Do You Need Theory?
Many people have asked me over the years: "Do I need to learn music theory to improve my dulcimer playing?" or: "What do I need to know about theory to improve my music?" or: "How will theory help me get more music out of my dulcimer?"
These are questions that will have different answers for each person. Depending on your individual goals as a dulcimer player, the first step might be to do an honest assessment of your own understanding of the basics of music. (this is a very private, personal matter! I suggest you keep this entirely to yourself)
There are many, many people who come to the dulcimer without any previous musical experience, except for some childhood piano lessons. If you fit in this very general category, the mountain dulcimer may be like a breath of fresh air for you: it is an instrument that welcomes you right in, and it is relatively easy to get some kind of music going immediately. You don't need anything else at this point - simply enjoy the freedom of this instrument. Enjoy the experience of listening and playing!
If you play another plucked string instrument, like the guitar, mandolin, or uke, I would encourage you to approach the dulcimer in relationship to these instruments.
I started out with the guitar, so when I met the dulcimer, I wondered how some of the music I was playing on the guitar might transfer over to the dulcimer. I'm still going back and forth between the guitar and dulcimer more than forty years later! So this "cross-pollination" effect might also work for you if you get in the habit of thinking in relation between the instruments. If you are a guitar player, I'll venture a guess that most of my chord reference charts will make sense to you right off, because they are based on the same type of charts used in guitar books for years.
If you are a piano player (of any ability level, including very basic beginner), I would suggest that you learn the basics of music theory on the keyboard. This is one of the best ways of learning theory anyway, and I used the keyboard extensively in my theory book, especially in the first half. There are also some great keyboard-oriented theory web sites now. I really like Gary Ewer's web site:
In a category all their own are folks who have been playing the dulcimer for awhile, and who have already been working on their own arrangements, compositions, solos, or improvisations. If you fit somewhere in this group, there are many options available to help you understand your dulcimer better:
- Consider getting a chromatically-fretted dulcimer just to explore chord-building and interval-building. When you switch to the mostly-diatonic normal dulcimer fretboard, you will be seeing and hearing everything with a refreshed vision - with new ideas for what's possible.
- Consider taking up the ukulele. This is an inexpensive, easy-to-play 4-string instrument that you can have a lot of fun with. For learning theory, particularly for building and hearing different chords, you can't go wrong!
- Get yourself some type of electronic keyboard/synth. These are getting cheaper all the time, and the sound is getting better too. These instruments are also a lot of fun. For learning theory, they are the BEST!
- Get yourself all three of the above instruments. You will be a better musician for it!