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Basic-Five Method for Tuning Native American Flutes

This page describes a basic method for tuning five-hole Native American flutes in the pentatonic minor scale. It is assumed that the flute has a cylindrical sound chamber bore, as opposed to a bore that is tapered or has pertubations. This tuning method is designed to bring only the notes in the primary scale of the instrument as well as one cross-fingered note into tune.

For a version of this method designed for six-hole flutes, see the Basic-Six Method for Tuning Native American Flutes. For a more ambitious tuning method that brings all the cross-fingered notes into tune, see the Bob Grealish Method for Tuning Native American Flutes.

This tuning method is simplified version of the tuning method contributed to Flutopedia by Robert Grealish, as described in a document originally posted on the Native Flute Woodworking Yahoo newsgroup on July 23, 2007 and updated on August 5, 2014.


Background

The goal of the Basic-Five tuning method is to bring six fingerings into tune with six specific notes that play the pentatonic minor scale:

Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed  Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed open  Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed open open  Five hole finger diagram closed closed open open open  Five hole finger diagram closed open open open open  Five hole finger diagram open open open open open

Figures 1 below shows the notes we will be tuning for a mid-range, five-hole, F# Native American flute. Solid circles represent closed finger holes and open circles represent open finger holes.

Scale for an F# minor pentatonic, five-hole Native American style flute

Figure 1: Scale for an F# minor pentatonic,

five-hole Native American style flute. Larger image

If you need a chart for a key of flute other than the F# minor flute shown here, the Basic Native American Flute Design Tool can be useful. Simply set the Fundamental Note and click Calculate. If you want to add the cross-fingered notes, check the “include cross-fingerings” box.

Terms, Concepts, and Definitions

For reference, here are the parts of the flute mentioned on this page:

External and internal elements of a Native American flute

External and internal elements of a Native American flute Larger image

Also, this page also uses Flute Maker Numbering for the holes — playing hole 1 is the hole nearest the foot end of the flute. This is a common convention among flute makers since this is the finger holes that is tuned first:

Numbering the holes on a Native American flute

Numbering the holes on a Native American flute Larger image

General Strategy

When tuning a flute, you start by tuning the note with all finger holes closed. After that note is tuned, you generally proceed by opening holes at the South end and proceed up the flute, tuning each finger hole and the holes below it open. Each finger hole starts out small, and its note is flatter than the target pitch for that note. You make a note sharper to bring it into tune by enlarging the hole opening.

Hole-by-hole procedure

Let’s assume you are making an F#, pentatonic minor flute. First, tune the fundamental note of the flute (Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed) by cutting the foot end back or by placing and enlarging direction or tuning holes. Next, using the Flute Sheet Excel spreadsheet, NAFlutomat, or another method described on the Finger Hole Placement page, calculate where your playing holes will be. Start by designing them all close to the same diameter and then adjust the hole diameters until the finger spacing is reasonably even.

Mark the locations of the finger holes on the flute. Hereafter I will assume you are burning the holes, but if I say to burn a hole, you could just as well grind or file the holes instead of burning. Start with hole 1 and move up. Start each hole small and tune it up before starting on the next hole. Tune it by gradually enlarging it while checking the tuning of the note.

Hole 1:

A:   Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed open

Gradually make hole 1 larger until it comes in tune with A. After hole 1 is tuned, check the tuning for the fundamental note (Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed) to see if it is still in tune.

Hole 2:

B:   Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed open open

Enlarge hole 2 to bring it in tune with a B. After hole 2 is tuned, check the tuning for hole 1 (Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed open) to see if it is still in tune with A.

Hole 3:

C#Five hole finger diagram closed closed open open open

Enlarge hole 3 to bring it in tune with a C#.

After hole 3 is tuned, re-check the tunings for hole 2, hole 1, and the fundametal note (Five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed). At this point, you may start to see some “drift” in notes you have tuned earlier. This can happen, because making a finger hole larger increases the volume inside the sound chamber slightly. This affects the tuning of the notes below it. Fortunately, the effect is to make the previously tuned notes slightly flat, so you can simply make the corresponding finger holes slightly larger.

Hole 4:

E:   Five hole finger diagram closed open open open open

Gradually make hole 4 larger to bring it in tune with an E.

Hole 5:

F#Five hole finger diagram open open open open open

Hole 5 is the octave note, F#, one octave above the fundamental. Gradually make hole 5 larger to bring it in tune with an F#.

At this point, you should again check for drift in the notes you have tuned earlier. It is likely that at least some of the notes you tuned earlier will need a slight adjustment.

 
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