Native Flute Theory: 7 Notes (diatonic) is 2 better than 5 notes (pentatonic), right?

So in my post It’s all about the pentatonic I described two pentatonic scales (one using the anchor finger on the 4th hole and one with the anchor finger on the 3rd hole) and how they work with the Native American Wood Flute. Up until this point I haven’t really addressed the idea of “diatonic” scales because of the ease to play pentatonic on the flute. But today is the day we dive a little deeper.

First, we need to remember the base tone of the flute is found to be the base note of the minor scale (Understanding the flute key). Once we understand that we can figure out how to play the full scale.

Second, we need to take a look at the full minor scale. Let’s use the key of a as a simple example (no accidentals makes it easier to read):

Third, we have to understand that some of these notes will only be available to us if we use a 6-holed flute. For those of you playing a 5-holed flute, while there are ways to get around on the flute … a diatonic scale is going to be really tough.

When we translate these notes to the Nakai fingering (thank you R. Carlos Nakai) we can see how to play this scale on our flute:

a-minor scale

Two things to that stand out here are the “B” note and the “F” note. Let’s take a look at this a little more in depth.

  • B Note – This is called a partial cover. You place your finger over the whole but not completely cover the whole. This technique works on a couple of holes, but the 1st hole is really the only one that we use often when playing the NAF
  • F Note – This note can only be played using the 6-holed flute. On the 5-holed flute the 4th hole is not there. This will make playing the F-Note difficult when you have no hole to open.

Ok. So we showed the minor scale, but if we look at something here we can see something interesting … we only need TWO MORE NOTES (sorry for the yelling) TO MAKE THE MAJOR SCALE!!!!

Granted you have to use your imagination here to view this up the octave, but if you’re just looking at letters you see all we really need is a “B” and “C” above our high “A” to make a “major scale.” But can we do that with the NAF? Is this even possible? Don’t worry, baby birds, I’ll show you what you need to know:

a-flute high notes

These two fingerings allow the flute player to get higher two higher notes on the NAF, but they also allow us to play a diatonic Major Scale.

a-flute c major scale

This is good stuff. It allows us to have a nice flexible range for both minor and major. This flexibility allows us to have a higher ability to create our own music as well as interpret other sounds. For example here is an arrangement of the Hymn “Lead Kindly Light” I created which uses the full range of the minor/major scale. And even though the harmony of the piano player moves between different musical modes (Dorian, mixalydian, and major) the NAF player only plays a Major/minor scale the whole time.

So with the addition of 4 new notes (B, F, High B, and High C) we have opened our flute to more options. These options give the player a larger range of influence over what music can be played and how it can be played. But it also showcases some limitations as well:

  1. The NAF Can only play one octave higher than the “major scale” tone. If you have music that needs to go over this threshold then you may need to invest in higher or lower octave flutes to bridge that range. Unlike more classical instruments which can go 2 to 2 1/2 octaves in range (or higher) the NAF doesn’t play well with large range music
  2. While there are other fingerings I haven’t shown yet, the fact that the high tone is only one octave higher on the “major tone” means that playing other keys gets a little tricky. D Major, Bb Major, Eb Major, and other keys like that are incredibly tricky when your ability to play a full scale is limited. You can hop out of key slightly, but focusing on a full range of alternate keys … it makes it tricky.

Still … playing the NAF is not about just the notes, but the expression behind the notes. And this is where the NAF reigns supreme over traditional classical instruments. But we will learn more about that later …

Keep playing, Baby Birds!

1 Comment

  1. Linux VPS
    May 10, 2016

    Native American flutes typically have either five or six finger holes, but any particular instrument may have from zero to seven finger holes. The instrument may include a finger hole covered by the thumb .


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