Solo arranging means adding embellishments to the melody. Embellishments can ornament or vary the melody, fill out the chord progression, and / or enhance the rhythm.
Lesson One: Finding Chord Notes
We’ll begin with embellishments that involve chords, so our first task is to figure out how to find or choose chord notes. We can work by systematic trial-and-error, by using chords provided on our sheet music, or by using chord theory to work out our own chord progression.
Trial-and-error: For any note in the melody, we can systematically test four possible chord notes. Play the melody note with each of the four intervals shown in the diagram: two courses down, three courses down, straight across to the right, or straight across and one down. At least one of these notes should sound good*. Context may affect your choice — a chord that doesn’t sound great when the phrase is isolated may sound fabulous in the context of the tune.
Provided chords: If your sheet music provides chords, use them as a guide. For example, the music might have a D chord for the measure containing our melody note of A. In that case, you’d use one of the two other notes in the chord, F# and D. If you don’t know what notes belong in each chord, see my article on chords, particularly the chord spelling chart in the notes on Exercise 1.
Choosing chords: If you’re working by ear, or from sheet music without chords, you can choose the chord progression yourself. Start with a chord spelling chart like the one in my article on chords. Divide the tune into short phrases, often measures or half-measures if you’re using sheet music. For each phrase, select the chord that contains most or all of the notes in the phrase. If you have more than one chord choice, pick whichever you think sounds best.
More options: If you want to go beyond the four basic intervals, here are some additional ideas. Try an octave — straight across and down three courses. Try one of the four basic intervals an octave lower. Try chord notes an octave higher, i.e. above the melody note — but only if you can do so while keeping the melody prominent. Try dissonant intervals, like one course below the melody, or straight across and two down.
*No Good Choices: If none of the four basic intervals sounds good, first try moving to a duplicate of the melody note. For example, the diagram shows the A one above the marked G on the right side of the treble bridge. If you use the marked A on the left side, you’ll get C# as one of the options, instead of C natural. The A one below the marked Bb on the bass bridge will give you F natural instead of F#. Or, just expand the trial-and-error method. Try every note, in order, beginning with one course below the melody, all the way down that bridge, then try the other bridge(s).
Lesson Two: Two-Note “Chords”*
If the melody isn’t too fast, you can sometimes play two notes at once. We’ve already talked about how to choose what chord note to add. Now, you need to decide when to add it.
By ear: Start by adding a chord note at the beginning of every phrase. If you’re having trouble dividing the tune into phrases, try walking or nodding or clapping to the tune. Add a chord note whenever you step or nod or clap. You may decide to leave out some chord notes, or add some more, depending on what you think sounds best.
Sheet music: Start by adding a chord note at the beginning of every measure or half-measure. You may decide that some phrases don’t need a new chord. Or you might decide that some phrases need two or more chords. If your music lists chords, you can use that as a guide — in general, add a chord note whenever the chord changes. If you don’t, you may feel that something has been left hanging, or else the lingering sustain from the previous chord may sound dissonant with the new phrase.
Either way: As you work, it’s important to keep the melody prominent in your ear. Choose a tune you know really well. Then work one phrase at a time. If you get lost, play through the bare melody a few times. Pay attention to what the melody is saying; add chord notes wherever they help the music tell its story, don’t add them where they’re distracting.
More options: As you get more familiar with this technique, you might decide to add chord notes in other places — e.g. on an accented note in the middle of a measure, or even on an unaccented note to add syncopation. You might also experiment with ordering the chord notes to form a bassline or harmony part.
*Two-note “Chords”: It takes three notes to determine a chord. Two notes together can only suggest a chord; hence the quotation marks.
Lesson Three: Fills
Filler notes are chord notes played between melody notes.
Drones: One of the simplest ways to use filler notes is to choose a chord note and play it between all or most of the melody notes. The drone note can be below or above the melody notes. Work measure by measure — or phrase by phrase — to select drone notes that fit.
Moving Fills: Instead of droning on one note, pick different chord notes as the melody moves around.
Arpeggios and Runs: Some melody notes are long enough that you can play more than one filler note between them. An arpeggio is a succession of notes from one chord, such as D(low), F#, A, D(high). Arpeggios can proceed from low to high, high to low, or even out of order. A run is a succession of consecutive notes, up or down. Sometimes a run might skip one or two notes in the succession, such as G, A, B, D.
There are two kinds of runs, diatonic and chromatic. Notes on the dulcimer fit a diatonic pattern. That is, you have all the notes for the key of G in one area, all the notes for the key of D in another, and so on. Whatever sharps or flats you need for that key are located right there in that area. However, with some challenging hammering patterns, you can sometimes work out a fully chromatic run, like G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D. The G, A, B, C, and D will be located in the key of G area, but you’ll need to reach around for the sharps.
Basslines: You can create a bassline by choosing chord notes that descend, ascend, or otherwise form their own melodic line.
Lesson Four: Chord Rolls and Flams
Because we only have two hands, we can usually only play two notes simultaneously, although some folks hit three or four notes by having one or both hands deliberately strike the valley where a right treble course meets a bass course. By playing several notes very quickly, though, we can get an effect similar to three or more simultaneous notes.
Chord Rolls: Choose two or more chord notes below the melody note. Play them very quickly from lowest to highest, alternating your hands, being careful to hit the melody note on the beat. In other words, you need to start early, playing the other notes before the beat.
You may find this easier if you move your hands closer together, i.e. further from the bridges. You’ll be pleased to discover that most dulcimers sound best when you play further from the bridges, too.
Some people like to play the notes so quickly that they do sound nearly simultaneous. Other people like to slow down only enough that the individual notes are sounded distinctly, but still very quickly.
You can also choose chord notes above the melody note, playing from highest to lowest; just be careful that the melody remains prominent.
“Flams”: If the melody note is on the left treble bridge, you can often find a chord note on the right treble and another straight across on the bass bridge. For example, if the melody note is E, you might want B on the right treble and E on the bass, or G on the right treble and C on the bass, or E on the right treble (an octave below the melody note) and A on the bass. A flam is when you hit the right treble note and then the bass note with one bouncing stroke of the right hand, then immediately hit the left hand note.
(At least that’s the name I learned for it. It’s not the same as a flam in percussion technique. Other dulcimists call it a swoop or a valley roll.)
When I play a flam, my right hand feels like it’s describing a capital L. The long part is coming down to strike the right treble note, then the horizontal stroke brings the hammer to the bass note. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be a curve going from the treble note to the bass note. That’s just what it seems like for me; your technique may differ and still sound great.
If you have trouble with flams, practice controlled bounces. Work on getting your hammer to strike the same note exactly twice with one stroke; try varying the height from which you strike, the angle of the strike, the way your thumb or fingers move, and the way you bring the hammer back up from the strings.
Next work on playing this double note followed immediately by a left hand note. Once you’ve got that down comfortably, gradually convince your hand that it can move the bounce to hit a bass string instead of repeating the right treble note. Start by striking very near the valley, then increase the distance until you’re hitting both notes about halfway between the bridge and the valley.
Some people like to do a little hammer roll (multiple bounces) on the right treble note before bouncing to the bass note. Some people dislike that sound.
Both flams and chord rolls — well, three-note chord rolls — have the same rhythm, like “ba-da-BUM,” with “BUM” falling on the beat. Chord rolls have the notes in order of pitch. Flams have the notes out of order.
Here are seven versions of the A part of the familiar tune, “Ash Grove.”
So far we have discussed a handful of basic chordal embellishments: two-note “chords,” fills, chord rolls, and flams. How do you decide when to use which embellishments? This is where things get subjective, which is why it’s taken me so long to write this lesson.
The bad news is that there is no magical book, tape, article, or workshop that will turn you into a musician.
The good news is that you are a musician already. As with anything else, becoming a better musician involves making decisions, putting them into practice, and evaluating the results. You can do it. You’ll make good decisions and bad ones and some you’ll just change your mind about later. But you can’t practice or evaluate until you’ve decided something.
Let me try to walk you through an arrangement of our example tune, “Ash Grove,” decision by decision. I’m working with sheet music that has chord names indicated above the melody. For more information about chords and about choosing chords when none are provided, see my chords article.
Decision 1: What to start working with. Music, like language, is divided into phrases. In order to play musically, you need to pay attention to phrasing.
I often begin by working on two-measure phrases. Short phrases involve fewer decisions because there are fewer chords and fewer places to put embellishments. They’re also easy to remember. As I proceed, I may be able to use longer phrases. Throughout the process, I’ll need to think about how the phrases flow together, and make sure that the embellishments I choose aid that flow.
This tune begins with an incomplete measure, or “pickup.” Our first phrase, therefore, should be the first two complete measures plus the “pickup” measure that precedes them.
Decision 2: Choosing embellishments. This part feels more mysterious or intuitive to me. Sometimes I try different embellishments randomly, sometimes the choice seems obvious. Sometimes I can explain why I think my choices work, but that explanation often comes after I’ve made the choice, not before.
Because this is the beginning of the arrangement, I think I would like to keep things fairly simple. Sometimes I might decide to start with a bang, but more often I think it works to start simply.
I decide to use a chord roll on the first note of the first measure, and two two-note “chords” on the first two notes of the second measure. That way the first measure will get the full sound of a three-note chord, but will still feel nice and open, suitable for letting the melody stand out. Using a different embellishment in the next measure will make the two measures sound more like a whole phrase. I think if I had two chord rolls in a row, it would break up the phrasing too much for this tune.
Decision 3: Revising my embellishment choices. As I’m hearing this in my head, I decide that instead of putting my two-note chords on the first two notes of the second measure, I’m going to do them on the last two notes. I think that will help me lead into the next phrase with its chord change. It will also help me avoid overemphasizing the downbeat.
Decision 4: Choosing what notes to use for the embellishments. When choosing notes, I think about such factors as the melody note, the underlying chord, and how things fit on the dulcimer.
The downbeat of the first measure is a G and the chord is a G. A G chord has the notes G, B, and D. I’ve shown some of the closer possibilities in the diagram: the melody note G is marked with a gray circle, and the other circles show two duplicate D’s, two duplicate B’s, and the G an octave below the melody note.
Depending on your dulcimer, you might have even more possibilities if you continue even lower, although it can be tricky to do a clean chord roll with the notes so far apart. Sometimes you can use notes above the melody note, but it can be difficult to do so without obscuring the melody. It might be better to save this idea for a second time through the tune, once the melody has already been established.
Since the pickup note is a D, I think I’ll try lowG, B, G. I’m so used to using the B on the bass bridge that this looks like an awkward roll for a righty. However, if I remember the duplicate B on the right treble, the roll will fit my usual hammering pattern.
The last two notes of the second measure are both the same G, and the chord is still G. Even though the melody notes are the same, I think I will use two different harmony notes, to keep things moving forward. To help me choose the harmony notes, I look ahead to what the next melody note and chord will be, and I see it’s an A melody note and an A minor chord. So I think I’ll use B and lowG on the bass bridge for my harmony notes — they sandwich the lowA that I will probably want to use in the next phrase.
Decision 5: Practicing and evaluating the first phrase. So far I’ve done all this thinking in my head, picturing my dulcimer and the sheet music. Sometimes I just improvise directly on the dulcimer, trying different embellishments somewhat randomly. Sometimes I work in a notation software program, trying things out in the sheet music and playing it back to hear the results. Whichever way you decide to work, be sure to actually try it on the dulcimer at some point. I’m going to do that right now; hang on…
Decision 6: Revising based on practice and evaluation. Trying it on the dulcimer made me change my mind about note choices, but I still like my embellishment and placement choices. Experimenting a bit, I decided I like the chord roll to be lowG, D, G even though I just played a D for the pickup. And then I like the two-note “chord” notes to be D and B instead of B and G.
The second phrase
Decision 1: Selecting the next phrase. This tune involves a phrasing pattern with two measures plus a pickup beat from the previous measure. In other words, the last beat of what I’ve arranged so far really starts the second phrase. Likewise, the second phrase ends with the second beat of its last measure; the third beat starts the third phrase. How do I know? For one thing, I know some lyrics for this tune, and the lyrics are phrased that way: “Down yon-der gre-en val-ley” is the first phrase, “where stream-le-ets me-e-an-der” the second, “as twi-li-ight i-is fad-ing” is the third. Another reason is that it’s just continuing the pattern established by the first phrase. Since the first phrase has a pickup note, it’s reasonable to see if the other phrases also feel like they start with pickup notes.
Decision 2: Choosing embellishments. The second phrase is a lot like the first phrase. I could choose to emphasize contrast or continuity. I think I’ll go with continuity — I’ll do the same embellishments I did with the first phrase. The second phrase has different notes and different chords, so I’ll let that be the contrast. If the two phrases were identical, I would probably choose to add contrast by using different embellishments.
Decision 3: Choosing what notes to use for the embellishments. In keeping with my continuity idea, I’ll try to parallel the note choices as well as the embellishments.
The downbeat of the first measure is A, and the chord is A minor, which has the notes A, C, and E. My first chord roll was lowG, B, G, so the parallel would be lowA, C, and A. However, I don’t have a duplicate C on the right treble bridge, so I would either have to use an awkward hammering pattern or else choose different chord roll notes. I’ll just change the middle note to E, so my roll will be lowA, E, A.
This chord roll, combined with the previous two-note “chords,” creates a little walking bass line: D, B, A. Part of thinking about phrasing is thinking about how phrases work together like this.
The last two notes of the second measure are both the same D. The chord changes to D, which has the notes D, F#, and A. The previous two-note “chords” were D and B for G melody notes, so the parallel for these D melody notes would be A and F#.
Decision 4: Practicing and evaluating the first phrase. I’m going to go try it on the dulcimer. I’ll play the first phrase first, so I can see how the second phrase fits. To the dulcimer; hang on…
Decision 5: Revising after practice and evaluation. I like it, so I don’t change anything.
Decision 6: Looking ahead. While at the dulcimer, I ventured ahead a little bit. Even though I may concentrate on one phrase at a time, I often consider compatibility with both the previous and the next phrase, too. My choices in the current phrase can influence what I choose for the next, or my thoughts about the next phrase may influence what I choose for the current one. In this case, I looked for a third phrase idea that would fit with what I chose for this second phrase, found something, and therefore confirmed my choice.
The third phrase
Decision 1: Selecting the next phrase. I’ll just continue the pattern; the next phrase will be two measures plus the pickup note, the final D in the ending measure of the previous phrase.
Decision 2: Writing it all down so far. It’s been a few days since I wrote about the second phrase. Fortunately, I have these pages to remind me what I decided. Normally, I would play a phrase or section over and over, take a break, do it again, to get it into my hands and ears and eyes. Then, or instead, I’d also write it down in standard music notation. If you don’t read music, use a tape recorder, or learn a tablature system, or learn to read music. I use NoteWorthy Composer, a relatively cheap notation program. I like using a program because it’s easier for me than writing out music by hand, and because I can get the program to play it back for me.
Decision 3: Choosing embellishments and notes for them. In the first two parts of this lesson I tried to write through my decision-making one little step at a time. Usually, though, I make several decisions almost at once. While I was in the notation program writing out what I’ve chosen so far, I went ahead and wrote out some ideas for the third phrase, adjusting here and there as I went along. I’ll try to list what all happened.
- The phrase starts with a G chord. I’ll do a chord roll to begin with, for the sake of continuity with previous phrases. But add a little contrast — make it lowG, B, G instead of the lowG, D, G I did before.
- I didn’t like how the next run sounded after that roll, but instead of changing the roll I added a D to the B at the beginning of the run to make a two-note “chord.” This has the added benefit of bringing a little more contrast, so the third phrase isn’t exactly like the first two. This time it’s a contrast in rhythm, because my two-note “chord” comes early.
- Great — that works with what I want to do in the next measure — two-note “chords” on the first two beats instead of the last two beats. It’s a C chord here, so I’ll play a C with the E melody note and a lowG with the C melody note.
- There’s only a little bit left in the A part of the tune, so I’ll keep going. The next measure has a D chord. I’ll do a two-note “chord” to start with, adding an A to the melody note D.
- The last measure has a G chord. I thought I’d end with a lowG, D, G chord roll but I don’t like the previous measure going so long with just the one two-note “chord” at the beginning. So I’ll do an ornament I haven’t talked about yet: a turn. (I’m using the term loosely, to mean any short sequence of notes that dances around the melody note.) The ending phrase goes / D G F# / G. My turn will dance around the first G, so that I now have / D GAGF# / G.
Decision 4: Looking ahead. That gives me an idea. I’ll look for ways I can use a turn or three in the repeat of the A part, so that it’s not exactly the same as the first repeat.
Decision 5: Evaluating. When I arrange in the notation program, the playback feature lets me do a lot of evaluating and adjusting right there. Still, it’s a good idea to go try it on the dulcimer because it’ll sound different. Hang on…
Decision 6: Revising. I decided I liked the run just fine without the two-note “chord.” And I removed the second two-note “chord” from the next measure, and instead of a roll to end with, I just end with an octave two-note “chord,” lowG and G. And in addition to a turn or two, I think I hear an arpeggio and some other fills coming up in the repeat.
Take a look and a listen to what we’ve got so far.
I wrote lessons 1-5 first, then worked on lesson 6, thinking eventually I’d get through the whole tune. Just writing out every little thought about the first three phrases was exhausting — I don’t think I can work through the rest. I hope this little taste is at least somewhat helpful.