WALK, DON'T RUN: It was quite a few years ago when I bought my first Native American flute. I'd love to brag to you that beautiful music came dripping out of the flute barrel as soon as I put my first breath of air into it. The reality is that it took a good while before those funky blues bubbled their way to the surface. Before we can run, regardless of how enthusiastic we might be, we have to first learn to walk. So let's begin our discussion of the mysterious sounds of the flute at its root--the Pentatonic scale.
THE PENTATONIC SCALE: The Pentatonic scale has only five notes. We can add the octave note to this scale, a higher or lower note that sounds pretty much like the lowest note in any scale, (but the pitch must be higher or lower), which would then give us a scale of six notes. (We sometimes include the octave note in this scale because it greatly increases the melodic possibilities of a tune.) But the pure form of this particular scale has just five notes, the prefix penta meaning "5".
Click to hear the Pentatonic scale plus the octave note.
This scale is available in the Native American flute method book, Earth Flute PENTATONIC SCALE ILLUSTRATION: Notice the images in the right hand column. The top image shows the fingering configurations to play the Pentatonic scale on any 6-hole flute. The image below shows the notes in the key of C on any keyboard. (The red diamond indicates the added octave note.) To match the notes on the keyboard would require us to play a flute built to the key of C. But if we disregard the actual pitches of the notes and only consider the note intervals, in general, we can transpose this scale to any flute key by simply using the fingering in the top illustration. (A future post will talk about the advantages of tablature notation in this regard.)
A VERY ANCIENT SCALE: The Pentatonic scale is many thousands of years old and can be found in just about every culture. That, in itself, is interesting. How can it be that this scale, most certainly developed independently within a culture, has appeared in essentially ALL cultures? Good question, but one easily answered. It's because the Pentatonic scale has an extremely interesting feature: there are no dissonant intervals between any pitches. What does this mean? It means that you can play just about any note at any point in the music in this scale and it will still sound good. Any note you might play within this scale sounds like it belongs to whatever tune you are playing or composing. For this reason, even beginning musicians can sound quite good on this instrument much more quickly than one might realize.
SOUNDING GOOD: Does this mean early players of the flute consciously designed this scale to sound good at any interval, (an interval meaning any two notes that sound like they belong together)? No. It simply means that those with an intuitive sense of how music should sound simply found those notes that related well to one another and then used this bunch of notes over and over again. We eventually came to call these specific bunches of notes a "scale". Once they realized where these notes were, they continued to use those same fingering patterns, and eventually the scale became standardized. It would be many years before other scales would be developed, scales that would accommodate more complex tune structures.
PLAYING TUNES IN THE PENTATONIC SCALE: People are often amazed that such complex sounding music can come from this simple scale. But the scale is rich and runs deep. You can spend a lifetime playing in this one scale, alone. I have included two examples for you to listen to so you get an idea of how flexible and powerful this scale is.
Click to hear Prayer for the Dead
Click to hear Warrior's Prayer
Both of these tunes are available in the Native American flute method book, Earth Flute
PLAY ANY SCALE ON THE FLUTE: By the way, we are not limited to just the Pentatonic scale on the Native American flute. There are many scales available on this wonderful instrument, and that means we can play any type of music on it. From pop to classical, from folk to the blues, and from meditative to music of other cultures to music for our toddlers, this instrument will play them all, provided you know where the notes are. :-) But we always begin our studies on the NA flute with the Pentatonic scale because this scale is "native" to the Native American flute. Think of a particular scale as if it were a particular set of blocks, with each block being a different color or shape or both. Each block is a note within this scale, and we can arrange these blocks in different ways to build a tune. We don't use a different set of blocks every time we write or play a new tune. Instead, we use the same blocks over and over, but in different arrangements, much like using the letters of the alphabet in different combinations to make an almost infinite number of words and thoughts.
ROCK 'n ROLL: Enter the rock guitarist.... Have you ever wondered how that neighbor kid managed to start a band in his/her garage and became a red hot lead guitarist, seemingly overnight? It might be an exaggeration to say this kind of skill comes to a budding musician "overnight", but you can learn lead guitar licks pretty fast if you play just those notes in the Pentatonic scale. This isn't cheating. It's simply playing the blues (basic rock is raw blues) within the Pentatonic scale. Of course, there's much more to it than that. You still have to play imaginatively within this scale. Nevertheless, whether you are beginning to learn the rock guitar or the Native American flute, the Pentatonic scle is a great starting point. Those who take up the Native American flute start their explorations in just this way. And if that flute musician wants to eventually step onto the rock stage, a good flute mic and amp will allow him/her to do exactly that. N. Carlos Nakai, the Native American flute musician widely credited with bringing the NA flute to us in its present, popular form, also plays his flute on the concert stage, playing both classical music and jazz, stretching the flute to its absolute limits.
FINGERING THE PENTATONIC SCALE: There is a specific fingering that gives us the Pentatonic scale on the 6-hole flute. (Study the previously discussed side bar illustrations.) You will probably notice right away that this scale won't allow you to play pop tunes. That's because most popular tunes are played in a "major" scale, and a major scale has more notes than the Pentatonic scale. It also has different sounding note intervals. The Pentatonic scale is a type of "minor" scale, ("minor" doesn't mean less important), and this type of sound isn't used much in pop tunes. Even so, the Pentatonic scale doesn't limit us. Tunes played with this scale have their own kind of sound. The notes in this scale lend themselves well to sorrowful or meditative tunes. In fact, there is no better scale for this purpose. Few people even know what this scale is called. But that doesn't matter. You don't have to have any formal music knowledge to use this scale. Once you learn the correct fingering for the scale, you will have all the information you'll need to play some beautiful music.
SPECIFIC TUNES TO PLAY: If you want a ton of tunes to play, along with lots of instruction and tutorials, check out my Native American flute method book, Earth Flute. There are lots of tunes in the book that use the Pentatonic scale, including traditional Native American flute tunes, the blues, tunes for meditation, tunes for your kids, tunes from other cultures, classical tunes, etc.. To see all the features of this book as well as a full index, go here--
Click for the Earth Flute page and scroll down to "What's In the Book?"