Three Native American flute modes

A look at three of the different
modes, or scales, that can be played on the NAF

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Native Amercian Flute Scales and modes Part 1
by Scott August


During my travels, workshops and performances I'm asked many times by Native American flute players and audience members about the scale of the Native American flute. Surprisingly, even among long time players and makers, there seems to be some confusion about the scale and the other modes that can be played on a NAF. Many people don't know what the scale is and it is often mislabeled as a "native "scale which, in it's most common form today, it is not.

History tells us that at one time the scales of the Native American flute varied greatly and that there was no standardized scale system. Today however, the NAF is most commonly tuned to the minor pentatonic scale, a western scale which like most, if not all, "western" scales can trace it's roots back to ancient Greece.

But what makes a scale minor pentatonic? Or major pentatonic? Or major, the most common western scale? Is a scale the same as a key, and if not, how do they differ? To understand the the scale of the Native American flute it's best to understand how scales are constructed. Not only will this give the player and maker a better understanding of the Native American flute, it will make them better musicians. For behind knowing about scales lies the secrets to what musical keys are all about, which different keyed flutes sound good together, what different modes sound good together and what is meant by terms such as Diatonic, Pentatonic, Major, Minor and Mode. These terms come up with increasing frequency during flute circles, online disscusion groups and between individual players and makers.

In this series of post we're going to try to answer these questions in a way that is simple for a non-musician to understand. Be warned however that this can not be done without getting into some theory. You will discover however that you already know much of this information intuitively. Personally I have always found theory to be fun. It's like a puzzle. You start by working with a couple of pieces, then with whole sections and soon you have a complete image.

Don't forget, it's just music. It's not brain surgery...

SCALES AND MODES: WHAT ARE THEY AND HOW DO THEY WORK?
The most common scale on the Native American flute is the minor pentatonic. However with a little change of fingering other scales can be played. Since these scales will all relate to each other as they have some common notes they can be considered as "sub-scales" of a main, or parent scale. These sub-scales are better know as modes. Modes have been around for hundreds of years. The two most common modes are the Ionian, better known as the Major scale and the Aeolian better known as the Minor scale. As you can see the words scale and mode tend to be used to mean the same thing even though they're not the same. They are related however. We're not going to go into that here (if you want to get deep into this spend some time doing a Google search or poke around Wikipedia, there's lots of information out there.) but for the purposes of making this easier to understand let's try to simplify this down to the basics.

THE MAJOR SCALE
To make this as simple as possible let's pretend there is only one type of scale, the major scale. On a piano the easiest way to play a major scale is to play all the white notes from one C note up to the next C.

Major-Scale.jpg

This is known as the C major scale. If you have a piano handy trying playing this.

The bottom note, in this example "C" is the root of the scale. The root has a specific function both melodically and harmonically. The major diatonic scale is also known as the Ionian mode.

WHAT MAKES A MAJOR SCALE MAJOR?
Major diatonic scales are made up of seven pitches, plus the octave which can is sometimes referred to as pitch 8. These pitches are laid out in a sequence of whole and half steps. A half step is the distance between any two adjacent notes. On a piano the most common half steps are found between any white key and black key that are next to each other. A whole step is made up of any two notes that have one note in between them.

Half-and-Whole.jpg

Here are some Half and Whole steps. The half steps are shown in blue, the whole steps in red. Note how there is a note between each red pair, including the two at the far right

TIP The Native American flute's basic scale does not have any half steps!

The pitches that make up the sequence of a scale are numbered These numbers help identify each pitch in sequence and give them their intervalic name. (An interval is the distance between two notes. When used to describe a scale one of the notes is always the root or note 1.)

Here is an example of a major diatonic scale based on the note C

Pno-Fat-1-Keys-numbered-sma.jpg

Major scales are made up of a couple factors. Which note they start on and what the sequence of whole and half steps is. Most important is where the half steps occur. The half steps in a major scale occur between notes 3 & 4 and 7 & 8. The others are whole steps. These half steps, as they are found in a C major scales are shown below in blue.

half-steps.jpg

Again a half step is the distance between two adjacent notes. On a piano there are two adjacent white keys that are half steps: E to F and B to C. Luckily for us they also happen to be the two half steps in the C major scale or 3 & 4 and 7 & 8 ! All other white keys are a whole step apart as they have a black note between them. This is also true of all adjacent black keys. In fact there are no half steps between any of the black keys on a piano, something that will come in handy when we look at pentatonic scales.

So a major diatonic scale is made up of a series of whole and half steps starting above it's root note. This could be shown as W-W-H-W-W-W-H or

Notes

Type of step

1 - 2
2 - 3
3 - 4
4 - 5
5 - 6
6 - 7
7 - 8

Whole
Whole
Half
Whole
Whole
Whole
Half

Let's look at this again but this time starting the scale on the key of D.

Pno-Fat-1-Keys-#d-D.jpg

Everything gets moved up by a whole step (C and D are a whole step part) and then proceeds as we would expect. But wait, this version of the scale is playing two black keys. Why is that? The answer lies in the sequence of whole and half steps needed to make a major diatonic scale. The note F is raised to F# as the distance between notes 2 - 3 needs to be a whole step. E to F is only a half step so the F needs to be raised to F#. Once raised the half step between 3 - 4 falls into place. The same is true for C (note 7) which has been raised to C#.

Since the above example has the correct sequence of whole and half steps for a major diatonic scale and starts on D it is a D major diatonic scale, or just D major. A scale that had the same sequence of whole and half steps but started on G would be a G major scale and so on...

In the next section we're going to look at the modes and just like with the major scale we'll find the sequence of whole and half steps plays a defining role.

READ THE NEXT SECTION

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
How to Buy a NAF, part 1
How to Buy a NAF, part 2
How to care for your NAF
Playing your first NAF scale
Strengthening your Fingers
Playing from the Heart Part-1
Playing from the Heart Part-2
NEW Recording your NAF, basic, easy Home Studio set up
NEW Starting your Own Music Label part 1

You can find an index of all the articles including maker and flute profiles HERE

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You can also find a list of makers who's flutes I play on my web site.

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE
NAF History and Construction

© 2008 Cedar Mesa Music. All rights reserved.
This article and all images and sound files are the property of Cedar Mesa Music.

Please support these articles with your purchases
Native American flute music by Scott August
Sacred Dreams
Native American flute music by Scott August
Ancient Light
Lost Canyons
Lost Canyons
DISTANT SPIRITS
SACRED DREAMS
NEW FIRE
ANCIENT LIGHT
LOST CANYONS
RADIANT SKY
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Kokopelli's Flute: The Complete Guide to the Anasazi Flute

KOKOPELII'S FLUTE: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE ANASAZI FLUTE
Until now finding information about how to play the Anasazi flute has proven to be almost as difficult as learning to play one. Very little information exists. Virtuoso Anasazi flute performer Scott August guides you through all the aspects of mastering this marvelous instrument and giving you a head start to begin playing like a pro! Learn how to produce your first sounds, discover its many scales, and explore techniques to quickly improve your playing while learning the fascinating history of this captivating instrument and its first virtuoso, Kokopelli.

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© 2008 Cedar Mesa Music. All rights reserved.


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