I was looking back at the newsletters I published in early 2014, and in revisiting all the descending scales and modes, I got a good batch of new ideas. What inspired me most was working slowly and methodically with block chord shapes. These are moving along very slowly: I mostly keep them at the half-note level and take my time — letting them ring out nice and long.
Here is one version of the descending D Major (while I’m tuned in DAD):
I had the extreme pleasure of playing with the Cleveland Chinese Music Ensemble on February 11 at the Hudson Public Library (near Cleveland, Ohio). Here is my solo on “Light Into Darkness” — a tune I’ve been tweaking for over a decade now. It’s got sort of a Minimalist – Baroque vibe if you can imagine that: VERY simple, very repetitive, yet always changing and evolving.
This Aussie comedy act is really amazing. Butch Ross told me about them in 2007 or 2008, when I was obsessed with my little four chord circular progression D – A – Bm – G… that I used for Light Into Darkness, Tapping at the Edge of Paradise, and Tapping Into The Light on electric dulcimer. I just found more and more melodies that went with these chords – and bass lines with chord inversions to make it WAY more interesting.
Now in 2017 it seems like new ideas are again coming forward when I mess with these chords. I even have a more detailed version now, with sub-cycles of chords on each of the four main chords.
Most of the work I’ve done directly on the mountain dulcimer, but its fun with guitar, keyboard (which I can barely play!), or whatever chording instrument is nearby.
So even if the mountain dulcimer is your main instrument, why not play around on a piano or little electronic keyboard and see what happens? I usually resort to the white keys when I work with keyboard, so in C you have: C – G – Am – F. Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!!
I have always been a fan of Gary Ewer’s online resources for learning basic music theory and improving your songwriting skills, but when the subject is very close to my heart, like Modal Chord Progressions, all of my lights and buzzers start to go off simultaneously!!
Gary Ewer has a post about how to get Lydian Mode progressions to work. I’ve tried some of these ideas over the years with limited success, but Gary goes into some detail about the specific problems with the Lydian, and how your ear can get easily led to the relative major (Ionian) or other relative mode.
If you want to try Lydian Chord Progressions on your DAD-tuned dulcimer, I suggest G Lydian as your tonal center. This way, you might have a home G chord, going to an A chord, then to something other than D. Why don’t you want to go to D? Because it will sound like a progression that comes HOME to D!! (IV – V – I)
What you really need to do is get the G chord to sound like HOME: even if it has that unsettling #4 (C# which you can find on the 2nd fret of the middle string) somewhere in a melodic element that goes over the G chord!
Let me know if you have any success with Lydian chords, but you might also have a look at Gary Ewer’s other GREAT articles on Modal Chord Progressions, linked on his blog below the article.
As the article says, these two terms are most often used in pairs, because they mean very different things.
The section on “modern meanings of diatonic scales” is particularly interesting to me, because it confirmed my suspicion that there is no generally agreed convention with regard to whether the melodic and harmonic minor scales should be considered diatonic. They are not in my book, because you can’t play them on a folk harp.
I actually like what the Harvard Dictionary of Music says: basically that diatonic refers to the white keys of the piano. This is where I learned the mode system, and I think most students get it this way too. It’s really fun to hear each of the diatonic “Church Modes” over a Root-5th-8th drone in the left hand.
On the mountain dulcimer, we have to remember that the 6+ fret, which is added to most modern dulcimers, changes the game a little bit, as does playing across the fingerboard as opposed to just going up and down the melody string.