Chord Explorations

Exercise One: Triads, or Where Chords Come From

A triad is a three-note chord built from the notes of a scale.

We’ll start with a G scale. Find the marked G on the right side of your treble bridge. For the first triad, with one hand play that G, skip A and play B, skip C and play D.

The G, B, and D are labeled 1, 3, and 5 in the first diagram. Every triad has the same 1-3-5 relationship no matter what scale note you start on — each starting note is 1, then skip 2 and play 3, skip 4 and play 5.

Continue through the scale, playing one triad for each scale note as shown in the diagrams. Use just one hand. The whole exercise should sound like this:

Diagram: First Triad. triad-2 Diagram: Third Triad. Diagram: Fourth Triad.

Diagram: Fifth Triad. Diagram: Sixth Triad. Diagram: Seventh Triad. Diagram: Eighth Triad.

Notes on Exercise One

1. Play through this exercise everywhere you can on the dulcimer, always starting the first triad with a marked course — either on the right side of the treble bridge or on the bass bridge. You’ll run out of room at the top of the instrument, but go as far as you can.

2. The chords belonging to any major scale will be of three types, each with a distinct flavor. The first, fourth, and fifth chords are always major. We use either capital letters like G, C, and D or capital Roman numerals like I, IV, and V to denote major chords. The second, third, and sixth chords are always minor. We denote minor chords by adding a lowercase “m” as in Am, Bm, and Em or by using lowercase Roman numerals as in ii, iii, and vi. The seventh chord is diminished, denoted by “dim” or ° as in F#dim, F#°, or vii°.

3. The difference in flavor among major, minor, and diminished chords has to do with the intervals between the notes. A half step is the distance from any piano key to the adjacent piano key, whether white or black. F to E and F to F# are both half steps. On the dulcimer, half steps are always and only between marked courses and the courses just beneath them (except if your dulcimer has extra notes at top or bottom or on additional bridges). All other adjacent notes are separated by whole steps. Count for yourself to see how many half steps are in each interval in major, minor, and diminished triads. (Answers are at the bottom of this page.)

4. Here’s a handy way to spell the eight chords of a scale.
Diagram: Chord Spelling Chart.

I learned this from Rick Thum at the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest. Start by writing the notes of the scale. On the next line, back up two spaces and write it out again, continuing until you reach the end of the line. On the third line, back up two more spaces. Reading the columns gives you the notes in each triad. On a single piece of paper, why not write out the charts for all the major scales available on your dulcimer? (If you’re not sure about the sharps and flats, use your tuning chart, or remember that every major scale has the same pattern of half and whole steps: W W H W W W H.)

Exercise Two: Three-Note Chord Shapes

Diagram: Open Chord Diagram: Long-Sided Chord Diagram: Centered Chord Diagram: Flat-Topped Chord

I’m right-handed, so these four shapes are the ones I use most often. (Shapes for lefties are below, but go ahead and try these first — it’s good to develop skills with both hands.)

Starting at the lowest mark on the right side of the treble bridge (D on a 12-11), play each shape. I’ve numbered the notes according to the order in which you should play them. The hammering pattern is right, left, right.

It’s helpful to name the shapes; I call them “open,” “long-sided,” “centered,” and “flat-topped.” Or use your own names.

The whole exercise should sound like this:

Notes on Exercise Two:

1. Play this exercise everywhere you can, always starting on a marked course either on the right treble bridge or on the bass bridge. You’ll run out of room at the top again.

2. To some extent, the shapes repeat again both below your starting point and above your ending point. That is, try playing an “open” shape above the “flat-topped” shape, starting with the first note of the “flat-topped” shape; or, try a “flat-topped” shape below the “open” shape, starting with the “open” shape’s first note. Explore this and see how far you can get in both directions before the notes form a different chord. Even more challenging, see if you can explain why it stops working when it does! (Hint: it has to do with half-steps — i.e. sharps and flats changing.)

3. Try the following rhythmic variations. (Each one is linked to a MIDI clip.) For each one, do one shape for four measures then go on to the next shape without pausing. After the last shape work your way back down to the first shape. Repeat, this time changing shapes every two measures, then repeat again changing shapes every measure.

4/4 Arpeggios: Play quarter notes in a 1-2-3-2 pattern, e.g. lowD, A, highD, A for the first shape, for one measure in 4/4 time.″

3/4 Partial Arpeggios: Play eighth notes in a 1-2-3-2-3-2 pattern, e.g. lowD, A, highD, A, highD, A, for one measure of 3/4 time.

4/4 Boom-Chuck: Play one quarter note, 1, e.g. lowD, with the right hand (boom), then another quarter note, 2 and 3, e.g. A and highD, simultaneously with both hands (chuck). Two boom-chucks make one measure of 4/4 time. For another variation, skip the second boom, e.g. play boom-chuck-pause-chuck for each measure.

6/8 Jig Pattern: Each measure of 6/8 jig time has two triplets of eighth notes, adding up to six beats. For the first triplet in each measure, play eighth notes right-left-right in a 1-2-3 pattern, e.g. lowD, A, highD. For the second triplet, play eighth notes left-pause-left in a 2-pause-2 pattern. For another variation, play the second triplet left-right-left in a 2-3-2 or 2-1-2 pattern.

4. Try these four shapes instead, using a left-right-left hammering pattern. If you’re left-handed, you might find them more comfortable than the previous shapes. I’ve named them “flat-bottomed,” “open,” “centered,” and “long-sided,” but you can call them whatever you want. Because your exercise starts with the chord the righty exercise ends with, it’ll sound a little different, like this:

For the same reason, when you do Notes 2 and 3, your versions will be different. You can still use the righty MIDI clips in Note 3, to hear the rhythm of the variations, but use your own chord shapes and opposite hands.

Diagram: Flat-Bottomed Chord. Diagram: Open Chord. Diagram: Centered Chord. Long-Sided Chord

Exercise Three: I-IV-V Patterns

By using different shapes, you can develop ways to play back-up without having to jump all over the dulcimer. Lots of tunes use only or mainly the three major chords — I, IV, and V — so we’ll start there.

If you’re a righty, use the chord shapes in the first diagram. Lefties, use the second diagram. Either way, the first shape is the I chord, the second is the IV chord, and the third is the V chord. Starting with the lowest mark on the right treble bridge, play each shape a few times. Practice switching from shape to shape without pausing.

Diagram: Righties I, V, and IV Diagram: Lefties I, V, and IV

Notes on Exercise 3:

1. Try the following variations:

4/4 Arpeggios

3/4 Partial Arpeggios

6/8 Jig Patterns

For each variation, play four measures each of I, IV, V, I, for a total of sixteen measures. Next, play two measures each and repeat the whole thing once to keep a total of sixteen measures. Now play each chord for one measure and repeat four times.

For a challenge, play each chord for half a measure and repeat eight times. This is challenging because, except for the boom-chuck pattern, each pattern lasts a full measure. You’ll need to decide whether to do the first half of each pattern, the second half, or even the first half of the pattern for the first half of the measure, and the second half of the pattern for the second half of the measure. It’s even trickier for the 3/4 pattern, because each measure is in three parts, not two; I suggest doing one chord for two beats and another chord for the third beat.

2. Choose a different chord shape for the I chord. Find V and IV chord shapes that will fit near it. Repeat the variations.

3. Move to a different key by starting at a different mark on the right treble bridge or on the bass bridge. Repeat Notes 1 and 2.

4. Find a tune that uses only the three major chords. Write out the chord progression and repeat Notes 1-3.

1. Major triad: First interval has four half steps, second has three.
2. Minor triad: First interval has three half steps, second has four.
3. Diminished triad: Both intervals have three half steps.