Learn to Play ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ on Ukulele


“Beautiful Dreamer” (published posthumously in 1864) is among the last works of Stephen Foster, the “father of American music,” who composed such enduring songs as “Oh! Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Camptown Races.” Foster wrote “Beautiful Dreamer” when he was destitute and in failing health, selling quickly composed pieces in order to survive. This parlor ballad, with its slow triplet rhythms and sentimental lyrics, has seen many recorded interpretations over the years, by popular singers such as Bing Crosby and Roy Orbison. A personal favorite is the instrumental trio version that jazz guitarist Bill Frisell released on his 2010 album, Beautiful Dreamers.

“Beautiful Dreamer” was originally written the key of Eb major, but on the ukulele, it is easier to play in the neighboring key of D. Somewhat uncommon for a popular song, it’s in the triple meter of 9/8—that’s nine eighth notes per bar, or three dotted quarters. You could also think of the meter as a series of eighth-note triplets in 3/4 time. 

I used a chord-melody approach for this arrangement, which is not inspired by any particular version. (See Marcy Marxer’s lesson on “Down in the Valley” in the Summer 2019 issue for more on chord-melody.) Though none of the chord grips require big stretches, they take advantage of the closely voiced harmonies available in reentrant tuning. The Dmaj7 voicings, for instance, would be a lot less practical to play with a low G, as would the Em(add9) chord.

In order to play the arrangement smoothly and make the chords sing, you’ll need to move between grips efficiently, maintaining common fingers between different shapes where possible. I’ve suggested fingerings in the frames above the standard notation, but feel free to adjust these to your comfort. If any of the shapes are unfamiliar, get them into your muscle memory before delving into the piece. And though this is an instrumental version, I’d recommend having the lyrics in your head as you play it:


Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day
Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away
Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song
List while I woo thee with soft melody
Gone are the cares of life’s busy throng
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me

Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea
Mermaids are chanting the wild lorelei
Over the streamlet vapors are borne
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn
Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart
E’en as the morn on the streamlet and sea
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me

As for the picking hand, use whatever techniques work best for you; I sometimes pick strings 4, 3, 2, and 1 with my thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, respectively, and other times brush the strings with my thumb, gently rolling the four-note chords. Add a bit of emphasis to the melody, found in the highest note of each chord. This line is on the fourth string in a couple of spots—beats 1 and 3 of bar 1 and beat 4 of bar 8—so make sure it sounds louder than the note it’s paired with. 

For textural interest, in bars 5, 7, 9, and elsewhere, I’ve added single-note scalar runs. Go for a harp-like effect with the runs and play them legato (for tips, see Daniel Ward’s lesson on page 70 of the Fall 2020 issue), striving for evenness and clarity. If these lines are too difficult or distracting, simply omit them. One more thing: This isn’t intended to be a fixed arrangement—experiment with varying the rhythms, phrasing, and even chords to make it your own.

beautiful dreamer ukulele notation

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Ukulele magazine.