The Native American style flute is a musical instrument of elegant simplicity. This simplicity can be viewed as one of its more attractive characteristics. Because of its simplicity this instrument is accessible to the casual player. But with simplicity come certain limitations. I would like to address some of the unique characteristics of the Native American style flute so that you better understand your instrument. I am not a musicologist or trained musician. What I will try to do is present some common sense knowledge gained from my experiences making and playing the Native American style flute.
Tuning, as we now understand it, was not an issue for the Native American Flute maker/player.
He was interested only in making sounds that felt right to him. He did not measure the tonality of the instrument by any external standard other than his own ear. It was literally a matter of anything goes as long as I like it. In the late twentieth century the Native American flute began to gain acceptance beyond the confines of the Native community. In the hands of Native and non-Native flute makers and players the Native American style flute began a period of rather rapid development – one could perhaps say transformation.
The most fundamental change that took place was to bring the NA flute into conformity with Western standards of tuning. Various makers adopted the mode one minor pentatonic scale as appropriate for the music they felt was being expressed through the flute. The resulting instrument had five tone holes and could play a five-note scale plus the first note of the second octave (six notes total). When a sixth hole was introduced it became possible to easily produce two scales on the same flute – mode one and mode four. So now you had a flute that could play two different five-note scales. Native American style flute makers also began to tune their flutes using the modern concert standard of 440 HZ for the key of A above middle C on the piano.
The next challenge that flute makers took up was to craft a flute that could play a full chromatic scale.
A chromatic scale divides the octave into twelve semi tones (notes) or half steps. There is an equal interval between each note. These five notes are the notes you can play on a flute just using open holes. In between those notes are other notes. You can think of them as hidden notes. You can see this illustrated on my website on the Playing the Flute page. You can also see this when you look at a piano keyboard. On the keyboard you have a sequence of twelve notes that repeat over and over. Five of the notes in the sequence are the black keys. Think of these five black keys as a pentatonic scale (which in fact they are). Now think of the white keys as the hidden notes between the pentatonic scale notes.
With a full chromatic (twelve note) scale at a player’s disposal it is possible to play music in diatonic (seven note) as well as pentatonic (five note) scales. You can also play in music in major as well as minor keys. The twelve notes of the chromatic scale are each a half step apart. The thirteenth note up or down the scale is the fundamental (starting note) again but one octave higher or lower than where we started. By convention the interval between one note and the next higher or lower note was divided into 100 cents.
To make playing a chromatic scale on the flute possible the flute maker must tune the flute so that the hidden notes are playable. These notes are played by cross fingering and half holing. These notes must be in tune so that there are 100 cents between each adjacent note. Remember, these are the notes in between the notes in the two available pentatonic scales. This challenge has been met with the possible exception of the two notes that lie between the fundamental and the first open holed note. Half holing (rather than cross fingering) must be used to produce these two notes. As anyone who has tried can tell you it’s not easy (or in my case possible) to sound both of these notes distinctly. So we have any almost but not quite full chromatic scale available on a modern, well tuned Native American style flute. Good enough to have a lot of fun with for sure.
The Native American style flute has another limitation. It has become standard practice for flute makers to tune their flutes at an ambient temperature of 72 degree Fahrenheit. A limitation of the Native American style flute is that once it is made its tuning cannot be adjusted. If the flute is made to be in tune at 72 degrees this means that it will be out of tune if the air temperature is higher or lower than 72. Warmer air temperatures will make the flute play sharp. Cooler temperatures will make the flute play flat. A change in temperature of 10 degrees higher or lower than 72 will make a flute play about 15 cents out of tune one way or the other.
The length of the barrel of the flute determines the tuning of the fundamental note of the flute.
A longer barrel lowers the tone. A shorter barrel raises the tone. As a matter of convenience we will say that the barrel length is measured from the splitting edge at the front of the true sound hole to the foot end of the flute. The standard metal concert flute has a telescoping slip joint on the barrel of the flute. This joint allows the musician to lengthen or shorten the overall length of the barrel. This changing barrel length allows the user to adjust the flute to compensate for differences in temperature. The Native American style flute (with certain rare exceptions) does not have this capability. It is solid wood from one end to the other with not telescoping joint.
Tone is sensitive to breath pressure.
Another factor effecting the tuning of the Native American style flute is that the tone of the flute is sensitive to the breath pressure going into the flute. When the flute maker tunes a flute at a particular breath pressure it will be in tune only when played at that pressure (and at 72 degrees). If the flute player uses a higher breath pressure the flute will play sharp (it will also be louder). If he uses less pressure as he blows into the flute the flute will play flat (and softer). How sharp or flat depends on the amount of deviation in pressure from that at which the flute was originally tuned.
Most Native American style flute makers tune their flutes using a breath pressure that is just short of a pressure that makes the tone of the flute start to sound ragged. This is usually (depending on the configuration of the flute) a rather high pressure. Beyond this pressure the purity of the note will start to break up. With more pressure the flute will jump octave.
Does it matter when you are playing if the flute is sharp or flat?
Not if you are playing solo. Remember the flute is in tune with itself. That is, the notes are in a harmonic relationship with each other. So if the flute is sharp all the notes are sharp to the same degree. If flat all the notes are equally flat. So there is no dissonance. In any case, few amateur musicians are able to detect (much less be bothered by) minor deviations from 440 HZ. So, even if the flute is playing a little sharp or flat it won’t be noticed.
The tuning of the flute becomes important when it is played ensemble with other instruments. If you are out of tune relative to your guitarist friend to the extent of 15 cents there will be a noticeable cacophony between the two instruments. A guitar can be tuned. So the guitarist can tune his instrument so that it is in tune with your flute. This solves the problem on one level. Now you are both either sharp or flat to the same degree. The two instruments are in harmony with each other.
The Native American style flute is basically a solo instrument.
Therefore, there has been little pressure from flute players for a tunable instrument. When the flute is played ensemble with other instruments the flute is usually the lead instrument and the other musicians tune to the flute.
There are two ways of making a Native American style flute that can be tuned. I have already mentioned the first – a telescoping barrel. The second method is to make a flute with an adjustable splitting edge. An adjustable or movable splitting edge is one that can be adjusted forward or backward along the length of the flute. This makes the barrel of the flute (the distance from the end of the flute to the splitting edge) longer or shorter.