“What Key am I in?” – There’s MORE than minor?

So in my last post I talked about how the Native American Flute (NAF) is recognized to be played in a standard minor key. If you stick with a traditional “open” fingering then, yes, then the Native American Flute will play a minor pentatonic (1) scale. This makes a lot of flutes very static in their sounds and playability. For instance, my A NAF can only play in A minor (or C Major), and all included modes (2) therein? That seems very … um … fixed. And it makes the Native American Flute seem uniquely problematic when wanting to play in other keys.

And perhaps the fact that the Native American Flute is so static makes it very easy to play. But it does make a musician need to stick to one particular key in order for a specific flute to sound correct. And it also means that if you want to be extremely flexible with other musicians that you will need a number of flutes at the ready. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon your wallet, but it does allow you to not have to think so much about notes in particular. If you are playing in a specific key you just play any tone in the pentatonic scale and it should work for you.

But let’s see if we can extend our flute just a little …

I mentioned in my previous post “What Key am I in?” – Beginning Native Flute Concepts that playing the 6 hole flute in “open” fashion will require an anchor finger to be placed on the 4th hole, or the bottom finger of the top hand. Now by exploring a different approach we can make a slightly different scale appear. Try keeping the anchor finger on the 3rd hole, or top finger of the bottom hand, and see what type of sound appears:

    x    x    x    x    x    o    o    o
    x    x    x    x    o    o    o    o
    x    x    x    o    o    o    o    x    
    —    —    —    —    —    —    —    —
    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    <-  Notice the anchor finger on the 3rd hole
    x    x    o    o    o    o    x    o
    x    o    o    o    o    o    x    o
    A    C    D    F    G    A    Bb    C

This scale looks a little different than the previous scale. Let’s examine the previous scale and this scale together to see what are the differences:

A C D E G A B C     <– A minor scale.

A C D F G A Bb C     <– new scale

So what did we create? The “new” scale that was created is a variation of a minor pentatonic; however, it isn’t a minor like previously played. It is a variation on a D minor scale (D F G A C D) that starts on the A note. Also that Bb (or A# depending on how you want to play it) is a giveaway that something different has been played. And with playing a D minor scale we can also play in the Key of F Major. So now we’ve created the ability to play in A minor, C Major, D minor and F Major all by just moving one little finger. Our NAF, that originally stuck in one key, can now play in two different keys with very little trouble.

A quick note on this scale: It may sound a little odd to the standard NAF player whose experience is solely that of the minor pentatonic. The tonality shifts just enough to keep another pentatonic flare, but the note voicing is different enough to make it sound different from the familiar minor. This new scale is actually the A Phrygian scale which shares the same notes as the D minor and F Major.

So now that we’ve extended our vocabulary a tad is there more we can do? Of course, but that conversation is better used for another post. And when we discuss that new ability we can open the flute up to a whole new set of sounds and possibilities.

1 – The term “pentatonic” refers to 5 tones whereas a regular European scale is diatonic meaning seven tones

2 –The term “Modes” refer to the different scales that share similar notes. I will talk about this in future posts.

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