Hammered Dulcimer Curriculum

This is a suggested curriculum for learning to play the hammered dulcimer in a systematic and structured manner in group or individual lessons. All study materials, repertoire choices, and any other decisions regarding the course of study will be created by the teacher and student working together. Each student will require individualized oversight by the teacher, based on the student’s musical background, musical skills, interests and commitment. The skills needed may be acquired quickly by some students, and more slowly by others.



Adult hammered students come to the formal study of the instrument from a wide variety of musical backgrounds. All of the students’ prior musical experiences, including singing in a church congregation or choir, playing another musical instrument, dancing, and listening to music, will be brought to bear on the study of the hammered dulcimer. All hammered dulcimer instruction at the Eastman Community Music School is focused on the student’s acquisition of technical and artistic skills that will enable the student to play the type of music that the student most wants to play. Even though each student may have different musical goals, acquisition of certain foundational skills will be stressed for all students. While each student’s musical study will be individualized, this curriculum lays out a reasonable path to achieving an advanced level of skill.


Music Reading Skills

Advanced music-reading skills are not essential for learning to play the hammered dulcimer; in fact, many traditional players of the hammered dulcimer family around the world play very sophisticated and exacting music without ever using notation. At ECMS, however, students will be helped to become familiar with the treble clef and taught to locate notes on the treble clef on the hammered dulcimer. Just as non-music readers will gain skills in reading music, students whose previous musical experience has been completely dependent on music notation will be challenged to play without notation. Students who are not familiar with learning to play an instrument without the use of notation will be helped with a variety of strategies.



The suggested repertory included in this curriculum includes music from a variety of sources and traditions, with an emphasis on tunes from the Celtic tradition, and from the historical traditions of the hammered dulcimer in Western New York State. While the teacher recognizes that students may have very different interests and reasons for learning to play the hammered dulcimer, it is also the teacher’s responsibility to expose the student to many different types of music and styles.



Because harmonization of melodies with chords and arpeggios is so important to the major styles of hammered dulcimer playing, attendance in basic theory and aural skills courses is strongly recommended in addition to individual or group hammered dulcimer lessons.



Most hammered dulcimer instruction in the United States is given and received outside of an academic setting. Often instruction is given at folk festivals, and music camps and in these informal settings students are usually divided into skill levels. I have related the five levels generally used in hammered dulcimer literature and festivals and workshops to the six levels used in standard curriculum of the Eastman Community Music School.

Beginner – Level I
Novice – Level II
Intermediate – Level III
Advanced Intermediate – Level IV
Advanced – Level V and VI


Level 1 — Beginner

Most students spend a short time, as short as a few days or as long as a few weeks on this level. Music reading skills are not essential at this level, but are useful.

Introduction to the instrument

The layout of the instrument

  • name parts of the instrument
  • identify repeated pitches
  • learn to find scale patterns

    Key of G
    Key of D
    Key of A
    Key of C


  • hold hammers correctly
  • have proper posture at the instrument
  • acquire effective practice habits


  • play familiar folk tunes, hymns and carols by ear. These might include

O Susanna
Twinkle, Twinkle
Yankee Doodle
Frere Jacques
My Country ‘Tis of Thee
White Coral Bells
Joy to the World
Jingle Bells
This is My Father’s World
Lightly Row
Long, Long Ago


Level 2 — Novice

Students with extensive musical background will a spend a week or two at the most at this level. Students with less musical experience may spend a month or more at this level. Music reading skills are not essential at this level, but non-music reading students will begin to use tape recorder to help them learn repertory.

  • play scales and arpeggios in D, G, A, C, and F at a slow and steady tempo
  • increase practice time and learning practicing strategies
  • play rounds with other musicians including

Frere Jacques
White Coral Bells
Shalom Chavarim
Tallis Cannon

  • add Celtic and American Tunes to the repertory including the following at slow and steady tempi

The Ashgrove
Soldiers Joy
Rakes of Mallow
Golden Slippers
Morning Has Broken

  • transpose tunes to G, D, C
  • learn the I, IV, and V chords with each “box” of the following keys:

    D major
    G major
    A major
    C major
    F major

  • create simple accompaniments using the I, IV and V chords for a variety of tunes


Level 3 — Low Intermediate

At this level the students begins the process of acquiring repertory and learning as many tunes as possible to play on the instrument. Students can spend anywhere from two months to a year at this level, depending on their musical background and the amount of time they devote to the instrument. Music- reading students will learn to develop their memory for tunes, and will learn strategies for memorizing tunes. Non-music reading students will begin to develop their ability to recognize note values and key signatures. They will begin to use notation as a memory aide.

Students will build on their previously acquired skills. They would be expected to

  • play arpeggios in D, G, A, C, and F in several different patterns at a moderate and steady tempo
  • play accompaniment patterns in broken chords, arpeggios and bass chord patterns
  • add additional fiddle tunes, airs, carols and songs to the repertory. These might include

Ashokan Farewell
Kesh Jig
Shebeg Shemore
Soldiers Joy
Holy Holy Holy
When Morning Gilds the Sky
Morning has Broken
Red Wing
Dingle Regatta
The Butterfly Slip Jig

  • learn strategies for joining a jam session
  • harmonize tunes with appropriate chords.
  • transpose tunes to all available keys on the dulcimer


Level 4 — Advanced Intermediate

Advanced intermediate students have a substantial repertory of 40 to 100 tunes. They play rhythmically and can harmonize most tunes. A student at this level can obtain a great deal of joy from playing the hammered dulcimer and also a great deal of appreciation from family and friends over their skills as a player.

Level IV students are well on their way to becoming advanced players. Skills include the following:

  • ability to create arrangements of medleys or single tunes
  • ability to play dance tunes at tempo – roughly MM 110 to 120
  • ability to create their own style of embellishments and harmonization
  • ability to use the tremolo technique
  • demonstrate a clear understanding of the structure of dance tunes
  • ability to recognize the major tune types of Irish and American dance tunes.

Repertory will be broad and varied and will include

  • dance tunes from the English, Celtic and American traditions
  • hymns and Christmas carols from a variety of traditions
  • improvised pieces that demonstrate a variety of techniques including

playing in octaves
independence of hands
melodic and harmonic ornamentation


Level 5 — Advanced

A level V player is an advanced player. Characteristics include the following.

  • an independent player and is well on her way to being a professional performer
  • plays often in a variety of events in the community, both alone and with other musicians
  • works at becoming more polished in all technical aspects of playing the hammered dulcimer
  • seeks out new repertory
  • participates in a jam session with the ability to play melody, chords or an accompaniment pattern
  • finds additional learning opportunities outside of the lesson setting including festivals and workshops
  • has a broad and large repertory that includes tunes from a variety of sources, a part of that repertory is at performance or near performance level at any given time
  • music reading skills developed to the point where the student can learn from notation as well as by ear


Level 6 — Advanced

A Level VI hammered dulcimer student will possess a myriad of skills. This student will play at a near professional or professional level and will be capable and independent performer and arranger.

A Level VI performer skills include the following

  • ability to recognize when played, and to play an example of each of the following tune types

slow air
slip jig

  • ability to play the following scales and arpeggios in 4/4 or 3/4

D major – 3 octaves
G major – 2 octaves
A major – 2 octaves
C major – 3 octaves
F major – 3 octaves
E minor – 3 octaves
B minor – 2 octaves
A minor – 2 octaves

  • ability to create a performance arrangement of one tune or of a medley of tune
  • ability to use a variety of hammering techniques including


  • ability to research repertory for the hammered dulcimer from a variety of sources
  • being conversant in the history of the hammered dulcimer and familiar with the name of the instrument in other countries, including

hackbrett – Germany, Austria, Switzerland
yangqin – China
salterio – Italy, Spain, Mexico
santur – Iran
cimbalom – Hungary
santouri – Greece
cymbal – Slovakia, Czech Republic
tambal – Romania
tsimbala – Ukraine
khim – Thailand

  • being conversant with the local history of the hammered dulcimer and being able to play traditional tunes from 19th-century New York
  • perform frequently in a variety of settings as a solo player, and in small and large ensembles
  • ability to create a set list that is appropriate for each different performance setting


Feed back from the teacher to the student is continuous throughout the year. Formal evaluations may include

Mid-year written student/teacher evaluation
end of school year jury
performance possibilities of various kinds
studio recitals
public recitals
featured solos within ensemble performances


Last updated: February 17, 2010


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