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Nakai Tablature for the Native American Flute    Intermediate

Nakai tablature (also known as “Nakai Tab” or somtimes just “Tab”) is a way to write music for the Native American flute. Most (but not all) written music that you will come across for this instrument is written in Nakai tablature. Here’s an example:

Example of Nakai Tablature

This is basically modern music notation (also called “classical staff notation” or “European classical music notation”), with a few special features. Note, for example, that there are always four “#” signs at the beginning of the staff: Alternate representation of a Inverted Turn. This is a characteristic key signature for music written in Nakai tablature.

The primary reference for Nakai tablature is [Nakai 1996], but it is also described in [Joyce-Grendahl 1998a].

The use of the term “tablature” can be a bit confusing. In other settings, particularly for the guitar, the term “tablature” is used for systems that show a pictorial representation of where to place your fingers. In a remote sense, Nakai tablature does the same thing, but it’s a bit more cryptic.

Pictoral Music

Another form of written music that you are likely to encounter shows which finger holes to cover on the flute. Here is a particularly life-like song transcription by Vittoria Satta of Italy (a.k.a. "FluteWoman"). She used pictures of her own flute and filled in the holes with yellow and white dots:

Tatanka, transcribed by Vittoria Satta

Tatanka, transcribed by Vittoria Satta Larger image

Combined Transcriptions

Combining the staff notation with the pictctoral rendition, we get a form of written music that you are likely to encounter (and what we use on Flutopedia): “Nakai tablature with finger diagrams”. Note that the term “Nakai tablature” refers to just the staff notation, not the additional finger diagrams.

Here’s an example of the above melody, with the addition of finger diagrams (the method that Flutopedia uses in transcribed music in the Song Book). The finger diagrams come from the NAFTracks TrueType fonts that are freely available on this web site:

Example of Nakai Tablature with six-hole finger diagrams

There are a lot of ways to show finger diagrams, including versions with the breath hole at the bottom:

Example of Nakai Tablature with inverted six-hole finger diagrams

… and also versions for five-hole flutes:

Example of Nakai Tablature with five-hole finger diagramsl

(Can you identify this melody? Try it on your flute … it's a fun one …)

The Details

R. Carlos Nakai chose to represent transcribed music for the Native American flute in modern music notation, but with some fixed parameters:

  • The staff notation always uses the treble clef (the G-clef placed on the second staff line from the bottom).
  • The key signature is fixed to four sharps: F#, C#, G# and D#.
  • The notes correspond to fixed intervals from the fundamental note of the flute, rather than musical pitches. The F# above middle C (the note head is between the bottom-most and next higher staff lines).

These choices facilitate sight-reading of music on various key flutes without having to worry about absolute pitches.

In practice, the notes of Nakai tablature represent fixed intervals form the fundamental note of the flute, but they do not represent fixed fingering patterns across all Native American flutres. Because of the variety of costruction methods and styles of flutes, there are many alternate fingerings for each note. See the general fingering charts for six-hole and five-hole flutes.

From Nakai’s The Art of the Native American Flute ([Nakai 1996], page 26):

In an effort to simplify the transition from one flute to another (e.g. changing from a flute in F-sharp minor to G minor), I have maintained the same notation for all flutes. These instruments produce the same series of musical intervals as the F-sharp minor flute but the pitches are transposed so that the scale begins on the same fundamental tone. The lower tone is played with all finger holes closed and is written as F-sharp (F#) but the actual sounded pitch will vary from one flute to another. The correlation of actual pitch to finger notation is easily and readily determined by cross-referencing the line for the key of your Native American flute and the column in which the tablature notation occurs. Each Native American flute uses the very same fingerings, from all-closed to middle three, and by using a digital tuner or well-tuned piano the actual pitches can be written in their exact notational positions over the tablature notation. The actual sounded pitch of the flute you are using can be organized into a gridwork pattern of correctly notated A440-based pitches (concert tuning in which the A below [Ed. note: this should read “above”] middle-C is tuned to 440 cycles per second) over the basic F-line tablature …

The Key Signature

One common question from people who have a background in music theory centers around the use of four sharps for the key signature. If you're not comfortable with discussions of music theory, best to skip to the next section (and just accept that “four sharps probably means it is Nakai tablature”).

Handy Link to the Next Section, skipping over the thorny music-theory discussion …

The Western tradition of music theory tends to call a key signature with four sharps the “key of E”. However, this is actually a shorthand for the “key of E Major”.

Recall that most Native American flutes are tuned to a minor key, so we need to find the “key of F# minor”. But now, realize that there are quite a few different flavors of “minor keys”, each with their own key signature. The most commonly used minor key of Western tradition of classical music (and, by extension, most popular music), is called the “Natural Minor” (also called the Aeolean mode). However, the “key of F# natural minor” has the notes: F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E. Note that there are three sharps, and so the key of F# natural minor has three sharps.

However (based on discussions with R. Carlos Nakai and Ron Warren), it has been observed that the most common tunings of traditional Native American flutes have the notes: F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E … four sharps. Rather than Aeolean mode, this is a different mode called Dorian mode (also called “Russian minor”, and is used by popular songs such as Scarborough Fair). So, Nakai Tablature uses the “key of F# Dorian mode”, or four sharps.

Another way to look at this is to look at the typical fingerings of a Native American flute. The primary scale is 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 open closed open open open, and Finger diagram open open closed open open open, which gives us a five-note scale called the “pentatonic minor”. To find out the key signature, we need to look at the note between Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open and Finger diagram closed open closed open open open. The simplest (and often the most reliable) fingering to use is Finger diagram closed closed open open open open, which typically corresponds to D# (on an F# flute) on the traditional instruments that R. Carlos Nakai surveyed.

Other Notation Systems

While Nakai tablature is a common way to notate music, it is certainly not the only method.

I was amazed when Gary Stroutsos showed me his personal songbook in 2002. Gary has decades of experience in Western music, music theory, and jazz improvisation, yet he chose to write out his own melodies and songs in a personal style that he developed. It's hard to explain, but it consisted of a lot of numbers in circles and squiggly lines connecting them.

Here is another format used by Walt ‘Greywolf’ Gastin (19May1966–3Jun2007) to arrange Taps for the Native American flute. Finger patterns are shown in several places, and note duration is represented by the length of the line. Some less experienced players find this approach more intuitive.

I am always exploring new ways of presenting music. If this style of music transcription appeals to you, please contact me and tell me your thoughts.

Taps, arranged by Walt ‘Greywolf’ Gastin, published November 4, 2004

Taps, arranged by Walt ‘Greywolf’ Gastin, published November 4, 2004 Larger image

Joseph Madrid proposed a tablature system based on Petroglyphs ([Madrid 1999]).

And, on the lighter side, here's a famously intense page of sheet music by John Stump:

Faerie's Aire and Death Walts, by John Stump

Faerie's Aire and Death Waltz, by John Stump Larger image

Note that this was “arranged by accident”, is “Based on a Cro-magnon skinning chant”, and direct the performers in various places to “rotate embouchures”, “keep both feet together”, “oil bow here”, “coronet use ice”, “remove cattle from stage”, “begin turning flame slightly higher and higher”, “insert peanuts ”, “add bicycle”, “release the penguins”, “light explosives now … and … now” and to play “like a dirigible”.

For other interesting ways of representing music see:

  • The various forms of notation used to represent Hopi songs beginning on page 71 of [Gilman 1908] Hopi Songs.

Thanks to Richard Brooner for reviewing this page prior to publication.

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