Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

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Native American Flute Tunings

Thanks to the inventiveness of the large community of flute makers, there are many styles of Native American flutes. On major variation among these styles is the tuning - the primary scale that is played when you lift your fingers. This page describes the predominant tunings that you'll find on Native American flutes.

References for Scales

I generally use the Scala software as a general reference for the scale steps in a particular scale ([Coul 2010] Scala). 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!)

Minor Pentatonic, Six-hole, Mode 1/4

This is the predominant tuning for flutes that have been made for the last several decades. It gives easy access to several pentatonic scales. If you add cross-fingerings, you can also get many other scales.

The primary fingering sequence on a minor pentatonic, six-hole, mode 1/4 flute 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  Finger diagram open open closed open open open 

Minor Pentatonic, Six-hole, Mode 1/4
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings give you the pentatonic minor scale with scale steps of 3-2-2-3-2. Here's a sample of this scale an E minor Native American flute:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting. Flute used on this audio stream

These flutes can often play many other notes to produce different scales. See the complete Native American flute fingering chart for these flutes.

Minor Pentatonic, Five-hole, Mode 1

This is the predominant tuning for five-hole Native American flutes. It is easy to play the pentatonic minor scale, and other scales are accessible with cross-fingerings.

The primary fingering sequence on a minor pentatonic, five-hole, mode 1 flute is:

 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 

Minor Pentatonic, Five-hole, Mode 1
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings give you the pentatonic minor scale with scale steps of 3-2-2-3-2.

These flutes can often play many other notes to produce different scales. See the complete Native American flute fingering chart for these flutes.

Diatonic Major, Six-hole

This is the predominant tuning for many styles of keyless world flutes such as the pennywhistle and the bansuri. Some makers craft Native American flutes with this tuning, typically called “diatonic flutes”. It is easy to play the major scale, and some other scales are accessible with cross-fingerings.

The primary fingering sequence on a diatonic major, six-hole flute 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 closed open open open open  Finger diagram closed open open open open open   Finger diagram open open open open open open  Finger diagram second octave open closed closed closed closed closed 

Diatonic Major, Six-hole
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings give you the diatonic major scale with scale steps of 2-2-1-2-2-2-1. Notice that the last note is overblown and played in the second register.

These flutes can often play many other notes to produce different scales. See the complete Native American flute fingering chart for these flutes.

Maqam Rast / Arabic Diatonic, Six-hole

And now we have a very unusual tuning. This is an Arabic tuning that uses quarter-tones.

If you explore the notes in this tuning on the Basic NAF Design Tool, you'll notice that some of the notes have quarter-tone sharps and flats. For example, a CQuarter sharp (“C quarter sharp”) is a pitch half way between C and C#. EQuarter flat (“E quarter flat”) is a pitch half way between Eb and E. Note that, since there is no semitone between an E and an F, both EQuarter sharp and FQuarter flat are half way between E and F. Likewise, BQuarter sharp and CQuarter flat are half way between B and C.

This tuning, commonly called the “Arabic diatonic”, uses two quarter-tones – half way between the major and the minor third and half way between the major and minor seventh. Using a diatonic flute with the same primary fingering sequence as the regular diatonic major, six-hole flute shown above:

 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 closed open open open open  Finger diagram closed open open open open open   Finger diagram open open open open open open  Finger diagram second octave open closed closed closed closed closed 

Maqam Rast / Arabic Diatonic, Six-hole
Primary fingering sequence

... gives you scale steps of 2-1½-1½-2-2-1½-1½. Notice that the last note is overblown and played in the second register.

I have not yet seen any Native American flutes made with this tuning, but there are many Egyptian flutes made in this style. I'm posting this tuning here in the hopes that flute makers begin exploring the interesting world of maqamat (plural of "maqam") and the Arabic quarter-tone scales.

Major Pentatonic, Six-hole, Mode 2/5

This is rare but very interesting tuning for Native American flutes. The “Mode Two-Five” is really a variation of the mode 1/4 flutes, slid up one note. It gives easy access to several pentatonic scales as well as the diatonic major scale, if you add cross-fingerings.

The primary fingering sequence on a major pentatonic, six-hole, mode 2/5 flute is:

 Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed  Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open  Finger diagram closed closed closed open closed open   Finger diagram closed closed open closed open open  Finger diagram closed open open closed open open  Finger diagram open open open closed open open 

Major Pentatonic, Six-hole, Mode 2/5
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings give you the pentatonic major scale with scale steps of 2-3-2-2-3. If you add two additional fingerings, you get the full diatonic major scale:

 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 closed open   Finger diagram closed closed open closed open open  Finger diagram closed open open closed open open   Finger diagram open closed open closed open open   Finger diagram open open open closed open open 

Major Pentatonic, Six-hole, Mode 2/5
Extended fingering sequence

These fingerings give you the pentatonic major scale with scale steps of 2-2-1-2-2-2-1.

Spanish Gypsy, Six-hole

This is another rare tuning. The primary fingering sequence plays the Spanish Gypsy scale that evokes Middle Eastern melodies. The primary fingering sequence on these flute 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 closed open open open open  Finger diagram closed open open open open open   Finger diagram open open open open open open  Finger diagram second octave open closed closed closed closed closed 

Spanish Gypsy, Six-hole
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings give you the Spanish Gypsy scale with scale steps of 1-3-1-2-1-2-2. The last note is overblown and played in the second register.

Note that it is also possible to play this scale on the more common pentatonic minor, six-hole, mode 1/4 flutes - see the Spanish Gypsy Scale page.

Minor Pentatonic Extended, Six-hole, Mode 1

This is another rare but versitile tuning for Native American flutes. I have one flute, the Swiss-made Forest Flute, that uses this tuning. This six-hole tuning uses the same design as the Minor Pentatonic, Five-hole described above, but adds a sixth finger hole at the top. This gives the flute extended range without going into the upper register. To help players reach the finger holes, the top hole is usually placed on the back of the flute as a thumb hole. The diagrams below show this top hole as a thumb hole.

The primary fingering sequence on this flute is:

 Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed  Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open  Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed open open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed open open open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed open open open open open  Thumb plus five hole finger diagram open open open open open open  Thumb plus five hole finger diagram open closed closed closed closed open 

Minor Pentatonic Extended, Six-hole, Mode 1
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings give you the pentatonic minor scale with scale steps of 3-2-2-3-2, and then add on two more notes above the top octave note.

If you add additional cross-fingerings, you get a chromatic scale for most of the range of the instrument:

 Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed  Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed open closed   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed open closed closed   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed closed open open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed open closed closed open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed open closed open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed closed open open open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed open open closed open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram closed open open open open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram open closed open open open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram open open open open open open   Thumb plus five hole finger diagram open closed closed closed closed open 

Minor Pentatonic Extended, Six-hole, Mode 1
Extended fingering sequence

For more information on the fingerings on this style of flute, see Forest Flute Fingerings.

Anasazi-Tuned, Six-hole

This is the predominant tuning for present-day replicas made in the style of the Anasazi flute artifacts that have been excavated. It is an interesting scale that seems to suit the instrument well. Some other scales are accessible with cross-fingerings. The primary fingering sequence on these flutes is:

 Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed  Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open  Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open  Finger diagram closed closed open open open open  Finger diagram closed open open open open open   Finger diagram open open open open open open  Finger diagram second octave open closed closed closed closed closed 

Diatonic Major, Six-hole
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings give you a scale with scale steps of 2-2-3-2-2-1, which matches a diatonic major scale without the perfect fourth.

Notice that I've left the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open note out of the scale, which most people consider dissonant with the rest of the scale. However, if you include this note and explore some of the other cross-fingerings, you can get some very interesting scales. See Anasazi Style Flutes for more information on these flutes.

Mojave-Tuned, Four-hole

To complete this survey of tunings, we have two tunings of four-hole flutes that are used on present-day replicas made in the style of traditional rim-blown instruments. The primary fingering sequence on Mojave-tuned, four-hole flutes is:

 Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed  Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open  Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed open open  Mojave four hole finger diagram closed open open open  Mojave four hole finger diagram open open open open   Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed 

Mojave-tuned, Four-hole
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings typically give you a scale with scale steps of 2-1-2-2-5. See Mojave Style Flutes for more information on these flutes.

Papago-Tuned, Four-hole

This four-hole tuning is common on present-day replicas made in the style of traditional Papago instruments. The primary fingering sequence on Papago-tuned, four-hole flutes is:

 Papago four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed  Papago four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open  Papago four hole finger diagram closed closed open open  Papago four hole finger diagram closed open open open  Papago four hole finger diagram open open open open   Papago four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed 

Papago-tuned, Four-hole
Primary fingering sequence

These fingerings typically give you a scale with scale steps of 3-2-2-1-4. See Papago Style Flutes for more information on these flutes.

 

 

 
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