Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Native American Flute: An Overview

The Native American Flute: An Overview by Chris Oravec

1.Tuning and sound

Native American flutes that have been reconstructed from relics from 600-650 A.D. have a 6-hole, 6-tone base as do all modern native style flutes. The ancient flute reconstructions are playable but each are slightly different in sound since the measurements presumably were based on the size of the individual's body (an arm length for the length of the flute, a finger's width for the holes, etc.). Even today, Native American traditional flutes are tuned with quite a bit of idiosyncracy. Modern N.A. "concert-style" flutes are tuned closer to Western tuning so they can be played with other Western instruments like the guitar.

It is worthwhile to note that Western even-tempered tuning is a recent invention from the Baroque era. Before that, much medieval and Renaissance music was tuned similarly to the various "modes," such as Lydian, Dorian, and Phrygian. Though not exactly modal, the traditional Native American flute intervals sound similar. It is also worthwhile to note that N.A. flutes, like individual organ pipes, are each tuned to a specific key, such as F# or Eb, but in Minor not Major. Nevertheless, the fifth (that is, five half-steps up from the tonic) in native playing as well as Western playing is the most important interval, and dropping from the fifth to the tonic brings closure to a tune.

2. Indigenous or European?

Modern and traditional N.A. flutes have 6 notes from base note to the next highest "octave" note. Thus the intervals between notes are somewhat off according to our Western octave intervals. It is possible to play the whole chromatic scale on any N.A. modern flute but most players do not unless they are playing Western music. If some player you heard was playing "Country and Western" tunes as well as native tunes he was using chromatics as well as the base 6 notes on his flute. This requires memorizing most of the fiingering that would be required for a standard concert silver flute, so it is a bit harder overall. I do not think it is accurate at this point to suggest that the native 6-hole flute with full chromatic fingering could only have been produced by contact with Western music or instruments. The capabilities are there in the flutes themselves and how they are fingered. Not all players, however, prefer to mix native and Western tunes in one performance. Usually if they do it, it's to accommodate the expectations of the audience.

3. Construction

The oldest recorded music from the flutes is from around 1900 and it reflects traditional tuning. The instruments themselves may have been changed somewhat during the 19th century to reflect Western construction techniques. Some scholars think the "block" or "bird" and the two interior chambers that make the sound could only have come from Western influence; however, there is no evidence for this, and there are flutes from the 1830s in the Smithsonian that have a fully developed two-chamber system. Many scholars believe that the Native Americans were the only indigenous culture to develop the two-chamber system, which makes their flute construction more sophisticated than any other indigenous people.

4. I've got rhythm.

Rhythm is a different matter than tuning. The earliest recordings have an insistent rhythm, very little melodic line, and a percussive quality to their playing as if hooting sharply through the flute. Later recordings (1930s) have more melodic lines, undoubtedly from Western influence. Traditional and contemporary N.A. rhythms often follow a 4/4 or a 3/4 beat which make them compatable with marches and waltzes (in fact, all kinds of dancing, which seems reasonable), Some modern music uses other Western influenced time signatures. It is important to note that although N.A. music is very rhythmic, the timing can change according to the choices of the player and particularly notes at the end of a phrase can be extended far beyond the time signature, contributing to the plaintive quality of many tunes.

5. In Conclusion. . . .

The history of the flute is still being written. For good sources of information on the subject I suggest two websites:; and Both are noncommercial sites by two well respected researchers, Robert Gatliff and Clint Goss. These two fine musicians are not responsible for any errors or misinterpretations in this overview.

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