Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

Sign up for our Flute Newsletter


Previous PageNext Page

Reference Drones

A drone is a long, steady tone. This page of Flutopedia provides a set of drone recordings that can be used for many things related to music in general and the Native American flute in particular.

This page may be one of the most valuable on Fluotpedia for players of the Native American flute. Playing your flute along with the various reference drone recordings helps build deep listening, a skill that all musicians seek to develop. The drones also help you explore different keys help develop breath control. So spend some time here. Explore and, if you come up with new ideas or insights related to these reference drones, please contact me.

Note that this page talks about drones in the context of steady musical tones. There is another use of the term “drone“: for flutes with two or three resonating chambers. These are also called double flutes and triple flutes. Double and triple flutes often produce a single (drone) pitch from one or both of the secondary resonating chambers, hence the use of the term “drone flute“ for these instruments.

Table of Reference Drones

Reference Drones
Note 25 Cents Flat On-Pitch A=440  Fingerings  25 Cents Sharp 50 Cents Sharp

Inputs to add Flute Fingerings to the Table Above

Fundamental Note
Tuning / Style
Minor Pentatonic
Six-hole, Mode 1/4
Major Pentatonic
Six-hole, Mode 2/5
Anasazi Tuning, Six-hole
Minor Pentatonic
Five-hole, Mode 1
Spanish Gypsy Six-hole Mojave Tuning, Four-hole
Diatonic / Major, Six-hole Minor Pentatonic Extended
Six-hole, Mode 1
Papago Tuning, Four-hole
**If “Include cross-fingerings” is checked, additional finger diagrams are added
to the table above to show fingerings and tunings for some possible cross-fingerings.

Suggestions for Using this Page

There are many ways to use the reference drone recordings. Here are some suggestions, in no particular order. The ones specific to the Native American flute are marked with “(Native American flute)”:

Vocal Toning

Vocalizing against a drone is one of the great music practices of all singers. In particular, East Indian singers often perform against a drone, often played on a Shruti Box or tamboura.

  • Warm your voice up with some long sighs, letting your voice drift down in pitch.
  • Play any one of the reference drones.
  • End your next sigh on any steady tone, and the slide your tone up and down slowly and listen for how it works with the drone.
  • Take a breath when you need to, and return to vocalizing. Drink water often.
  • Listen for when the tone of your voice is consonant with and dissonant with the drone.
  • See if you can match the pitch of the drone, and then experiment with very small changes in your vocal pitch to experience maximum dissonance, and then bring it back in consonance with the drone.
  • Experiment with different drones and how your voice feels when matching those pitches.

Exploring Intervals

You can play more than one drone recording at the same time. Any pair of drones form an interval.

  • Experiment with drones that are close together - for example, a C that is in tune and a C that is 25 cents sharp.
  • Try large intervals such as C and G, C and E, and C and Eb.


Jam on any instrument against a drone. The drones that work best are usually are usually the root of the melody or scale that you are playing.

On a Native American flute, try using the drone note that matches the key of your flute. On an F# Native Flute, you would use the F# drone. Improvise some melodies over the drone and see how it sounds. Experiment with using the F# drone that is 25 cents flat as well as the 25 and 50 cent sharp drones, and see which one sounds best.

Changing Key (Native American flute)

Continue jamming on the same key flute as the section above, but switch to the drone that is three rows up (if you go off the top of the table, just cycle around to the bottom and keep counting up). On most Native American flutes, this will change the drone from matching the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed note on the flute to matching the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open note. How do your melodies change when you use this different drone?

Now move the drone up two more rows. It should match the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open note on your flute. Explore playing against this note. See The Mode Four Pentatonic Minor Scale for some suggestions on playing against this drone.

Pitch and Breath Pressure (Native American flute)

All Native American flutes rise in pitch as you increase your breath pressure (see Right In Tune). Pick a drone that matches the bottom Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed note of your flute and play long tones on that bottom note. Experiment with how much breath pressure is needed to be exactly consonant (in tune) with the drone.

How do you know when you are exactly consonant? When two pitches are at slightly different frequencies, they set up a oscillation that our ears hear as a “wah wah wah …” variation in the timbre of the sound. Try playing two reference drones that are very close together, such as the in-tune C and the C +25 cents. Can you hear the oscillation? Now try C and C +50 cents. This produces an oscillation of a different, faster speed.

When you bring your flute into perfect consonance with the drone, you can hear that oscillation. The speed of the “wah wah wah …” starts out fast when you are far from the pitch, slows down as you get closer to the pitch of the drone, and ceases when you are right on the drone pitch.

Playing the Octave (Native American flute)

Keeping the same drone as the last section, try playing your octave note (which is fingered Finger diagram open open closed open open open on most contemporary Native American flutes). How much breath pressure does it take to bring this note in consonance with the drone?

The amount of breath pressure needed on a particular flute as you move up the scale is a critical design decision built into the flute by the person who crafted the flute. Some flute makers with assume that the player uses a steady breath pressure, and the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed and Finger diagram open open closed open open open notes will both match the drone with the same breath pressure. Some flute makers assume that the player will reduce their breath pressure as they go up the scale, and some will assume an increase in breath pressure. It's likely that if you have flutes of several makers, that they will behave differently when you try this exercise.

Playing Other Intervals (Native American flute)

Using the same drone as the last section, try playing other notes. In particular, try Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open and Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open. Using your breath pressure, can you tell when the flute is exactly consonant with the drone? You are listening for the perfect tuning of an interval, with is a more challenging listening exercise than matching pitch using identical notes or octave intervals.

Raising Pitch 25 Cents (Native American flute)

Change the drone to one that is 25 cents sharper. (If you are using a drone that is 50 cents sharp, move to the next higher note and use the recording that is 25 cents flat).

Working on the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed bottom note of the flute, find out how much additional breath pressure it take to bring the flute into consonance with this sharper drone. Is this the same amount of breath pressure needed for the Finger diagram open open closed open open open octave note?

Now try a drone that is 25 cents flat of your original drone. How much less breath pressure does this take?

Moving the Block (Native American flute)

The position of the block can changed on most flutes to adjust the overall pitch of the flute. However, realize that there is an optimal position for the block to create the sound the sound that you like from the flute. (Some might say “the best sound”, but there is no objective measure of what is “best”).

Some flutes have a fair bit of lattitude in changing the position of the block without affecting the sound and playing characteristics of the flute, while the sound of other flutes will degrade rapidly when the block is move just a bit.

  • First, take extremely careful note of the current position of the block.
  • You may need to loosen the lanyard that hold the block in position on the flute. Then carefully slide the block very small amounts up and down the body of the flute. If you can do this while playing the flute (maybe using the Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open fingering), see how the pitch of the flute changes with the position of the block. As you move the block toward the foot of the flute, does the pitch get sharper or flatter?

Barry Higgins of White Crow Flutes offered an in-depth explanation of block position in a personal communication on November 3, 2011, with my editorial comments in [brackets]:

The design and position of the bird/fetish on your flute is an important part of both the quality of the voice of your flute and can be used to make subtle adjustments tuning. Generally flute makers try to optimize the flutes voice and tuning during the making process with the face of the bird perpendicular to the plug at the South End [the end closer to the foot of the flute] of the sound hole. However, as most birds/fetishes are movable, one can, when necessary, make subtle pitch/tuning variations by moving the bird forward or backwards from its intended position.

To demonstrate this for yourself pick up your flute and position the bird at the optimal position. Make sure the ties are loose enough to allow movement of the bird. As you will need one hand free to move the bird we suggest you play a tone higher one your flute scale that only requires one hand to play, like covering the top three holes. Now with a moderate and steady breath (no vibrato) breathe into the flute and slowly move the bird forward and back. Listen very closely to the change in the pitch of the sound as you move it. Forward will cause minor lowering the pitch, back raising the pitch. Also listen for any changes in the quality of voice of the flute such as changing from clear to a breathy or raspy sound. Once you can identify the differences you can use this minor tuning adjustment to your advantage to either change the tone, compensate for minor temperature changes, or create a better tuned pairing with another instrument you might be playing with.


Temperature affects the pitch of all wind instruments, whether it is the ambient room temperature or the change in temperature of the resonating chamber as you play the flute.

Starting with a flute that has not been played for several hours, experiment with how the required breath pressure changes over the first five or ten minutes of play. Do you need more or less breath pressure? With the same breath pressure, does the flute get sharper or flatter as it warms up?

(If you would like to see a graph of temperature rise as you play, visit A Small Experiment on the CrossTune page.)

Tuning a Flute (Native American flute)

If you are making a Native American flute, can use the reference drones to tune each of the finger positions. You might find it easier and more pleasant than using an electronic tuner.

To make it easier, I've included the typical fingerings for various keys of flutes with a variety of tunings. In the section below the drones, just select the key and tuning of your flute and the finger diagrams should appear on the appropriate row of the reference drones.

About the Reference Drone Recordings

The reference drones were recorded from a Yamaha Motif-Rack ES sound module, using the Pre1/106 Organ BreathPipe voice. The reference pitch was calibrated to A=440 Hz.

That particular organ voice was chosen because it holds pitch fairly closely (there is approximately a ±10 cent variation in pitch from the inherent vibrato in that voice), but has a rich set of harmonics which can help in pitch recognition of various intervals. An alternative would have been to use a sound with a waveform closer to a pure sine wave, but that is annoyingly bland and not as much fun to play over.

Pitch Accuracy

When you play these reference drone recordings on your computer, you should here a precise rendition of the original pitch the way it was recorded. This is based on information from Edward Kort in a personal communication on October 21, 2011:

I suspect that the computer accuracy you see is the result of the crystal-based timing circuits in the computer. In order for you to detect pitch differences, the computer timing needs to be off by at least 1 part per thousand (1/2 Hz). That is equivalent to the computer clock losing/gaining 3 seconds per hour. And my experience with the computer clock indicates at least a couple of orders of magnitude better accuracy than that.

Pitch Circularity

As you play the drone sounds in the table above starting from C and moving up the scale, the pitch rises. When you get the top note, the B, and then wrap around to the C at the bottom of the table, you might expect the pitch to drop back down, but your ear may fool you. For many people, the pitch appears to continue to go up.

This phenomenon is known as a Shepard's tone ([Shepard-RN 1964]), or pitch circularity. It occurs in scales played on certain types of instruments or using sounds with certain waveform characteristics, as with the sounds used in the reference drones above ([Deutsch 2010]). I've used these type of sounds to create scales that appear to ascend (or descend) endlessly in pitch.

This effect can even be accomplished with single tones with careful control of the odd and even harmonics of each tone to create ambiguities of the “height” of the tone ([Deutsch 2008]).


Previous PageNext Page


To cite this page on Wikipedia: <ref name="Goss_2022_reference_drones"> {{cite web |last=Goss |first=Clint |title=Reference Drones |url=http://www.Flutopedia.com/reference_drones.htm |date=7 June 2022 |website=Flutopedia |access-date=<YOUR RETRIEVAL DATE> }}</ref>