What Key Am I In? – “Dorian is such a great sound!”

So in the constant search of finding new sounds for the Native American Wood Flute or (NAF) I should mention yet another type of scale that the flute is able to speak. However, before I mention this wonderful scale let’s understand a simple concept first.

The major scale is a simple pattern that can be created using “Whole Steps” and “Half Steps” (these are music theory concepts so if I lose you please don’t hate me, just send me an email and I’ll explain better). By taking a simple C scale we can see how the major scale is created:



whole (2), whole (2), half (1), whole (2), whole (2) , whole (2) , half (1). (C to D is a whole step, D to E is a whole step, D to E is a half step, etc.)

Ok. Now that we have that, let’s call each letter by a number position so that we can easily stay on the same track: C will be 1; D will be 2; E will be 3, etc.

C (1) D (2) E (3) F (4) G (5) A (6) B (7) C (1) ß We repeat one here because we repeated the letter C

Ok. Now why did we go through that idea? We can create all kinds of new sounds by using the SAME letters, but starting on a different number. For instance, the minor key can be created by starting on the 6th position, or 6th degree: A B C D E F G A. Remember how I mentioned in “What Key am I in?” – Beginning Native Flute Concepts that you can play in C Major? This is because the first pentatonic scale with an A Flute, a minor, shares the same letters as the C Major Scale. Using this simple idea of starting on a different position, or degree, has been used for centuries in European music. The music theory component we have described is called a musical mode. Each mode, position or degree, has a different color and sound and can showcase beautiful colors and designs that are above the standard Major and minor scales we usually learn. Here is a list of standard modes today:

  1. 1st position – Ionian: This is also known as Major. The most popular mode or scale – 2-2-1-2-2-2-1
  2. 2nd position – Dorian – 2-1-2-2-2-1-2
  3. 3rd position – Phrygian – 1-2-2-2-1-2-2
  4. 4th position – Lydian – 2-2-2-1-2-2-1
  5. 5th position – Mixalydian – 2-2-1-2-2-1-2
  6. 6th position – Aeolian: This is also known as minor. The second most popular mode or scale – 2-1-2-2-1-2-2
  7. 7th position – Locrian – 1-2-2-1-2-2-2

So why tell a Native American Wood Flute player this? We find ourselves being able to play yet another key very easily by following a few simple rules. And … to be honest … the flute seems to find its true nature and sound resting in this simple mode. Here are the notes of the scale:

    x    x    x    x    x    x    o    o
    x    x    x    x    x    o    x    x
    x    x    x    x    o    x    o    x
   —   —   —   —   —   —   —   —
    x    x    x    o    o    o    o    x
    x    x    o    o    o    o    o    x
    x    o    o    o    o    o    o    o
    A    C    D    E    F#    G    A    B

If we were to layout this key’s whole steps and half steps you would get this type of idea: A-B (Borrowed from the high note we play) = 2, B-C = 1, C- D=2, D-E = 2, E-F# = 2, F#-G = 1, G-A =2; or simply put 2-1-2-2-2-1-2 (The Dorian mode).

If you notice how the fingers move naturally up and down on the 6-holed flute this mode appears to make a lot more sense than some of the other fingerings. Yeah having an anchor finger is nice, but it doesn’t let the fullness of the flute sound shine through. The Dorian finger pattern tends to sound smoother and more open to the world of the Native American Wood Flute. Try this scale out and see what happens to your playing. Quite possibly you’ll find the darkness of this mode even more haunting than the minor that most people originally play. Maybe you’ll find it more annoying, either way … it’s able to be played. And that makes it wonderful

1 Comment

  1. Sam
    March 5, 2015

    Thanks for the work! Pardon my one picky observation: “pentatonic” is dveeird from Latin, I believe, meaning “penta” (five) and “tonic” (notes) for only 5 notes before you repeat the first as the octave. You have too many in scale #1. It’s a useful scale but it isn’t a pentatonic. Other than that, thanks!


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