Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

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The Second Register

Breathe softly into a Native American flute with all the finger holes closed, and you get the fundamental note of the instrument. By closing all the finger holes, you create an air pressure wave that is approximately as long as the length of the sound chamber (up to the direction holes if there are any; for a more detailed analysis, see Acoustic Length of a Flute).

If you breathe a bit harder, the sound gets louder. Keep breathing harder and harder, and at some point the flute overblows into what is called the second register. It sounds like this:

What is happening when a flute ovberblows? In the lower register the air pressure wave created in the flute's sound chamber can be imagined to look like this:

Two sound waves combined

When the flute overblows, the length of the wave is cut in half, and can be depicted like this:

Two sound waves combined

When the length of the wave is cut in half, the frequency is doubled. We get a note whose frequency is doubled - and this is an octave higher.

The Vibrating Column of Air

As flute players, we move from “blowing notes” to using our breath to create and maintain a vibrating column of air. The length of that column is primarily controlled by which finger holes we open, but it is also determined by the tendency of the flute to overblow into the second register.

New players tend to despise the second register. It's taken to be a mistake, an error in playing, something to be avoided. New players get an unintended overblow, stop playing, and maybe even mutter "Oops, sorry" before continuing.

As they progress, many players discover the art of “covering up” a mistake. As the old saying goes:

First time it's a mistake; Play it again and you've got a motif; Play it a third time and it's jazz.

That's a good perspective, but maybe not the most creative response.

Experienced musicians from all backgrounds, especially those that are comfortable with improvisation, see their musical creations as a partnership between them and their instrument. An unexpected sound from your instrument, an overblown note or a unexpected squeek or an overly breathy sound (did your block slip?), can always be used creatively! So next time this happens, see if you can carry on smoothly. Accept the sound that came out (you can't take it back, after all), build on it, and let it take your music in a new direction.

Here's an improvisation where I'm allowing the flute to “accidentally” overblow. It's a bit contrived, but I do try to work the overblow into the melody (sort of):

Covering an Accidental Overblow

Clint Goss. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins

Causes of Overblow

Some situations tend to make a flute overblow more easily than others. First, here's a roster of things that a player can easily alter:

  • The further forward the block is, the more easily the flute will overblow.
  • As the flue becomes constricted (eg. by condensation), the flute will tend to overblow more easily.
  • As you breathe harder into the flute it will tend to overblow. However, a flute that is already resonating a note in the lower register will tend to want to stay in that lower register as long as the note continues to sound. And a flute that is already resonating in the second register will want to stay there. That means that, once a note in the lower register is established, you can add considerably more breath pressure than you could at the start of the note.
  • If you have a leak in one of the upper finger holes, even a tiny break in the seal between your finger and the body of the flute, the flute will tend to overblow. This is the cause of novice flute players considering an overblow to be a mistake. It takes a bit of experience to get all the holes covered, and any failure to seal the holes will get a "squeek".

One of the easiest ways to get a flute to overblow is to crack you top finger ever so slightly off the top hole. Here it is shown on a five-hole flute: Five hole finger diagram half-closed closed closed closed closed. If you crack the top finger ever so slightly, you should get the same pitch out of the instrument as the octave note fingered like this: Five hole finger diagram open open open open open. However, even if these two notes have the same or close to the same pitch, they are likely to have different timbre. We will talk about these issues below.

Flute Design Issues

Here is a roster of things that are related to the design of the flute that affect its tendency to overblow:

  • A sound hole that is shorter (along the length of the flute) will tend to overblow more easily.
  • An SAC exit hole or ramp or flute that is not smooth or creates air turbulence will tend to make the flute overblow more easily.
  • Given two flutes whose sound chambers have the same diameter, the flute with the longer sound chamber will tend to overblow more easily.

This last item brings up a very interesting measure related to flutes: the length-to-diameter ratio, or L/D. (also called the length to bore ratio). flute whose sound chamber is relatively long compared to its diameter

Native American Flutes and the Second Register

Because Native American flutes tend to have such a short bore length in comparison tothe bore diameter, they have a very limited second register. However, that doesn't mean it's useless! Read on …

Minor Ninth

Most Native American flutes can play the minor ninth reliably. However, since it is a note with tremendous tension and dissonance, many beginning players avoid this note.

Minor Ninth interval written in Nakai Tab NotationThe minor ninth is one semitone above the octave interval. Here are some fingerings that will typically get you the minor ninth on a six-hole flutes: Finger diagram open closed closed closed closed closed or Finger diagram one-quarter-closed closed closed closed closed closed or Finger diagram half-closed closed closed closed closed closed or Finger diagram cracked closed closed closed closed closed … and on five-hole flutes: Five hole finger diagram open closed closed closed closed or Five hole finger diagram one-quarter-closed closed closed closed closed or Five hole finger diagram half-closed closed closed closed closed or Five hole finger diagram cracked closed closed closed closed

Here is the sound of a minor ninth interval on a Native American flute, followed by an improvisation that uses the minor ninth just once in a melody that otherwise stays within the pentatonic minor scale:

On a keyboard, you can locate the minor ninth by going up an octave from any note and then going up one more key. In music terms, the minor ninth goes up an octave and then one semitone more. So the interval notes are the same as for a minor second above.

Beyond the Minor Ninth

The region above the minor ninth is fertile ground for cool notes and sounds and ornaments, but is different on each and every flute. The game is to explore what each flute will do with various second register fingerings and how you might use these sounds to add to your music.

If you are stuck for getting started, try some of these fingerings: Finger diagram half-closed closed closed closed closed half-closed Finger diagram half-closed closed closed closed half-closed open Finger diagram half-closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram half-closed closed closed open closed closed Finger diagram half-closed closed closed open closed open Finger diagram open closed closed closed closed half-closed Finger diagram open closed closed closed closed open Finger diagram open closed closed closed open closed

Here's an improvisation that makes heavy use of the second register notes, in various ways. It's played on a mid-range F# flute by Barry Higgins of White Crow Flutes:

Improvisation in the Upper Register

Clint Goss. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins

Some flutes are specifically designed by the maker to play well into the lower part of the second register. They are typically called extended range flutes or some similar moniker.

  • One technique to do this is to use a conical bore - a sound chamber where the bore diameter decreases from the sound hole down towards the foot of the flute. One maker to do this is Pat Haran, and you can see Pat's fingering diagram.
  • Another technique is to increase the length-to-bore ratio to nudge the flute into playing more easily in the second register.

However, I personally believe that there are significant tradeoffs in Native American flutes that are designed for extended play or extended range. There is some loss of tone quality (I believe) on the lower notes of the first register and the extended range flutes tend to overblow more easily, requiring a more gentle touch and better breath control.

Steps and Leaps

Extending the Native American flute into the upper register opens up a world of possiblities when you add leaps to your melodies. To explore steps and leaps, visit the Steps and Leaps page on Flutopedia.

Non-Western Scales

Bebe's Last Rites (excerpt)

Veer Zaara (2004).

Excerpt from Bebe's Last Rites - from the 2004 Bollywood film Veer-Zaara «वीर-ज़ारा».

The melody, played on a bansuri flute, uses notes that are not in the Western classical equal-tempered scale. Listen carefully, and you'll here the notes "in the cracks" used as short passing notes at first, then held longer and longer. The traditional training for Bansuri players involves a lot of scale practice in these non-Western scales, and gives them a large toolset of intervals to call on for evoking different moods.



Which Octave Are we Talking About?

We've seen that note names and many other aspect of musical relationships repeat every octave up and down the scale. The pattern of the keyboard repeats precisely for more than 7 octaves:

Names of the piano keys

It is customary to divide the notes of the scale into octaves beginning with C and going up to B - the C note above a B begins a new octave. So the portion of the keyboard above is divided into three octaves (white, tan, and brown).

There are many systems for naming which octave we are talking about when we name a note. In these descriptions, I use the note "C" as an example, but the system extends to all twelve notes in the chromatic scale:

  • Helmholtz Pitch Notation uses upper and lower case letters together with subscript and superscript prime marks: …, C''', C'', C', C, c, c', c'', c''', …
  • The system of subscript and superscript prime marks was difficult to read, so many people use the letter "i" instead of prime marks: …, Ciii, Cii, Ci, C, c, ci, cii, ciii, …
  • East Indian classical music represents the octave with a number of superscript prime marks before (for lower octaves) or after (for higher octaves) the note: …, '''Sa, ''Sa, 'Sa, Sa, Sa', Sa'', Sa''', …
  • Standard Pitch Notation (also called "Scientific Pitch Notation", "Note-Octave Notation", or "American Standard Pitch Notation") combines the note name with an octave number. For example: C3, Ab5, and F#2. The octave number "1" is the octave beginning with the lowest "C" note on an 88-key piano keyboard, called C1. The rarely-used octaves below C1 are octave "0", octave "-1", octave "-2", etcetera. The octaves of C notes in Standard Pitch Notation are: …, C-2, C-1, C0, C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, … . The octave number is sometime given in parenthesis, brackets, or as a subscript. For example: C3, C(3), C[3], and C3 all mean the same note.
  • Piano Key Numbers. If you count the number of keys on a full 88-key keyboard from the left end, including the black and white keys, and start from number "1" for the lowest key, you'll get the piano note number. The lowest C note is key number 4, and the C notes proceed up the octaves every 12 keys: 4, 16, 28, 40, 52, 64, 76, and 88, the highest key on a full 88-key keyboard.
  • MIDI Note Numbers. The MIDI system was developed with the advent of electronic music to enable digital systems to easily represent notes. The MIDI system uses MIDI Note Numbers to represent notes, beginning with note #0 for the C that is two octaves below the lowest C on a full 88-key keyboard (C-1 in standard pitch notation). In the range of the keyboard, the MIDI note numbers are 20 higher than the corresponding piano key numbers. The highest MIDI note number, 127, corresponds to the G two octaves above the highest G key on a full 88-key keyboard (C9 in standard pitch notation).

In addition to the common systems, there is a gaggle of little-used systems that have been proposed and occasionally used, including the OZ Pitch-Naming Convention ([Greschak 2003] The OZ Pitch-Naming Convention).

How do all these systems line up? There is a note called "middle C" (German: eingestrichenes c; Italian: do centrale; French and Spanish: do central) which is c', ci, C4, piano key 40, and MIDI Note number 60, in the various systems. In East Indian classical music, the leading or trailing superscript prime marks (…, ''Sa, 'Sa, Sa, Sa', Sa'', …) are always used to indicate the octave relative to a given note, so there is no way to line it up with the other systems in terms of absolute pitch and notes.

In your musical travels, you may encounter all these systems for talking about which octave, but the Helmholtz and Standard pitch notations seem to be the most common. On Flutopedia, I use the Standard Pitch Notation system with subscripts … it seems to be the most graceful method for naming the octaves.




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