Whales and Native American Flutes

WHALE-FLUTESVery recently someone asked me if you could play a major scale on a Native American flute. I assured him that not only could you easily do this, you could play a number of both major and minor scales on the NAF, much like the whale seems to be able to play its own infinite song. This opens up the possibility to play just about any melody you’ve ever heard or any melody you might want to compose on the NAF. To be clear, my experience is with the 6-hole NAF, not the 5-hole NAF. I have nothing against the 5-hole flute, but there is at least one, and in some cases, depending on its construction, two notes missing from the chromatic scale, (the piano’s black key notes as well as white key notes) on the 5-hole flute. The 5-hole flute is wonderful for playing traditional Native American flute music, because all the notes needed for traditional music are there. But the 6-hole flute opens it up to every other music genre as well, not just to traditional music. I’m a die hard musician so all my work has been and will continue to be on the 6-hole flute. I want the total tonal range of the NAF. If you want the full spectrum of sound from the NAF, go for the 6-hole flute. These flutes are as readily available as the 5-hole flute.

We identify the NAF with that mysterious sound played in the “pentatonic” scale. This is not a major scale. It’s the simplest type of minor scale. This scale, as described in a previous blog article, has just five notes. It can effectively be extended by adding the octave note plus two more notes above the octave note. The Native American flute purist might gasp at these three extra notes. That’s okay. But if you think that maybe these three extra notes might give this instrument more potential than you thought, you would be right. First let’s address the “purist” approach. The purist wants only traditional music from the NAF. The purist has a perfect right to consider the flute in just this way. But now let’s consider the guitar lover. If we were to take the stance of the guitar purist, we would probably want only Flamenco music to come from the guitar. But look at how the guitar has grown. Would we want to give up the blues, or country, or jazz, or rock, or classical music, all readily playable on the guitar? Of course not. We pick up the guitar and play every kind of music imaginable on it. The same goes for the NAF. If we could find a fingering for a major scale on the NAF, we would be able to play much more on this instrument than just traditional music. R. Carlos Nakai, arguably the man who brought the NAF back to us, (or to us in modern times), is of Navajo/Ute heritage. He plays a lot in the pentatonic scale, and much of what he plays is traditional music of the Native American. But his experiments with the flute and the music it can make is legendary. I own several of his jazz quartet albums. And his collaboration with Paul Horn, famous jazz flutist, is one of the best albums he’s ever made. This music is most definitely not the music of the flute purist. Nor is the music of Native American flute artist Robert Tree Cody. He experiments in both major and minor scales. Regardless of Nakai’s and Cody’s Native American heritages, they respect and recognize the instrument as a rainbow of many colors, and they believe it is worthy of experimentation and development. So do I.

Unknown to those new to the music of the Native American flute, many traditional NAF tunes are played in a major scale. Yeah! Who’d-a thunk it? Old traditional players of this flute were experimenting right along. We just didn’t hear it because we were always listening for something exotic rather than what those old musicians were really playing all along. I’ve made an audio demonstration where in several major scales I play a familiar tune on just one flute. If you’d like to hear it, click MAJOR SCALE DEMONSTRATION. This demonstration is one of 60 FREE MP3s that are included with my newly released book, EarthFlute. I began writing many versions of this book many years ago, selling them as PDF ebooks. Eventually I combined all the genres and playing techniques into one book, and I put the resulting book into print. If you are interested in exploring all of the different aspects of the Native American flute, you might be interested in this book. Of course, no background in music is required to learn the book’s contents.

The simplest of instruments can surprise us, if only we had a little bit of knowledge. Even the whale can surprise us. 🙂

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