Flute Basics 101: What does the letter on the back of the flute mean?

Posted by on Aug 6, 2020 in Answers, Flute Basics
Flute Basics 101: What does the letter on the back of the flute mean?
What is the Key of my Native American Wood Flute?

A huge thanks to our Patreon supporter Larry S. who posed the question “What does it mean that you are only writing in the Keys of A, G and F#?” Here is my response.

When my friends come over the house several look at my flutes because of their prominent display. When they do, they look at the back and ask, “What does this letter on the back of a flute mean?”

I wanted to take a little bit of time to answer this question using three ideas: a beginning idea, an advanced idea, and a complex idea.

The Beginning Idea

That letter, usually found, on the back of the Native American Wood Flute is the lowest note you can play. On an “A” Native American Wood Flute, the lowest note you can play is A. So, when you cover all the holes and blow into the mouthpiece, the sound created is A. And that is the beginning idea! Pretty simple really.

So, there might be a little more to it. But to better understand the idea we should explain the basics of how to play.

The Native American Wood Flute can have five holes or six holes. The five holed variety usually cover the 3rd hole. We get 2 holes on top and 3 holes on the bottom. The reason for covering the hole is to make playing the Native American Wood Flute easier. On a six holed flute, when starting, you place your finger on the 3rd hole and do not move it. This finger is an anchor finger. This third finger always stays there and never moves. When you play the flute and remove each finger individually, you create an amazingly simple and nice scale.

This simple scale is a pentatonic scale. The Pentatonic Scale is a five-note scale, unlike a full Major or minor scale that has seven-notes (also known as diatonic). With the anchor finger covering the 3rd hole, you play (on an A Native American Wood Flute) A – C – D – E – G – A, a five-note scale. More importantly the pentatonic scale played is a minor pentatonic scale … not a Major pentatonic scale. And that is important because it is a different sound than a Major pentatonic. And that … Pretty much … is the beginning idea of “What that note means on the back of the flute!”

The Advanced Idea

We know from music theory that certain minor scales have correlating major skills (called relative minor and relative Major). The A minor scale (i.e. A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A) has a correlating Major scale: The C Major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C). They share the exact same notes. These scales are relative major and minor scales because they have the same notes. They just start on a different note.

Now this is important because the Native American Wood Flute is a very static instrument. It does not have a lot of flexibility, like other instruments, to be able to play in any key. Especially after realizing the anchor finger only allows the A minor pentatonic scale. You cannot play D minor pentatonic or B minor pentatonic as easily as you can with other instruments. You are stuck with the A minor pentatonic or, playing with harmonies, the C major scale. And that is it.

The important thing, especially in terms of the letter on the back of the flute, is the “A” Native American Wood Flute can only play the A minor or C major scale. You cannot play more than that … for now.

The Complex Idea

So, we mentioned correlating Major and minor scales, or relative Major and minor scales. These are related because they share the same notes. But there are other scales as well.

Take the C major scale. It has the notes C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.  The minor scale starts on the sixth note of that scale. The A minor scale looks like A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A. But you can start on any one of the notes in the C Major and create another scale.

For example, the Dorian scale starts on the second note. So instead of starting on the C note you start on the D. Using the same notes, you get the scale D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D.  This is the Dorian scale in C. This is important because the Native American Wood Flute, when you remove the anchor finger, plays the Dorian scale.

Do you actually play a lot of Dorian music with the Native American Wood Flute? In the traditional Native American Wood Flute style … yes! A lot of songs are set using the Dorian scale. But when you begin playing the instrument, the anchor finger allows for easier expression. It is a way for beginners to start playing quicker. Then, as the performer learns more, the Dorian scale allows for greater personal expression.

This creates more diversity with harmonies. Understanding these different scales can influence how you perform and express. With the “A” Native American Wood Flute, you can play in A minor,  C major,  A Dorian (which is the second degree of the G major scale … so there is the G major you can play). If you change the anchor finger from the 3rd hole to the 4th hole, you play a new pentatonic scale: The F pentatonic scale. There are a lot of different scales that can be played, but it is still not as flexible as other instruments. With the “A” Native American Wood flute, you cannot play in B flat major, or D major, but you can still play in other keys.

For the most part, Native American Wood Flutes do not play with accompaniment often. They are traditionally a solitary instrument. Many melodies and songs are written for just the Native American Wood Flute. But when you start playing with other people, and using harmonies, understanding how the Flute can make music becomes important. And this is a good thing … Playing in ensembles are a lot more fun than playing by yourself.

The Conclusion

Even with all this craziness about harmonies and scales, it really comes down to just one simple idea. The letter on the back of the flute is the lowest tone the flute can play. Yes, there are other things about scales and keys. But talking about just picking up the flute and starting to play: On an “A” Native American Wood Flute the A is the lowest note … and that is it.