Anatomy of the Native American Flute Basic
A Native American Flute is:
“A front-held, open holed whistle, with an external block and internal wall that separates a mouth chamber from a resonating chamber.”
Whew! While there are variations in the definition, this version is a direct quote on June 21, 2002 from R. Carlos Nakai, a central figure in the renaissance and resurgence of the Native American Flute. The definition helps identify what is and what is not classified as a Native American flute, but to understand it we'll use some diagrams and pictures …
Parts of a Native American flute
As simple as the instrument is, there are a lot of things to name, and a lot of ways to name them! The names we use here are the ones you will find on this web site, but we'll also give you many alternate names for each:
Mouthpiece. The opening where you breathe into the flute. Also called the “Mouth Pipe” ([Nakai 1996]).
Head End. The end of the flute into which you breathe. Also called the “top end”, the “North end”, or the “proximal end”.
Block. A separate piece from the body of the flute that is almost always removable. The block plays a critical role in creating the sound of the flute, since it directs air between the two chambers. Also called the “bird”, the “totem”, the “stop piece” ([Fletcher 1911] page 372 ¶1), the “saddle” ([Nakai 1996]), or the “fetish”.
Nest. The area of the body of the flute where the block rests.
Strap. Ties the block onto the nest. Traditionally made of leather. It's a good idea to remove the strap and block on your flute to examine how the flute is constructed. Doing this creates one of the first practical challenges of flute playing, tying the block back onto the flute. Also called the “lashing” or “lacing”. See How to Tie Your Block.
Finger Holes. Where you rest your fingers, or lift them off of, when playing. Also called “stops”, as in “a flute with two stops” meaning “a flute with two finger holes”. The use of the term “stop” is often in archaeological contexts when talking about simple flutes and whistles.
Foot End. Also called the “bottom”, the “South end”, or the “distal end”.
The design of the block can be anything from a simple block of wood to a highly ornate, woodcarving masterpiece. They often take the shape of a bird. The shape of the block is individualized by each maker, and is often an indication of who crafted the flute. For the outline of the block on the diagrams on this page, I've used a historic flute from the collection of Dr. Richard W. Payne. The flute is a juniper flute made by McKinley Standing from the Wichita Indian tradition:
McKinley Standing Flute. Photo courtesy of Russ Wolf
There are many (many) variations on the design shown above. Your flute may look substantially different, but probably has the same basic parts. Here are two significant variations:
Direction Holes. One or more holes nearest the foot end of the flute that are not intended to be covered during normal play. Makers often used four holes to honor the four directions. Also called “tuning holes” because they alter the pitch of the flute when all the finger holes are closed.
There are many configurations for direction holes. For example, here is a design that uses slots to serve as direction holes:
The Native American Flute is not the only world flute that has direction holes. The khlui from Thailand and Myanmar also had direction holes, in a slightly different configuration.
Most of the magic of the instrument happens inside, hidden by the body and the block. Thankfully, I have Corel Draw, so I didn't have to cut a real flute open! This is a view cut straight through the body and the block:
Breath Hole. Where you breathe into the flute. There are many configuration for the breath hole, varying widely in size and shape. Also called the “mouth hole”.
Slow Air Chamber (SAC). The first chamber in a Native American flute to receive the player's breath. This chamber provides a place for condensed moisture to collect and also acts as an air bladder to regulate air pressure as it proceeds down the flute. Also called the “mouth chamber”, “compression chamber”, “breath chamber”, “first chamber”, “passive air chamber”, or simply “air chamber”. The slow air chamber acts as a plenum chamber – in this case taking an air source that may be irregular or turbulent and evening out the the flow through the exit orifice (the SAC exit hole). It also has the effect of partially silencing sounds coming from the player's respiratory system (for example, humming or throat noises).
Plug. Part of the body of the flute that separates the SAC from the sound chamber. This may be constructed of the same material as the body of the flute, or it may be another material such as a cork that is inserted late in the construction process. Also called the “internal wall”.
Sound Chamber. The tube that controls the pitch of the sound being played. Native American flutes are designed to create a vibrating wave of air, and the length of the sound chamber determines how fast the air vibrates. Opening and closing the finger holes effectively changes the length of the sound chamber, changing the pitch of the note. Note that the direction holes shown also change the effective length of the sound chamber. Also called the “pipe body”, the “resonating chamber”, or the “variable tube” ([Nakai 1996]).
Here is an image of a flute that someone did cut open, showing a Native American flute without the block … This image was provided by Biker Joe
The Sound Hole
The Sound Hole is the most critical part of the flute in terms of creating sound. It is also called the True Sound Hole (TSH). On a silver flute, the sound hole serves the same function as the breath hole that the player breathes into. If the sound hole is damaged, the sound of the flute will be substantially affected. Also called the “distal mouth opening” ([Nakai 1996]).
Under the Block
The cutaway diagram shows the detail of the nest and block area, and how the air flows from the SAC to True Sound Hole.
SAC Exit Hole. The path that the air takes out of the SAC and into the Flue. Also called the “Anterior air chamber port” ([Nakai 1996]).
Flue. The space formed by the top of the plug and the bottom of the block. This is a very shallow (but often wide) channel that routes air to the sound hole. The shape of the flue is very important to the creation of the flute's sound. Also called the “channel” or “windway”.
The flue is a primary place where condensed moisture collects. When this happens the shape of the flue is changed, which has a dramatic effect on the sound of the flute, even to the point of silencing the instrument.
Ramp. The part of the plug that directs airflow out of the SAC and into the flue. The shape of the ramp affects how turbulant the air is in the flue, and has a substantial effect on the flute's sound.
Splitting Edge. Your breath travel through the slow air chamber, down the flue, and across the true sound hole, and then hits the relatively sharp splitting edge. The job of the splitting edge is to set the air vibrating … alternating between going above and below the splitting edge. This is similar to what happens when a flag flutters in a stiff breeze.
The splitting edge is all called the “fipple”, and the “languid lip” (Ken Light).
Here's an image, courtesy of Don from Spokane, WA.
Spacer Plate. This is a common variation in the design of the nest area. A plate, often made of brass, sits between the block and the nest. In this design, the splitting edge is often part of the spacer plate, rather than part of the body of the flute, and the flue is formed by a slot in the spacer plate:
Here's a picture of a flute by Dr. Richard W. Payne which uses a spacer plate:
Plains Style flute with a spacer plate
Shape of the Block
The shape of the block near the sound hole is very important to the sound of the flute.
Some flutes, such as the one pictured above on the left, have a chimney that borders three sides of the sound hole. The sides, or wings, give some protection if you are trying to play in a breeze.
Other flutes, such as the one pictured on the right, have a flat face.
The two photographs above are actually from the same flute – a D minor Native American flute by Edward Kort. The block of this flute is reversible: one face has a chimney and the other has a flat face.