Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

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Flutopedia Symposium

Keys of Flutes

Most musical instruments made today are available in only one or a few keys. The key of an instrument is related to the fundamental note that the instrument plays and also the primary scale for that instrument.

For example, most present-day clarinets are "in the key of Bb" - they are called "Bb soprano clarinets". Most makers of clarinets construct them using a common general design. The same fingerings, at least the common core fingerings, sound the same notes on all Bb soprano clarinets.

There are also Bb bass clarinets … still in the key of Bb but their range is roughly an octave lower than Bb soprano clarinets. Even though soprano and bass clarinets are both in the key of Bb, they are very different instruments because they play in different registers. The register refers to the range of notes played on the instrument.

In contrast, makers of Native American flutes do not construct their instruments to a common general design. They produce instruments to their own design and typically make Native American flutes in many keys. The fingerings to produce the same notes can vary widely between Native American flutes of different makers, and even among Native American flutes from the same maker. This arrangment works well for the Native American flute, because it is historically a personal instrument for both the maker and the player. There was no “gold standard” for the instrument.

So you will find Native American flutes in all keys and in as many registers as practical (considering acoustics and finger reach).

Major versus Minor

Question: What's the difference between an "F# Native American flute" and an "F# Minor Native American flute"?

Answer: Probably nothing (except, of course, that there are differences between any two Native American flutes, but we're talking about the "F#" versus "F# Minor" in the title).

Virtually all Native American flutes made today are designed to play a pentatonic minor scale as their primary scale, starting from their Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed fundamental note. If that Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed fingering plays an F#, then it's a "NAF in the key of F# minor", whether or not "minor" is mentioned in the title.

So is a "Bb soprano clarinet" in the key of Bb minor?

No.

In the same way that "minor" is assumed for contremporary Native American flutes, "major" is assumed for just about all other instruments you're likely to encounter, with the exception of some world instruments.

Finding the Key of a Native American flute

To find out what key a Native American flute is in, play the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed fundamental note. If you have a electronic tuner handy, it will probably be able to read out what note is being played. Otherwise, try to match up that note against a keyboard, a guitar (one that has been recently tuned), or listen to the sound samples on the Keys page.

Once you find the fundamental note, you need to determine whether it is in minor or major. Most Native American flutes are in minor keys, but a few are in major. If you know the melody from “Doe a deer, a fe-male deer” from Rogers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, then try this:

1. Play the notes: 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 closed closed closed Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open. If it sounds like the “Doe a deer …” melody, the flute is in a major key.

2. If step 1 did not sould like the “Doe a deer …” melody, then the flute is probably in a minor key. But, just to make sure, try playing these notes: 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 closed closed closed open Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open. If this second sequnce sounds like the “Doe a deer …” melody, then the flute in in a minor key.

3. If both step 1 and step 2 failed, then you've got a truly unusual flute!

Here's the sound of three flutes playing the sequence from step #1 above. First a contemporary Native American flute:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

… nice, but not the melody from the movie. Now here's a Native American flute tuned to the diatonic scale (played on a bamboo diatonic Native American flute in F by Zacciah Blackburn of Sunreed Instruments):

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

That's the right melody! Finally, here's a version on a flute that is tuned like an Anazazi flute (even though I'm playing on the bottom three notes of a minor bansuri by Romy Benton):

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

Finding the Register of the Flute

Instruments like the saxophone that have a few specific keys and registers almost always carry an indicator in their title: baritone sax, tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, etcetera. But there is no consistent, accepted way to name the register that a Native American flute plays in. I am using some names in this section for ranges of flutes, but these are my own designations, aligned as best I can with current common usage.

You can usually eyeball the size of the flute and figure out what register it's in. We'll talk about the register of a Native American flute in terms of its Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed fundamental note. We'll also talk about the length of the sound chamber of the flute, measured from the approximate center of the sound hole to the direction holes (if the flute has them) or the foot end of the flute:

Measurement of the acoustic length of the sound chamber

Measurement of the acoustic length of the sound chamber Larger image

The majority of Native American flutes are mid-range flutes. Mid-range Native American flutes have a fundamental note that ranges from C4 up to B4. Their sound chamber length is roughly between 11" and 22" (28 cm and 56 cm). The pentatonic minor scale played on a Mid C minor Native American flute made by Randy Stenzel (the lowest key mid-range flute) and a Mid B minor Native American flute made by Barry Higgins (the highest mid-range flute) sounds like this:

... and here are some pictures of my fingers on these instruments, to give you an idea what issues are involved in finger reach (or "finger cram" on the higher flutes). In all these pictures, I am placing my fingers next to the finger holes so that you can see how the finger holes are laid out and how my fingers fit over the holes.

Moving up an octave, high-range Native American flutes have a fundamental note that ranges from C5 up to B5. Their sound chamber length is between roughly 5½" and 11" (14 cm and 28 cm). The pentatonic minor scale played on a High C minor Native American flute made by Michael Graham Allen (the lowest high-range Native American flute) and a High A minor Native American flute made by Tony Richards (almost the highest high-range Native American flute) sounds like this:

Moving down an octave from mid-range Native American flutes, low-range Native American flutes have a fundamental note that ranges from C3 up to B3. Their sound chamber length is between roughly 22" and 44 " (56 cm and 112 cm). The next audio sample has the pentatonic minor scale played on a Low E Native American flute made by Bill Hughes (the lowest low-range Native American flute in my collection, still three semitones above the lowest flute in this range. I have) and a Low B minor Native American flute made by Barry Higgins of White Crow Flutes. The low E minor Native American flute is the lowest low-range Native American flute in my collection, and it is still three semitones above the lowest flute that I call the "low-range".

In these pictures, the finger layout on the Bill Hughes Low E minor Native American flute is radically different than a standard Native American flute layout. This is done to allow the player reach the finger holes:

The Bill Hughes Low E Minor Native American flute is actually a five-hole flute with a finger layout of T14-13. Although this next flute is not a Native American flute but a transverse bansuri, it is tuned to an even lower minor key, a low-range Eb minor flute by Romy Benton:

This flute is four-hole flute with a finger layout of T2-T2. It's a pretty unusual flute! The first five notes of the pentatonic minor scale are played straight-fingered in the lower register and the octave note is played in the upper register: Uneven four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed Uneven four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open Uneven four hole finger diagram closed closed open open Uneven four hole finger diagram closed open open open Uneven four hole finger diagram open open open open Uneven four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed.

As you can hear, we're pushing the range of the instrument. You can also see that we're hitting the limit of finger stretch and finger cram at the low and high ends.

Beyond the low-range, mid-range, and high-range registers, things get really dicey - more of curiosities or challenges for instrument makers rather than workable instruments.

Here is a Native American flute made by silversmith Allan Williams that plays five pentatonic minor notes in the range E7 to D8. The sound chamber length is about 1 15/16" (4.9 cm). This sound sample was recorded by Allan:

 

 

 
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