Pentatonic Scales on the Native American Flute
by Steve Beyer

     Root Tones and Octaves
     Notation for describing Native American flute tones
     Criteria for Pentatonic Scales
     Modes (including Minor and Major)
     Tonal Centers
     Peculiarities of the Native American flute
     Pentatonic Scales from Six-hole Flutes

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     In this issue of the Flute Forum, Steve Beyer discusses the pentatonic scales common to some Native American flutes. Steve discusses what constitutes a pentatonic scale, minor and major modes, and producing pentatonic scales on a six-hole flute. The article is somewhat technical, but shouldn't be difficult to follow for those familiar with the Native American flute.

Pentatonic Scales on the Native American Flute

     Why do we care about scales? A scale is really, after all, just an abstraction -- a sequential arrangement of the tones that are used in a melody. But a scale can also function as a stable framework within which to compose or improvise. Knowing about scales can help a player know what rules to break and when to break them. And scales are interesting; they are the basic calculus of melody. The following are a few thoughts on pentatonic or five-tone scales on the Native American flute.
     We will call the lowest tone on the flute the "root tone". If we overblow in that finger position and listen to the result, the tone we hear is the octave of the root tone. Now we can find the finger position in the upper register of the flute that produces a tone that is the same as -- or as close as possible to -- the octave of the root. This may not be easy, because some Native American flutes do not produce true octaves of the root in the upper register; but we can come as close as possible. The tonal range from the root to its octave is called, not surprisingly, an octave.
     Think of this octave range as divided into twelve tones, with the thirteenth tone being the octave of the root. The octave range is not evenly divided into these twelve tones; in fact, the intervals between adjacent tones may well vary from flute to flute, especially those made in the traditional way, and from tone to tone on the same flute. However, we will call the interval between two adjacent tones a half-step, disregarding the fact that different half-steps may be slightly different sizes.
     Since many flutes have a range of more than an octave, a flute may be able to play several of these tones an octave apart. We will use the expressions R 2 3 4 . . . 12 R' 2' 3' . . . to indicate the tones potentially playable on the flute, where R stands for the root tone and the prime sign indicates a tone in the upper register. Since traditional flutes were not tuned to a standard pitch, this notation saves us from trying to apply Western European art music terminology to traditional instruments.
     A flute may be able to produce tones in its upper register that it cannot produce in its lower register. Generally, because of the way they are made, Native American flutes cannot produce tones 2 and 3 in the lower register, but may be able to produce them in the upper register. For example, one of my flutes can play the following tones:
          R 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 R' 2' 3' 4' 5'
     A scale is a selection of tones among those from R to 12 (and their octaves from R' to the limits of the upper range of the flute). But a musical scale is not just any random collection of notes; a musical scale is generally smooth and even, without sudden gaps which sound as if a note has been left out, or clusters of notes which sound as if an extra note has been added; for example, the tones 4 5 9 10 11 4' would probably not be a very successful scale.
     By the way, note the convention of giving both the first tone and its octave when setting out the tones of a scale. This convention lets us more easily see the relationships among all the tones.
     For a scale to be a pentatonic scale, it must fulfill the following criteria:
     * the scale must consist of five tones between R and 12 and their octaves;
     * there must be at least two half-steps and no more than three half-steps between adjacent tones of the scale, which means, given twelve half-steps in an octave, that the scale will have two tones separated by three half-steps and three tones separated by two half-steps; and
     * the two intervals of three half-steps cannot be adjacent to each other.
     Notice how these criteria force the scale to be musical in the sense used above. The tones 4 5 9 10 11 4', with an interval pattern of 1-4-1-1-5, cannot make up a pentatonic scale, even though there are five tones; but R 4 6 8 11 R', with an interval pattern of 3-2-2-3-2, is a perfectly good pentatonic scale -- in fact, the minor pentatonic scale, as we will see.
     Pentatonic scales are the most widely used musical scales in the world. They are found in China, Tibet, Mongolia, Oceania, India, Russia, and Africa, in the folk songs and hymns of Europe and the United States, and among Native Americans. As David Reck says, "If the world has a scale, this is it."
     A pattern of intervals is often called a mode. Now it should be clear that there are five, and only five, patterns of half-step intervals or modes that fit the three criteria for pentatonic scales; two of these patterns have been sufficiently important in Western European art music to have been given special names:

     Intervals Name
Mode 1 or Minor Mode
Mode 2 or Major Mode
Mode 3
Mode 4
Mode 5

     Every pentatonic scale must be in one or other of these five modes. Note that the assignment of numbers to these modes is arbitrary. In fact, most books on music theory -- that is, the theory underlying Western European art music -- discuss only the first two modes and ignore the rest.
     In addition, every scale has what we will call a tonal center -- the most significant tone, the tone upon which melodies using the scale resolve, the center of gravity for all the other tones. On a Native American flute, the tonal center may or may not be the root tone. A scale is often said to be in the key of its tonal center; if the tonal center is the tone x, the scale is said to be in the key of x. Modes are conventionally written out so that the tonal center is their first note.
     For example, let's take 3-2-2-3-2, the half-step interval pattern of the pentatonic minor mode. If we take R as the tonal center, the tones making up the R minor pentatonic scale are R 4 6 8 11 R'. To translate this into conventional Western European art music talk, if the root tone on your flute is A, you are playing the A minor pentatonic scale of A C D E G A'.
     Now let's take the same mode but a different tonal center -- this time, say, 6. The tones making up the 6 minor pentatonic scale are 6 9 11 R' 4'. Again, to translate this into conventional Western European art music talk, if the root tone on your flute is A, you are playing the D minor pentatonic scale of D F G A' C'.
     But since tones an octave apart are considered to be the same tone, on your flute all of the tones R 4 6 9 11 R' 4' are part of the 6 minor pentatonic scale, as long as you maintain 6 as the tonal center. What happens if you make, say, R the tonal center? You are then playing pentatonic mode 4 in the key of R. Why? Because the tones R 4 6 9 11 R' have the half-step interval pattern 3-2-3-2-2 -- the mode 4 interval pattern. Try it. Maintain the same sequence of fingerings, but play tunes first with a tonal center of R, then with a tonal center of 6. You have changed modes.
     In fact, there are some advantages to having a tonal center in the middle of the flute's range. In particular, this allows you to resolve the melody by moving to the tonal center from either above or below -- something you can't do if the tonal center is the root tone.
     As you know, the Native American flute has two peculiarities that contribute to its special sound. First, the root or lowest tone is in many ways the unique voice of the particular flute; many traditional flute melodies end on the root tone, whatever the tonal center. Second, the flute cannot play tones 2 and 3 in the lower register, although many flutes can play one or both of the tones in the upper register. So we can, if we want, impose two further constraints on pentatonic scales, in order to adapt them to these peculiarities of the Native American flute:
          * the scale must contain the root tone; and
          * the scale must not contain tones 2 or 3.
     We don't have to impose these constraints; you might want to experiment with pentatonic scales in which you play tone 2 or 3 in the upper register, or which do not contain the root tone. Interestingly, it seems that traditional Native American flute music did in fact impose these two additional constraints. With these constraints in place, most six-hole Native American flutes can play the following modes and keys, with the tonal center of each scale indicated by an asterisk:

R* 4 6 8 11 R' 4' R mode 1 = minor
R 4* 6 8 11 R' 4' 4 mode 2 = major
R 4 6* 8 11 R' 4' 6 mode 3
R 4 6 8* 11 R' 4' 8 mode 4
R 4 6 8 11* R' 4' 11 mode 5
R* 4 6 9 11 R' 4' R mode 4
R 4* 6 9 11 R' 4' 4 mode 5
R 4 6* 9 11 R' 4' 6 mode 1 = minor
R 4 6 9* 11 R' 4' 9 mode 2 = major
R 4 6 9 11* R' 4' 11 mode 3

     Note that, with these constraints, there are really only two sets of finger positions -- those producing the tones R 4 6 8 11 R' 4' and those producing the tones R 4 6 9 11 R' 4'; shifting the tonal center changes the mode or, alternatively, playing in a different mode requires a change of tonal center. Note too that, if we lifted these constraints, there would be five sets of finger positions, and one could play -- at least theoretically, depending on the flute -- in every key in every mode.
     Students are sometimes told that there are two pentatonic modes on the Native American flute -- one with the fourth hole from the bottom kept covered throughout, and the other with the third hole from the bottom kept covered throughout. This is not really correct, for two reasons. First, depending on variations in both the placement and diameters of the finger holes, not all flutes will produce truly pentatonic tones at all finger positions; by experimenting, you may in fact find alternative fingerings that are more pleasing to your ear -- or you may wind up preferring the tones you are already getting, even if they do not technically make up a pentatonic scale. Second, you are playing five modes, not two, because the mode changes as the tonal center changes; but, of course, you are only playing in two keys in each mode.
     A few more thoughts. First, a melody whose tones form a pentatonic scale may incorporate additional tones from outside the scale as ornaments or grace notes. Such tones are often called accidentals, and their presence, in most cases, does not compromise the pentatonic character of the melody.
     Second, there are five-tone scales that yield quite musical melodies without being pentatonic. For example, I wrote a tune I rather like using the five-tone scale R 5 8 10 12 R', with the interval pattern 4-3-2-2-1. The melody has five tones, but is not pentatonic. (In fact, the scale is a selection of five tones from a diatonic scale.)
     And, in this context, we need to look at the use of diatonic scales on the Native American flute, especially in view of the contribution of R. Carlos Nakai; and the use of unusual scales, sometimes innovated by the player, and sometimes imposed on us by the characteristics of the flute.


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