Native Flute Theory: It’s All About The Pentatonic!!!

So I’ve mentioned in a previous post about the Native American Flute being a “Pentatonic” Flute, but what does that really mean? If we think about our Greek Lessons (I know you all took them) you will remember that “penta” is a prefix meaning “five” while “tonic” is derivation of the word “tonos” which means a stretching tone (To be accurate it is a derivation of “tonikos” which means capable of extension which is a derivation of the word “tonos,” but I figured you understood that so I jumped a little ahead). So if we put the two words together we get “five-tones.” So the simple understanding of the Pentatonic Scale is that it is a “five tone” scale. This may seem odd when what we know in traditional classical studies is the “diatonic” scale, or “seven tone” scale (I won’t harp on the Greek this time). For most people this is traditionally the scale that we play and use in music. It looks a lot like this:

A couple things to note here are the Half Steps and Whole Steps (2 half steps) in the scale. They can be show like this:

If you were to see it on a piano you would notice that each letter that has a black key between them is a whole step, while the letters with no black keys between them are half steps:

This is the standard “diatonic” scale. But we want to know about “Pentatonic” scales. If the standard scale has 7 tones (A, B, C, D, E, F, G – we don’t count A again because it’s the same note) what do we do to get 5 tones? It’s actually pretty simple to think about: We remove the notes that are only half steps. This will leave us with five notes and a slightly modified version of the scale.

Now I also mentioned in my previous post how the Native American Flute doesn’t play a major scale, but a minor scale traditionally. So instead to make this a minor pentatonic (Aeolian mode) we have to start on the 6th note which in this case is “a.”

Now I can hear you saying, “But, Enoch, how do you get the “6th” note when all you have is five tones?” This is where we jump back to the “diatonic” scale to figure out the missing notes and then count to six. Sounds like a lot, but you get pretty used to it when thinking about minor modes. To be honest the idea of counting gets tiresome so we just think of it as a minor 3rd below the Major Initial Tone (a minor 3rd is the distance of 3 half steps). So if I was to start on C I would go 3 half steps below C to get my minor tone (C, B, Bb, A) which is “a.” The tricky part is knowing where to put accidentals when you need to put them, but I’ll talk about that in another post.

The trick to playing the minor pentatonic scale on the Native American Flute is to remember your anchor finger. If you notice in the diagram here the finger on the fourth hole (we number the holes from the bottom to the top) never leaves the flute. It is always covered. This “anchor” allows you to play a pentatonic scale by just removing each finger one after another. The scale shown is the “f#” minor pentatonic: F# – A – B – C# – E – F# which is the same “whole step/half step” pattern as the a minor pentatonic scale we showed previously.

What is truly great about this scale, especially in the minor form, is that everybody in the world knows this scale … Without them realizing it. Scientifically there is a reason why, but I don’t have time to go into that right now. What I will do is show you a video of Bobby McFerrin presenting at the World Science Festival how everybody understands this piece of musical theory without having to be taught it:

So now we can talk about a quick adjustment to the traditional pentatonic scale played by the Native American Flute and talk about changing the anchor finger. We are still playing a pentatonic scale, but this scale is slightly different.

You’ll notice that the anchor finger here remains on the third hole instead of the fourth hole. What this does is it allows the fourth note of the scale to change. In the f# minor scale it changes to this:

F# – A – B – D – E – F#

Now that doesn’t look like much of a change, and it really isn’t, but the sound is significant when you play it. And here is the theory behind it.

We know that the F# flute (same with A, but the notes on the right are for the F# flute so I’ll stick with that) is a minor scale. It starts on the 6th note which means it has some major scale that works well with it. If we go 3 half steps up we will find out that major scale: F# – G – G# – A. So our Major Scale is “A Major.”

But when we altered our anchor finger we altered the starting note of the scale. We no longer are starting on the 6th note, but a different note in the scale (This is figured out by looking at the whole step/half step combinations of the scale). By doing a little detective work it becomes clear that the note we are starting on is the 3rd note … not the 6th note. This means we are using ANOTHER MUSICAL MODE instead of Major (Ionian) or minor (Aeolian).

The scale/mode that starts on the 3rd note is called Phrygian (frij-ee-uh n) and means that the Major Scale is two whole steps below this starting note. That means the new “Major” scale that we can play is D Major and it’s minor scale is b minor. So … what does this mean?

By switching one little finger we can play 2 new keys and sound good in those keys!

That’s actually pretty cool when you think about it. by playing the traditional pentatonic scale we can play in f# minor and A Major, then using our switch anchor finger we can play in b minor and D Major. Still only playing 5 notes and those notes really only adjusting by one little tone (which happens to only be one half step).

Now I know this may sound complicated … and theoretically it is, but the simplistic powerful thought of it all is this … The Native American Flute is pretty darn cool! Whether you understand all the senseless theory or you just play for the fun of it. Change the anchor finger once and find a whole new sound.

I wish I could say you could do this with other anchor fingers, but unfortunately the other fingers don’t work the same. They drastically change the sound, but that 3rd and 4th finger … total buddies!

I’ll show you more cool theory stuff soon!

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