C and above):

* Bass. The bass mountain dulcimer is normally tuned D'A'D or C'G'C, a full octave below a standard mountain dulcimer (the bass C' is two octaves below middle C) . It rarely has more than three strings. The bass dulcimer is usually about the same size as a baritone, with a similar scale length (or VSL-- vibrating string length), but built to handle heavier string gauges. The first three sound clips at this link are of McSpadden bass dulcimers: http://www.mcspaddendulcimers.com/Searc ... asp?Cat=61

* Baritone. The baritone mountain dulcimer is normally tuned A'EA or G'DG, four or five steps below a standard mountain dulcimer. They are often slightly larger than a standard dulcimer, with a longer VSL (28" - 30"), but not necessarily so. Blue Lion makes both bass and baritone dulcimers with VSLs as short as 26 1/4". Both three- and four-string baritones are common; five-string baritones much less so. A well-built standard dulcimer can be easily converted to a baritone with a little bridge and nut work. Here's a lovely rendition of Blackest Crow on a David Lynch (Sweetwoods) Baritone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6iHGS4Qv7I . Bradleyfish's raga on an amplified Ron Ewing Baritone is a pretty astounding experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rU2uU5KahP4

(Note: Builders say that on baritones, an augmented diatonic fret pattern with the 1 1/2, 6 1/2 and 8 1/2 frets is now more common than the traditional diatonic-plus-6 1/2 pattern).

* Standard. If you're reading this, you already know what we're talking about. Among a large variety of possible tunings, Mixolydian (DAdd or CGcc) or Ionian (DAAA or CGGG) are the most common. VSLs range from about 24 1/2" to as long as 32" on some traditional instruments. Average VSL sizes have been decreasing over the years and now stand at between 25 1/4" and 27 1/2", although the standard McSpadden is 28 1/2" and the traditional Folkroots model (now made by Folkcraft) still clocks in at 29 1/4". Shorter VSLs are easier to chord; longer VSLs are appropriate for people with big hands and for certain styles of play. Three-, four-, five- and six-string configurations are all in active use; the most common among these is the four-string, three-course configuration with a doubled melody string. For fretting, the diatonic-plus-6 1/2 is still the most common configuration, but most builders say they produce a variety of fret patterns -- from pure diatonic (no 6 1/2) through fully chromatic -- in accordance with the wishes of their customers.

* Soprano. Usually tuned a fourth or fifth higher than standard, at Gdgg or Aeaa. The VSL is normally between 20 1/2" and 24 1/2". Examples include the McSpadden Ginger and Ron Ewings's "Baritone Dulcimette" (which is not actually a baritone mountain dulcimer, but a larger, lower-voice version of his "Dulcimette" octave dulcimer). Some argue that the soprano dulcimer should really be called the alto -- there's no real agreement on nomenclature. This clip uses two sopranos -- a McSpadden Ginger Custom model on the lap, and an all-walnut soprano by an unknown maker (used as a "zither-strike" on the table): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoljnS76rFM

(note: It is possible to tune a soprano dulcimer just like a standard dulcimer, which makes sense for people with very small hands. But one needs to compensate a fixed bridge for heavier strings, and in practice, such a configuration often results in less-accurate intonation -- ie, pitch errors -- and a slightly duller voice.)

* Octave. These are usually tuned a full octave above standard at dad'd' or cgc'c' (the c' in the melodies is once octave above middle c). They're tiny (with a VSL as short as 17") and have a very high voice indeed, almost music-box like. Examples incude Keith Young's "Youngster", Ron Ewing's Dulcimette and David Beede's "Eedy Beede". Here's David Beede demonstrating one of his "Eedy Beedes": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiViVdBJSz0& . I often use my Youngster as a zither-strike: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szuxeOq7MNk

Most people start with a standard dulcimer before experimenting with the other voices, but there's no law requiring it. To get a sense of what's available, peruse the list of builder Websites at viewtopic.php?t=23533
Last edited by pristine2 on Sat Oct 15, 2011 8:09 pm, edited 13 times in total.
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby KenH » Tue Oct 11, 2011 9:16 am

Richard - nicely written, concise and informative decriptions of the Five Voices. Bravo!
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby Steve D » Tue Oct 11, 2011 9:57 am

I agree with Ken... and you might want to consider submitting it to the Members Articles section, so it won't get lost in the forum.
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby WaterPig Master » Tue Oct 11, 2011 11:49 am

Nice write up — am I right in thinking that 'dulcimette' is another name for octave dulcimers?

This, like your invaluable list of builders, is exactly the kind of thing that would benefit more by being stored in a wiki, enabling anyone to edit/add to it. I posted this suggestion a few days ago but got no responses, so I'm assuming nobody else cares particularly…

Thanks,
Barnaby
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby pristine2 » Tue Oct 11, 2011 12:00 pm

WaterPig Master wrote:Nice write up — am I right in thinking that 'dulcimette' is another name for octave dulcimers?

This, like your invaluable list of builders, is exactly the kind of thing that would benefit more by being stored in a wiki, enabling anyone to edit/add to it. I posted this suggestion a few days ago but got no responses, so I'm assuming nobody else cares particularly…

Thanks,
Barnaby


Hi and thanks:

I agree that this kind of article would do nicely in an open wiki. Not the builder's list, though, because it was constructed using a particular set of standards, and would lose its value if those standards were compromised.

Best,
Richard
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby pristine2 » Tue Oct 11, 2011 12:15 pm

pristine2 wrote:
WaterPig Master wrote:Nice write up — am I right in thinking that 'dulcimette' is another name for octave dulcimers?

This, like your invaluable list of builders, is exactly the kind of thing that would benefit more by being stored in a wiki, enabling anyone to edit/add to it. I posted this suggestion a few days ago but got no responses, so I'm assuming nobody else cares particularly…

Thanks,
Barnaby


Hi and thanks:

I agree that this kind of article would do nicely in an open wiki. Not the builder's list, though, because it was constructed using a particular set of standards, and would lose its value if those standards were compromised.

"Dulcimette" refers solely to Ron Ewing's line of high-voiced dulcimers.

Best,
Richard
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby Bonnie in Houston » Tue Oct 11, 2011 12:17 pm

Yes, Richard, thanks for elaborating on this. Great information!
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby WaterPig Master » Tue Oct 11, 2011 12:41 pm

I agree that this kind of article would do nicely in an open wiki. Not the builder's list, though, because it was constructed using a particular set of standards, and would lose its value if those standards were compromised.


Hmmm… I see no reason why standards could not be enforced/adhered to. I'd say most people on ED are intelligent and considerate enough to adhere to standards, and we have enough moderators to sort out any problems. Everyone manages to post in the right sub-boards, after all.

There's only one way to find out if a wiki would work, and that's to start one.

"Dulcimette" refers solely to Ron Ewing's line of high-voiced dulcimers.


Ah, I didn't know that. Similar to the 'strumstick', then — a name that sounds like a general classification that's actually specific to one maker.

Cheers,
Barnaby
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby mhartfield » Tue Oct 11, 2011 3:27 pm

WaterPig Master wrote:
I agree that this kind of article would do nicely in an open wiki. Not the builder's list, though, because it was constructed using a particular set of standards, and would lose its value if those standards were compromised.


Hmmm… I see no reason why standards could not be enforced/adhered to. I'd say most people on ED are intelligent and considerate enough to adhere to standards, and we have enough moderators to sort out any problems. Everyone manages to post in the right sub-boards, after all.

There's only one way to find out if a wiki would work, and that's to start one.


(Matt puts on his geek hat for a moment...)

I agree with Barnaby. I infrequently edit Wikipedia and have helped set up a few Mediawiki servers (the technology behind Wikipedia), and it's fairly straightforward to set up reusable chunks of formatting/data that can be included on a page (mediawiki actually calls it "Transclusion", computer science geeks that they are :-) ). Wikipedia uses those reusable chunks to enforce standards. For instance, the box over on the right-hand side of a biographical page that has birthdate, name, a picture and other info about the person is called an "Infobox" and it's standard for people to add one of those to the top of the page and fill in the fields they know. The infobox magically formats all that info and builds a pretty page element that looks the same for every biography page.

For the case of the dulcimer builders page it would be really easy to set up a reusable element that has name, location, contact info, notes, etc.

(Geek hat off...)
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby pristine2 » Tue Oct 11, 2011 4:25 pm

mhartfield wrote:
I agree with Barnaby. I infrequently edit Wikipedia and have helped set up a few Mediawiki servers (the technology behind Wikipedia), and it's fairly straightforward to set up reusable chunks of formatting/data that can be included on a page (mediawiki actually calls it "Transclusion", computer science geeks that they are :-) ). Wikipedia uses those reusable chunks to enforce standards. For instance, the box over on the right-hand side of a biographical page that has birthdate, name, a picture and other info about the person is called an "Infobox" and it's standard for people to add one of those to the top of the page and fill in the fields they know. The infobox magically formats all that info and builds a pretty page element that looks the same for every biography page.

For the case of the dulcimer builders page it would be really easy to set up a reusable element that has name, location, contact info, notes, etc.

(Geek hat off...)


While the technical enhancements would be nice, for now I want the builder's list to remain on the phpBB discussion forum, where there are obvious limitations, but certain benefits as well. The traditional posting format encourages public communication, and those following the thread are always alerted to changes. It also brings new users to this forum, which is part of the list's purpose. It has a pretty high retrieval rate on Google.

Also, I feel the list should remain under direct editorial control, at least for now. I'm an old newspaper man, and retain some pretty traditional ideas about ensuring the integrity of published content. I'm still experimenting with ways to include more information, including qualitative information for which I, or other named individuals, would be accountable. I am occasionally minded to reject listings based on some fairly straightforward criteria, some of which involve the credibility of the builder. In addition to supporting builders and giving them exposure, I'm also committed to steering new users away from factory imports -- that's an explicit editorial agenda I won't let go of lightly, as it is a motivating factor behind my labour.

Also, I'd be very wary of setting it up in such a way that might lead to conflicts of interest, which could erode the list's credibility -- a persistent problem with Wikis. I know there are creative solutions to these issues, but that's not the direction I want to take the list -- at least not now.

I'm not convinced a Wiki is the right approach, but I am open to the idea of a more public, cooperative project. On my unfinished Web site there's a user review function partially set up, with text fields & rating stars as well as editorial reviews. One day I hope to bring it to completion along with the rest of the site.

Richard
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby kwl » Tue Oct 11, 2011 7:14 pm

Richard, I really like your Five Voices article. You did a good job in describing all the voices in an intelligible manner. On the wiki question I would not stop anyone from going ahead with it. Any way of getting of the word out about dulcimers sounds good to me.

Ken
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Re: The five voices of the mountain dulcimer

Postby john p » Tue Oct 11, 2011 7:22 pm

Hi Richard,

The different types of notations used for dulcimer tunings are now so confused that every time someone writes about them they find a new way of muddling things even more.

You've made an attempt at defining your terms, which is very sensible, but just missed.

Because of the way that octaves are arranged, your openning statement :

... when I note tunings, I use capital letters to indicate piano middle-C and below, and lower-case letters for notes above middle-C ...

implies a note order of ... DEFGABCdefgabc ... incorrect

This should really be written as :

... when I note tunings, I use capital letters to indicate notes below middle-C, and lower-case letters for middle-C and above ...

which implies ... CDEFGABcdefgab ... correct

The consequences are that some of the tunings you give don't add up, even according to your own rules.

e.g.

CGCC should be CGcc
The bass tuning DAD should be D'A' D
etc.

Sorry to be so blunt about this, I'm a mathematician by training if that's any excuse. If I thought anyone would take any notice I'd write it all up and lay it all out. Unfortuneately there is a tendancy for people to just cut and paste the misunderstandings of others rather than thiink it out for themselves, and I don't really see the point.

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