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Meter for Native American Flutes    Basic

Musical meter deals with the rhythmic structure of a song. Sing a nursery rhyme, such as “Jack and Jill ran up the hill, to fetch a pail of water”. The meter of this rhyme divides nicely into eight phrases (“Jack”, “and Jill”, “ran up”, “the hill”, etcetera).

If you keep repeating the “Jack and Jill” rhyme, you can easily slide into counting “1 2 3, 1 2 3, …” and start dancing a waltz, if you're so inclined. This is so common that poems with meter like “Jack and Jill” are said to be in “waltz time”.

A general reference for this page is [Clarke-EF 1999]. Also check out [Honing 2002] Structure and Interpretation of Rhythm and Timing for some insight into our perception of rhythm.

How Much Meter?

The first question about meter in our music is: Do we want any?


A classic style of Native American flute music is called parlando - to play essentially free of rhythm. The word comes from the Italian word “parlante” which means “as if speaking, more like speaking than singing” (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]).

The parlando style is typically done on the Native American flute by playing a phrase, pausing for a time (some say “to hear the echo from the canyon”) and then play another phrase. This is the style used on many of recordings by R. Carlos Nakai.

Although parlando is free of rhythm, there does tend to be an over-arching cadence to the music. In the same way as we tend to speak in a loose cadence. Here's a melody in parlando style that I'll be using in the following sections when talking about meter:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting. Flute used on this audio stream

Even though parlado style does not have strict meter, it can still be scored in sheet music ([Nakai 1996]). The overall durations of notes (whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.) are roughly maintained in relation to each other, but the notes are not confined to an overall rhythm. To represent a pause between passages, a caesura [seh-zoor-ah] symbol (also spelled “cesura” and “cæsura”) is placed above the music staff: Caesura symbol to indicate a pause (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]).

Another symbol in modern music notation, the breath mark: Breath mark symbol to indicate a pause was established by [Nakai 1996], pages 41–44, as the preferred symbol for “taking a breath” in transcriptions for Native American flute.

Here is a transcription of the above parlando melody:

Parlando notation for the simple melody

To complete the set of long pauses, there is the fermata [fur-mah-tah] symbol in modern music notation: Fermata symbol to indicate a pause (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]). It is placed over a note to indicate a long pause before the next musical phrase or passage. If the note is now on the staff, the fermata symbol can also be placed below the note head: Fermata symbol to indicate a pause. Dolmetsch Online notes that:

By convention, the pause of a caesura is slightly shorter than a fermata and slightly longer than a breath mark (whether actually taken as a breath or only as a slight break in the musical line). If a longer break is required a fermata may be placed above the caesura.

For some players, the parlando style is sufficient for all their music on the Native American flute. Other players like to add some degree of rhythmic structure … if so, read on.

Playing in Meter

Getting back to the strict meter of the “Jack and Jill” example, we can write out a bit of sheet music that shows the various ways of looking at the meter of Jack and Jill:

Meter example for Jack and Jill

Here's another version of the melody I played in parlando style above, now in strict Jack and Jill meter:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting. Flute used on this audio stream

It isn't in the scope of Flutopedia to teach basic music theory … there are many excellent books and web resources for that. However, we'll touch on a few of the components.

The Downbeats

The Accents shown above are a natural emphasis we place on our rhythms. They are called the downbeats of the measures, or sometimes the “The One Beat” (if you like counting “One two three One two three …”).

If you're jamming with a group of musicians in a relatively strict style of rhythm and things get sloppy or disorganized, it's often because a strong downbeats is missing. Sometimes, just picking up a large or low-pitched drum and just playing one pulse on each downbeat will be enough to bring things back together.

Treble Meter

The “One two three One two three …” meter of Jack and Jill, like a classical waltz, is typically written in ¾ time in modern music notation. There are a whole class of meters that are based on three's that are collectively called treble meters.


A great way to play with meter is using fruit (thanks to Randy Brody of Sound Directions for this approach). Just about any rhythm can be put together using the names of fruit (and it has the benefit of being copyright-free and virtually guaranteed to be politically correct).

Try the phrase "Strawberry Apple Watermelon Grape". If you say it very slowly, it would be set in sheet music something like this:

Meter Example for Fruit rhythm

If you say it somewhat faster, about double the speed, it would be written something like this:

Meter Example for Fruit rhythm in Double time

Here's yet another version of my simple melody (very slightly modified), set to this fruit rhythm:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting. Flute used on this audio stream

Duple Meter

The fruit-based rhythm examples above are all in meters like 2/4 and 4/4 - all divisible by two. Meters like this that are divisible by two are called duple meters - they are by far the most common rhythms heard in the Western tradition of music.


We've looked at playing in parlando style — largely free of rhythm — and playing rather strictly in rhythm. The middle ground between those two extremes is called rubato (Italian, meaning literally “stolen time” in English).

The core idea of rubato is to adjust tempo and feel by accelerating some areas of a piece or phrase and retarding others, but the idea basically boils down to a free interpretation of the written rhythm.

Here's a great quote from [Paderewski 2001] Tempo Rubato:

Tempo Rubato is a potent factor in musical oratory, and every interpreter should be able to use it skillfully and judiciously, as it emphasizes the expression, introduces variety, infuses life into mechanical execution. It softens the sharpness of lines, blunts the structural angles without ruining them, because its action is not destructive: it intensifies, subtilizes, idealizes the rhythm. As stated above, it converts energy into languor, crispness into elasticity, steadiness into capriciousness. It gives music, already possessed of the metric and rhythmic accents, a third accent, emotional, individual, that which Mathis Lussy, in his excellent book on musical expression, calls l'accent pathètique.

Here is yet another recording of the basic melody, using a middle-ground rubato approach to the rhythm:

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Jazz and Blues Rhythms

Basic jazz and blues have a characteristic style of rhythm that is so distinctive, many listeners immediately identify it with those genres.

We already have the building blocks of the core jazz and blues rhythms: Take the Jack and Jill rhythm, stretch and slide it in a rubato style, and add a bit of attitude (maybe put on some dark glasses, pour yourself a strong drink, work up a "tax man took all my money and my woman too" image).

OK, seriously. Try playing a loose version of the Jack and Jill rhythm. You can even throw in the classic blues note, which is Finger diagram closed closed closed open closed open on most contemporary Native American flutes. Here's an improvisation in this style:

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Compound Meters

Music of western music traditions are laregly done in straightforward meters like 4/4 and 3/4 waltz time. However, many world music traditions incorporate highly complex meters.

Sometimes these are composed of several people playing in different rhythms at the same time. The resulting rhythm that is heard is a polyrhythm with a long cycle - often 8 or 16 bars in length.

Another approach is to play in an compound meter, such as 5/4 (as in Paul Desmond's famous "Take Five") or 11/8 (as in "The Eleven" by the Grateful Dead).


Compound meters can be daunting, especially for those of us who listen mostly to music in 4/4 time. However, a straightforward approach is used in East Indian classical music that is used by David Darling and the Music for People tradition to make these compound meters easily accessible:

  • Say “Gah mah lah Gah mah lah Gah mah lah Gah mah lah …”. Say it evenly, with the same time for each syllable. This is a three-beat or treble cadence.
  • Now say “Tah kee dee mee Tah kee dee mee Tah kee dee mee Tah kee dee mee …”. This is a four-beat or duple cadence.
  • If you would like a two-beat cadence, try “Tah kee Tah kee Tah kee Tah kee …”

From “Gah mah lah” and “Tah kee dee mee” (or “Tah kee”) you can assemble almost any meter. Now try this:

Gah mah lah Tah kee dee mee
Gah mah lah Tah kee dee mee
Gah mah lah Tah kee dee mee …

It might sound something like this:

You're working (probably without much effort) in 7/8 time. If you need 10/8 time - just toss in another three-beat “Gah mah lah” to bring it from 7 to 10 beats:

Gah mah lah Gah mah lah Tah kee dee mee
Gah mah lah Gah mah lah Tah kee dee mee
Gah mah lah Gah mah lah Tah kee dee mee …

One great use of these compound meters on the Native American flute is to give some motion or interest to a simple melody. Here's my simple melody, played strictly in 4/4 meter:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting. Flute used on this audio stream

… and here's the same melody played in the 10/8 cadence of “Gah mah lah Gah mah lah Tah kee dee mee”:

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