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Native American flute

Music Sound

Native American flute

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Native American/First Nation music:
Chicken scratch Ghost Dance
Hip hop Native American flute
Peyote song Powwow
Tribal sounds
Arapaho Blackfoot
Dene Innu
Inuit Iroquois
Kiowa Navajo
Omaha Kwakiutl
Pueblo (Hopi, Zuni) Seminole
Sioux (Lakota, Dakota) Yuman
Related topics
Music of the United States - Music of Canada

The Native American flute has achieved some measure of fame for its distinctive sound, used in a variety of New Age and world music recordings. The instrument was originally very personal; its music was played without accompaniment in courtship, healing, meditation, and spiritual rituals. Now it is played solo or along with other instruments or vocals both in Native American music and in other styles. There are two different types of Native American flute, the plains flute and the woodlands flute, each with slightly different construction.



There are many stories about how different peoples discovered the flute. A common character in these stories is the woodpecker, who put holes in hollow branches while searching for termites. The wind would blow around these branches, creating sounds that the people noticed and sought to recreate. The actual development of the flute probably did not follow this pattern. The theory that it was developed by the Ancient Pueblo Peoples based of Mesoamerican designs is the most common solution.

The late 1960s saw a roots revival centered around the flute, with a new wave of flautists and artisans like Doc Nevaquaya and Carl Running Deer. Of special importance is R. Carlos Nakai (Changes, 1983), who has achieved some mainstream renown for his mixture of the flute with New Age and ambient sounds.


A wooden Native American flute. A wooden Native American flute.

The Native American flute is the only flute in the world constructed with two air chambers - there is a wall inside the flute between the top (slow) air chamber and the bottom chamber which has the whistle and finger holes. The top chamber also serves as a secondary resonator, which gives the flute its distinctive sound. There is a hole at the bottom of the "slow" air chamber and a (generally) square hole at the top of the playing chamber. A block (or "bird") is tied on top of the flute. In a plains flute, a spacer is added or a channel is carved into the block itself to form a thin, flat air stream for the whistle hole (or "window"). In contrast, a woodlands flute has the channel carved into the top of the flute, allowing for a less reedy sound.

The "traditional" Native American flute was constructed using measurements based on the body - the length of the flute would be the distance from armpit to wrist, the length of the top air chamber would be one fist-width, the distance from the whistle to the first hole also a fist-width, the distance between holes would be one thumb-width, and the distance from the last hole to the end would generally be one fist-width.


Native American flutes can be made from various materials. Juniper and redwood are popular, as they provide a nice aroma. The softwoods are generally preferred by most flute players because of the brighter tones produced by the wood. Other harder woods such as walnut and cherry are appreciated for the richness of sound that they can produce. Although traditionally flutes would be made from river cane, bamboo or a local wood, more exotic rainforest woods or even plastics are now used.


Some modern Native American flutes are called "drone" flutes, and are two (or more) flutes built together. Generally, the drone chamber plays a fixed note which the other flute can play against in harmony. However, the drone may also change octaves as it resonates with the melody played on the adjacent flute.


Modern Native American flutes are generally tuned to a variation of the minor pentatonic scale (such as you would get playing the black keys on a piano), which gives the instrument its distinctive plaintive sound. Recently some makers have begun experimenting with different scales, giving players new melodic options. Also, modern flutes are generally tuned in concert keys (such as A or D) so that they can be easily played with other instruments. The root keys of modern Native American flutes span a range of about three and a half octaves, from C2 to A5.


Native American flutes most commonly have either 5 or 6 holes, but instruments can have anything from no holes to seven (including a thumb hole). Various makers employ different scales and fingerings for their flutes.


  • Songkeepers (1999). Directed by Bob Hercules and Bob Jackson. Lake Forest, Illinois: America's Flute Productions.

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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