Mountain Dulcimer: Those Sparkling Harmonics!

  • Ted
  • November 30, 2016
  • 0

We all may have occasions where we want to put some “dazzle” into our playing. Harmonics can add sparkle to an arrangement and also can sometimes provide a handy way to negotiate a tricky passage.

What’s a harmonic?

The easy definition is: a “clear bell-like sound” produced by lightly stopping a string at ½ (or 1/3 or ¼) of its full length along the fretboard. Explaining how this happens requires some physics. Briefly, when you press a string lightly at certain frets, you effectively divide the string into some fraction of its normal length. When the string is “shortened” in this way, it can no longer vibrate over its entire length, but can only vibrate along the length of string between your finger and the bridge. The “shortened” string can no longer sound its usual pitch (the “fundamental” tone), but instead produces a higher pitched tone (actually, this higher tone is always present when the open string is played, but is usually overshadowed by the louder “fundamental” tone).

Playing a harmonic at the 7th fret divides the string in half and produces a tone that is one octave higher than the open string. A harmonic at fret 4 or fret 11 divides the string into thirds and produces a tone that is 1 octave plus a fifth higher than the open string. A harmonic at fret 3 or fret 14 divides the string into fourths and produces a tone that is 2 octaves higher. These tones are called “natural” harmonics. As a specific example, an open D string has the following natural harmonics:

  • harmonic at fret 7 is D (one octave higher than open string D)
  • harmonic at fret 4 or 11 is A (1 octave plus a fifth above open string D)
  • harmonic at fret 3 or 14 is D (two octaves higher than open string D)

Additional natural harmonics exist, but these three (at the octave, 1/3, and ¼ string lengths) are the ones that can be played most easily and are most often used.

How do I play a “natural” harmonic?

Use a finger of your left hand to very lightly touch a string at the 7th (or 3rd, 4th, 11th, or 14th) fret. Note that this left hand finger must touch the string directly on top of the fret, not slightly to the left of the fret, as in normal fretting. With your right hand, pluck the string.  You may pluck either with a pick or with a finger (or thumb). For a clear sound, experiment with lifting your left hand finger after you pluck the string. You may also want to experiment with the position of your right hand along the fretboard; whether you pluck over the strum hollow, near the bridge, or further up the fretboard may affect the volume and clarity of the tone.  I would recommend that you take a little time and practice just playing natural harmonics before you attempt them within the context of a musical piece.

What’s an “artificial” harmonic?

Because natural harmonics occur only at certain places (nodes) on a string, they are limited to the pitches that occur at those nodes. But, suppose we want the bell-like sound of a harmonic at a pitch that does not occur at one of these natural nodes? That’s where artificial harmonics come in: if we “artificially” shorten the string length by fretting (fully depressing the string in the same way that we fret to play a pitch), then we can find harmonics of that shortened string length. For example, in DAD tuning:

  • If we fret (fully depress) the treble string at fret 1 (E), an octave harmonic will exist at ½ of that altered string length: the harmonic will occur at fret 8 and will have the pitch of E, one octave higher than the E at fret 1. 
  • If we fret the treble string at fret 1 (E), other harmonics occur at fret 5 and fret 12; these harmonics have the pitch of B, one octave plus a fifth higher than E at fret 1. 
  • If we fret the treble string at fret 1 (E), additional harmonics occur at fret 4 and fret 15; these harmonics have the pitch of E, two octaves higher than E at fret 1. 
  • If we fret the treble string at fret 2 (F#), an octave harmonic will exist at ½ of that altered string length: the harmonic will occur at fret 9 and will have the pitch of F#, one octave higher than the F# at fret 1.

How do I play an artificial (fretted) harmonic?

Three things must happen at once: (1) use a finger of your left hand to firmly depress a string at the fret indicated in the tab; (2) use the index finger of your RIGHT hand to lightly touch the same string at the fret that is exactly one octave higher than the note that your left hand is fretting; (3) use the thumb of your right hand to pluck the string. For example: if your left hand depresses the treble string at fret 1, you can play  an artificial harmonic that sounds one octave higher by using your right index finger to lightly touch the treble string fret 8, and simultaneously using your right thumb to pluck the string. To pluck the string, your thumb must swing under your right hand and pluck to the right (bridge side) of where your right index finger touches the string. Plucking artificial harmonics is easiest if you are fingerpicking; but, if you are using a pick, just hold the pick with the middle finger and thumb while you are playing the harmonic.

How are harmonics indicated in tablature?

Natural harmonics are indicated by “N.H.” or by an open diamond shape above or next to the note. Artificial harmonics are indicated by “A.H.” or by a filled-in diamond.

Where can I use harmonics in an arrangement?

Harmonics can be used as a beginning, as an ending, or in the middle of the piece. Many players will endan arrangement with a harmonic, usually a harmonic “sol” or perhaps a harmonic “sol-do” (octave “A” followed by octave “D”, if piece is in D major). While this ending does sparkle, I’d recommend using it sparingly, as it can become trite if used too often. Also, until a player has lots of practice, ending a piece with a harmonic can be risky: while a well-executed harmonic is one of the loveliest sounds on a dulcimer, a poorly executed one will end your piece with a noisy thud!

Harmonics can be used at the beginning of a piece in at least two different ways. As an introduction to a mournful tune, playing a few slow harmonics of the “home key” note can evoke the sound of a bell tolling. For example, if a tune is in b minor, the piece could open with several harmonic B’s (played as an artificial harmonic at fret 8 of middle string, in DAD tuning). I use this approach in “Mary’s Dream”:
Mary’s Dream.mp3

You will see this below in the tablature version of “Mary’s Dream.”

“Mary’s Dream” is a haunting song about a young woman who learns, in a dream, that her sweetheart has been killed at sea.

Another way to use harmonics at the beginning of a piece is to open with a line or two of the tune played in fretted harmonics. For an example:

If you’re practiced enough at fretted harmonics, you might even consider starting an arrangement by playing through the entire tune once in harmonics.

Finally, harmonics can be used very effectively in the middle of a piece, not only to add sparkle, but also to facilitate smooth playing of the melody line. Here’s an example from “Annie Laurie”:

Note that where the melody line for “I’ll lay me doon and dee” goes up to the high D, a harmonic is indicated instead of a fretted note. The advantage to using the harmonic here is that its bell-like tone continues to ring while the left hand negotiates the subsequent chords, and therefore the melody notes sound connected. In contrast, if we were to play the high D in the usual way, we’d have to quickly release the string at fret 7 to reach the next chord (2-3-5), leaving a noticeable gap in the melody line. Sometimes, in a tricky passage, harmonics can be useful in one more way: if there is a single high note in a melody line, try playing it as a right hand harmonic, so that the left hand does not have to jump up the fretboard but can remain free to negotiate the other (lower range) notes in the passage.

These are just a few examples of how harmonics can add sparkle to our playing. Have fun exploring ways to use them in your own arrangements.

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