“What Key am I in?” – Beginning Native Flute Concepts

I am always intrigues at listening to people talk about “What Key am I in?” when it comes to the Native American Wood Flute. I love to listen to people’s answers, because they almost always talk about one aspect of the flute … the minor. I would like to take some time to describe a couple of other aspects of the Native American Wood Flute (or NAF), but before I do I will attempt to describe what most people will describe to you: the minor.

I love writing music for the Native American Wood Flute; especially after understanding some cool truths about the instrument (which I will discuss in more detail in a later topic). The most prominent idea is that unlike other instruments the Native American Wood Flute is a static pitch instrument. There are only a certain amount of tones that you can get from the instrument and with those tones you can only play in certain keys. I will demonstrate a simple scale using the 6-holed variation of the A wood flute (o is open, x is closed):

    x    x    x    x    x    o    o    o
    x    x    x    x    o    o    o    o
    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    ß Notice the anchor finger on the 4th hole
    —    —    —    —    —    —    —    —
    x    x    x    o    o    o    o    x
    x    x    o    o    o    o    x    x
    x    o    o    o    o    o    x    o

    A    C    D    E    G    A    B    C

When looking at this beginning scale you can see that the notes displayed are notes of the minor pentatonic scale. This is a simple scale that most beginning flute players will recognize. It’s simple because of the anchor finger on the 4th hole allows the musician to focus on lifting any number of other fingers and it will make a sound that is “pleasant” with the other notes played.

Are there other notes that can be played with the Native American Wood Flute? Of course. We’ve just barely scratched the surface of the instrument, but this simple scale shows the simple key of the instrument: a minor pentatonic. For most musicians who understand musical theory you will note that “a minor” is the same as “C Major.” Also, in the scale above, almost the full “C Major” scale is present (missing the F). Also notice that those are the ONLY notes that can be played so far. There are not a lot of accidentals that can be used in the Native American Wood Flute, which means that the only key that can be played in is “a minor” or “C Major.” Unlike other instruments which offers a full range of notes the Native American Wood Flute is very particular in the notes it can play.

Does that mean that the key of the A flute is “a minor/C Major?” Well … if this was the only thing that we were going to focus on then I would say yes, but there are other notes that can be played, which means that other keys may be yet revealed. For the time being … we are safe to say that one of the keys you could play in is “a minor/C Major” … but only for the time being.

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