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Harmonic Pairings
or … Which Flutes Go Together?

It's possible to play almost any pair of flutes together, if you carefully arrange the duet for the keys of the two flutes and are willing to stick to the arranged, written music.

However, if two or three flute players want to improvise a duet or trio, it's usually best to pick pairs of flutes that make a good harmonic pairing. This page discusses keys of flutes that form good harmonic pairings.

Unison

The most consonant pair of flutes are flutes that are in the same key. For example, two flutes that are both mid-range F#4 flutes, with pentatonic minor tunings, and in tune with each other (see Tuning Issues below), will sound consonant.

Here's a duet with two A minor flutes — a Little Horse by Butch Hall and a flute by Barry Higgins.

Harmonic Pairing — Unison

Clint Goss. Two A minor flutes by Butch Hall and Barry Higgins.

However, you might find that they are too consonant for artistic expression. One of the great things about duets is the contrast between the instruments, and two flutes in the same key tend to have little contrast. And, since Native American flutes have a very limited range, two flutes in the same key are still limited to the same range.

All the recordings on this page, except for the Emergence track below, were played as pure improvisations: they were recorded in one take, with no editing or “fixups”.

An Octave Apart

Flutes that are separated by an octave (e.g. F#4 + F#5 or A3 + A4) can sound great together. This harmonic pairing almost doubles the range of a single flute. It is often the best first choice, and there's no problem trying to remember the key pairings!

Here's a duet with two A minor flutes an octave apart. The high flute in the right channel is the same track from the first improvisation above (done on the Little Horse flute by Butch Hall). The left channel is an A minor flute an octave lower by Barry Higgins.

Harmonic Pairing — Octave Apart

Clint Goss. Two flutes: a mid-range A minor by Butch Hall and a low A minor by Barry Higgins.

And here's a duet in a different style that I improvised with Don Zimbelman on March 26, 2004. I'm on a low Bm flute by Kai Mayberger of White Rave Drum Works and Don is on a high Bm flute by Leonard McGann of Lone Crow flutes. This improvisation became Emergence, Track 5 of Don's Howling at the Moon CD ([Zimbelman 2005]):

Emergence

Don Zimbleman and Clint Goss. Track 5 of Howling at the Moon.

Perfect Fourth Harmonic Pairings

Two flutes that share many notes will tend to sound good when played in a improvised duet. It happens that two Native American flutes that are a perfect fourth apart (5 semitones) share all their notes except one:

Perfect Fourth
Harmonic Pairing
Lower Flute Higher Flute

play in mode four fingering

play in mode one fingering
C F
B E
Bb (A#) D# (Eb)
A D
G# (Ab) C# (Db)
G C
F# (Gb) B
F Bb (A#)
E A
D# (Eb) G# (Ab)
D G
C# (Db) F# (Gb)
C F

Video Example

If you forget these pairings, here's a way to find a matching flute experimentally (for example, at a flute circle):

Play your Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open note, and find a higher flute whose fundamental note Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed matches your Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open note. Those two flutes are a perfect fourth apart.

If you improvise on these flutes, they should sound largely harmonic. However, there is one pair of notes that is very dissonant (Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open on the lower flute and Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open on the higher flute), and you might not like the result when you hit those notes. One way to avoid that is to play the lower flute in mode four. Insetead of the primary fingering sequence where you keep the third hole from the top always closed, try playing the lower flute with these fingerings:

Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open openFinger diagram closed closed open closed open open Finger diagram closed open closed open open openFinger diagram open open closed open open open or Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram closed closed open closed open open Finger diagram closed open open closed open open Finger diagram open open open closed open open

If you play the lower flute in this way in mode four, the set of notes the two flutes are playing is the same. However, you also get the benefit of two flutes that have different ranges — the makings of a great duet pair.

Here's a duet with a pair of Native American flutes a fourth apart. The high flute in the right channel is the same track from the first improvisation above (done on the Little Horse flute by Butch Hall). The left channel is a lower E minor flute by Barry Higgins which I'm playing in mode four.

Harmonic Pairing — Fourth Apart

Clint Goss. Two flutes: a mid-range A minor by Butch Hall and a lower E minor by Barry Higgins.

Perfect Fifth Harmonic Pairings

Another beautiful relationship happens between flutes that are a perfect fifth apart (7 semitones). They also share all their notes except one:

Perfect Fifth
Harmonic Pairing
Lower Flute Higher Flute
C G
B F# (Gb)
Bb (A#) F
A E
G# (Ab) D# (Eb)
G D
F# (Gb) C# (Db)
F C
E B
D# (Eb) Bb (A#)
D A
C# (Db) G# (Ab)
C G

You can also find a matching flute experimentally by playing your Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open note, and finding a higher flute whose fundamental note Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed matches your Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open note.

To avoid the one dissonant pair of notes (which are Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open on the lower flute and Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open on the higher flute), you can play the higher flute in mode four, which will make the set of notes the two flutes are playing the same.

Here's a duet with a pair of Native American flutes a fifth apart. The high flute in the right channel is a high Am flute by Barry Higgins that I'm playing in mode four. The left channel is a lower D minor flute by Randy Stenzel played in mode one:

Harmonic Pairing — Fifth Apart

Clint Goss. Two flutes: a mid-range A minor by Barry Higgins and a lower D minor by Randy Stenzel.

A Trio of Flutes

We can use the symmetries of music theory and combine all the harmonic pairings discussed so far — octave, perfect fourth, and perfect fifth — to create a trio of flutes.

Root — Fourth — Octave Trio
Low Flute Mid Flute High Flute
mode
four
mode
one
mode
four
C F C
B E B
Bb (A#) D# (Eb) Bb (A#)
A D A
G# (Ab) C# (Db) G# (Ab)
G C G
F# (Gb) B F# (Gb)
F Bb (A#) F
E A E
D# (Eb) G# (Ab) D# (Eb)
D G D
C# (Db) F# (Gb) C# (Db)
C F C

If you play the low and high flutes in mode four and the middle flute in the regular (mode one) scale, all the notes are consonant.

Here's the same duet as above (the perfect fifth pairing) with an added low Am flute in the center:

Harmonic Pairing — Trio

Clint Goss. Three flutes: mid-range and low A minor flutes by Barry Higgins and a lower D minor by Randy Stenzel.

Major Second Harmonic Pairings

As the last pairing that uses two Native American flutes with pentatonic minor tunings, here is a suggestion from Jeffrey Gegner of Branches Breath. I have not personally tried this combination, but it should be explored. From an email on November 8, 2010:

Here is something to try sometime: Play two flutes one note apart — for example, an E and an F#. The scales only have 2 notes separating them: the A# and the F. You do have to have a feel for the other player's style, but it works and can sound very cool.

Here are the flutes in that paring:

Major Second
Harmonic Pairing
Lower Flute Higher Flute
C D
B C# (Db)
Bb (A#) C
A B
G# (Ab) Bb (A#)
G A
F# (Gb) G# (Ab)
F G
E F# (Gb)
D# (Eb) F
D E
C# (Db) D# (Eb)
C D

Diatonic Flutes

Adding a diatonic flute into the mix with flutes that are tuned to the pentatonic minor scale expands the harmonic possiblities.

First, let's look at the primary scale on a diatonic flute. It is usually the primary fingering sequence Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open Finger diagram closed closed open open open open Finger diagram closed open open open open open Finger diagram open open open open open open Finger diagram open closed closed closed closed closed. If the fundamental note of the diatonic flute is a C, then the primary scale is C D E F G A B C.

It happens that if you play a Native American flute tuned to the minor pentatonic scale that is a minor third (5 semitones) lower than the diatonic flute, all their notes of the minor pentatonic flute will match most of the notes on the diatonic flute:

Diatonic-Pentatonic Minor
Harmonic Pairing
Diatonic
Flute
Pentatonic
Minor
Flute
C A
B G# (Ab)
Bb (A#) G
A F# (Gb)
G# (Ab) F
G E
F# (Gb) D# (Eb)
F D
E C# (Db)
D# (Eb) C
D B
C# (Db) Bb (A#)
C A

If you forget these pairings, you can find a matching flute experimentally: Play the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed note on the diatonic flute and find a pentatonic minor flute whose Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open note matches the note on the diatonic flute.

What you are basically doing is playing the higher pentatonic minor flute as if it were a major-tuned flute.

Here's a duet with a diatonic Low D Irish Whistle by Phil Hardy of Kerry Whistles in the left channel and a lower Bm Native American flute in the right channel. Because the diatonic flute takes the lead, theres definitely more of a classical or Celtic feel to this improvisation:

Harmonic Pairing — Diatonic with Pentatonic Below

Clint Goss. Two flutes: Low D Whistle by Phil Hardy and a lower B minor by Barry Higgins.

Playing a Diatonic Flute in Pentatonic Minor

You can easily play a diatonic flute in pentatonic minor, and match the scale of a pentatonic minor Native American flute. On the diatonic flute, try these fingerings: Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open Finger diagram closed closed open open open open Finger diagram closed open open open open open Finger diagram open closed closed closed closed closed Finger diagram half-closed closed closed closed closed open. The root of the scale on the diatonic flute is the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open note, but you can also include the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed note, which is also part of this scale (as well as the Finger diagram half-closed closed closed open open open note in the upper register, if that note resonates).

If you play a diatonic flute in this scale, you can then find a Native American flute tuned to the pentatonic scale that matches your diatonic flute. Just play the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open note on the diatonic flute and find a pentatonic minor tuned Native American flute whose Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed note is matching.

Here is a table of keys that work in this way:

Diatonic-Pentatonic Minor
Harmonic Pairing
Diatonic
Flute
Pentatonic
Minor
Flute
C D
B C# (Db)
Bb (A#) C
A B
G# (Ab) Bb (A#)
G A
F# (Gb) G# (Ab)
F G
E F# (Gb)
D# (Eb) F
D E
C# (Db) D# (Eb)
C D

Here's a final duet on the diatonic Low D Irish Whistle by Phil Hardy of Kerry Whistles in the left channel being played in this pentatonic minor scale, and an Em Native American flute by Barry Higgins in the right channel:

Harmonic Pairing — Diatonic with Pentatonic Above

Clint Goss. Two flutes: Low D Whistle by Phil Hardy and a mid-range E minor by Barry Higgins.

Tuning Issues

When you are playing duets, it is particularly important to compare the tuning of the two flutes. This is especially true when the two flutes are in the same key, or a small distance apart.

See the discussion of Tuning for how to adjust the tuning of flutes played in duet.

Duet Techniques

Depending on how well the two flutes are paired harmonically, you can venture into more and more improvised harmonies. If they are note well paired, you could use a straight call-and-response technique with only one flute playing at once. For other techniques of playing duets, see Composition Techniques and Song Forms.

Arranged Duets

Even if the two flutes do not normally form a harmonic pair, they can sound good together. However, you usually have to arrange the music specifically for that pair.

For example, the duet I arranged for Silent Night uses two flutes that are a major third (4 semitones) apart. This is normally not a harmonic pairing if you are improvising in the pentatonic minor scale on those flutes, but it works well with careful arrangement.

 
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