Scales for the Native American Flute
The Musical Scale is not one, not ‘natural,’ nor even founded necessarily on the law of the constitution of
musical sound … but very diverse, very artificial, and very capricious.
— Alexander Ellis, On the Musical Scale of Various Nations, 1885 ([Ellis 1885])
One of the charms of many Native American flutes is that, even though they appear to be “simple” five-hole or six-hole instruments, many of them are capable of playing a wide range of alternate scales. If you are a player interested in expanding your toolbox of styles or a maker interested in exploring the different scale possibilities, browse through the pages in this Scale section of Flutopedia.
This section of Flutopedia explores a progression of scales that can be played on many current Native American flutes. It begins with the primary scale and proceed through scales that play in the low register as well as more exotic scales and scales that use the upper registers (extended scales). Each scale has a different feel, and evokes a different culture and
style of song.
You can page forward through the scales with the button on each page.
These scales work on many (but not all) Native American flutes made since about 1980. Depending on the tuning of the flute, you may have to use the alternate fingerings suggested to get a pleasing scale progression. I have chosen not to use any half-holed notes - they’re just too unreliable (for me) in performance.
Scales are provided as images with finger diagrams as well as in SNAFT format for limited-sight players.
Names of the Scales
I've chosen names for the scale that are in common usage in the Native American flute community and that seem to best fit the use of the scale. There are, however, a few issues. In particular, the use of the term “Mode Four”. See a Discussion of Modes for details on the difference between how it is used in the Native American flute community and the meaning of “Mode Four” in music theory.
Progression of the Scales
The scales are ordered (based on the buttons on each page) so that each scale introduces a few new concepts or notes. One approach to teaching intermediate and advanced Native American flute techniques is to use the scales in order and introduce new notes (either cross-fingered or upper-register) as they come up in the scales.
Here's the order of the scales and the new concepts or notes introduced:
Three background colors are used on the scales in this section of web pages:
- Light green for scales in the lower register with no cross-fingerings
- Light blue for lower register scales with cross-fingerings, and
- Light tan for scales that go into the second register.
Here are some examples:
Scales in the Low Register with no Cross-Fingering
Note that I don't consider notes like
to be cross-fingered notes on the Native American flute.
Scales in the Low Register with Cross-Fingering
Extended-Range Scales that go into the Upper Register
The Native American flute has a limited range compared with most instruments played today. The span of playable note is not much more than one octave.
In most discussions of scales, you start on the root note of the scale and proceed in scale step up to higher and higher notes. However, we take a scale like
and add the lower notes that are in that scale (as well as the root note of the scale) back onto the end:
I call these additional notes added to the end of a scale wrap notes (this is another term I invented). They are often added by Native American flute players because of the limited range of the Native American flute and also because melodies in a scale often end on the root note — adding the wrap notes onto the end of a scale make it sound more like a melody and make them nicer to practice.
Wrap notes are shown at the end of a scale, highlighted in yellow:
The best fingering for a given note in a scale depends on the fingering that produces the best sounding pitch as well as how easy it is to incorporate the fingering into your playing. For example, here is a version of the Mode Four Pentatonic Minor scale:
The fingerings in this scale are probably the easiest to use when you are getting started with this scale. However, they might not produce the best pitches for the scale.
Here is another version of the scale that changes the fingerings for the third and fourth notes. It will probably get you a better sounding melody, but is also a bit more difficult to finger:
In the description of scales, I'm showing the fingerings that are easiest to use in the hopes that it will get you off the ground with the scale. As you explore a scale, feel free to use any alternate fingerings you would like!
References for Scales
I generally use the Scala software ([Coul 2010] ) as a general reference for the scale steps in a particular scale. Check out Scala and, in particular, the List of Musical Modes that is part of Scala if you're interested in a deep and expansive exploration of world scales (1,202 scales, last time I looked!).
For another approach to scales, check out Iván Iriarte's Playing Modes on the Native American Flute ([Iriarte 2012] ).