Sunday, June 22, 2008

Scales and Modes part 1

During my travels, workshops and performances I'm asked many times by Native American flute players and audience members about the scale of the Native American flute. Surprisingly, even among long time players and makers, there seems to be some confusion about the scale and the other modes that can be played on a NAF. Many people don't know what the scale is and it is often mislabeled as a "native "scale which, in it's most common form today, it is not.

History tells us that at one time the scales of the Native American flute varied greatly and that there was no standardized scale system. Today however, the NAF is most commonly tuned to the minor pentatonic scale, a western scale which like most, if not all, "western" scales can trace it's roots back to ancient Greece.

But what makes a scale minor pentatonic? Or major pentatonic? Or major, the most common western scale? Is a scale the same as a key, and if not, how do they differ? To understand the the scale of the Native American flute it's best to understand how scales are constructed. Not only will this give the player and maker a better understanding of the Native American flute, it will make them better musicians. For behind knowing about scales lies the secrets to what musical keys are all about, which different keyed flutes sound good together, what different modes sound good together and what is meant by terms such as Diatonic, Pentatonic, Major, Minor and Mode. These terms come up with increasing frequency during flute circles, online disscusion groups and between individual players and makers.

In this series of posts we're going to try to answer these questions in a way that is simple for a non-musician to understand. Be warned however that this can not be done without getting into some theory. You will discover however that you already know much of this information intuitively. Personally I have always found theory to be fun. It's like a puzzle. You start by working with a couple of pieces, then with whole sections and soon you have a complete image.

Don't forget, it's just music. It's not brain surgery...


The most common scale on the Native American flute is the minor pentatonic. However with a little change of fingering other scales can be played. Since these scales will all relate to each other as they have some common notes they can be considered as "sub-scales" of a main, or parent scale. These sub-scales are better know as modes. Modes have been around for hundreds of years. The two most common modes are the Ionian, better known as the Major scale and the Aeolian better known as the Minor scale. As you can see the words scale and mode tend to be used to mean the same thing even though they're not the same. They are related however. We're not going to go into that here (if you want to get deep into this spend some time doing a Google search or poke around Wikipedia, there's lots of information out there.) but for the purposes of making this easier to understand let's try to simplify this down to the basics.

Let's start with a major scale...

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© 2008 Cedar Mesa Music - Scott August


  1. Anonymous4:54 PM

    One of the few blogs that provides an education as well. I just hope there's no quiz at the end.

  2. ki-e-ta9:14 PM

    Nice job, Scott, on a topic that has been difficult for most of us 'non-music-majors' to understand. I look forward to future similar articles. Thank you for your contribution to our Native American Flute culture.