Understanding the Flute Key (Flute Letter)

So you want to learn to play the Native American Wood Flute (or NAF) and you’re confused with the “A”, “F#”, “G” and other letters that make up the wood flute language. Don’t worry. It is easy to figure out with a little understanding.

The Initial Tone

First thing to understand is the letter is the sound of the “Initial Tone” of the flute. What does “Initial Tone” mean? Take your fingers and place them on all the holes of the flute. Then when you blow into the flute that first sound is the “Initial Tone.” Even if you overblow (blow too hard) you will still hear the “Initial Tone” just up the octave. So the key of the flute is pretty important when choosing what flute to play because the “Initial Tone” will tell you what key of music and what types of instrumentation will sound well with your flute.

Understanding the Key

Most people think of musical keys in terms of the Major Scale. The simplest major scale to think about is the “C Major” scale. It starts at C and continues going up the musical alphabet until it gets back to C:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

This is the simplest key because it contains no accidentals: sharps, flats, naturals, double sharps, double flats, etc. But it isn’t necessarily the simplest key to play music. The great thing about the Native American Flute is by understanding the fingering patterns of the wood flute you can translate quickly to another key, by just switching the Flute Key. You want to play the key of “A”, you play the “A” Flute. If you want to play the key of “G” you play the “G” Flute. The Fingering stays the same, but the key changes because the “Initial Tone” changes.

But there is one small problem with the key of the flute ….

It’s all about the Mode, baby

To understand the key of the flute you need to know that the Initial Tone and base scale fingering is not Major in tone, but minor. So another quick theory lesson is needed here.

Imagine you were to take the C Major Scale, but instead of starting on “C” we were to start on another tone. if you were to start on the “D” tone (2nd tone) you would get a slightly different sound, but use the same notes:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D

And you could do that using any note on the scale. These new “scales” all have unique names in music theory.  There is a great little graphic from musicarta.com that shows their names.

musical modes  (http://www.musicarta.com/images/modes5.jpg)

Don’t worry too much about the “W” and “S” right now … we’ll discuss those a little later in a future post. The big thing here to understand is the “Name of the Mode” and the “Tone” that it begins the mode.

The two modes that really stand out in music are the “Ionian,” what we normally call the “Major” scale, and the “Aeolian,” what we normally call the “Minor” scale. These two scales make up the majority of music in our world. And for the Native American Wood Flute … these scales are vitally important.

So what about the Initial Tone?

So let’s get back to the “Initial Tone” and what key is important. The Major scale, while extremely important, is not the base scale of the Native American Wood Flute. The base scale, the scale that you use when you pull each finger off of the holes, is actually the Dorian mode. But let’s talk about that in another post.

The first scale any player should learn and the foundation of the Native American Wood Flute, is the “minor” scale. The “Initial Tone” is the first note of the “minor” scale. This is important to remember: when you look at the Key of the Flute you are looking at the minor scale. Then you have to figure out what you can play from there.

So when you have an “A” Flute, you are able to play the “a minor” scale, “C Major” scale, “d dorian” scale, and etc.

Can’t I play any key like other instruments?

This is where the Native Wood Flute gets a little tricky. The short answer: Not easily. The long answer: Yes, with practice and knowing the other notes of the flute. While there are other notes to play on the Native American Flute than the base tones, getting used to the fingerings and remembering where they are takes practice.

So wanting to play other keys usually means one thing: More flutes. Beginning players will start with one flute, usually an A flute (it’s the easiest to play because of the finger spacing and size), while professional players may have upwards of 100+ flutes in their collection. Not just because of the “Key” of the flute, but also because of the “Wood” of the flute. So a cedar “A” flute will sound a little different than a maple “A” flute, but that’s for another post.

The thing to remember about flute keys

So the final take away from this post is that the “Initial Tone” the “Key” of the flute is the start of the “minor”” scale.” When looking at what flute to purchase you have to remember the letter is the “minor scale.” And while that may seem strange, with a little understanding you’ll see how this isn’t a difficult thing to remember. At least not after you learn your first scale … next time.

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