The myth of pentatonic tuning
and why are there so many different fingerings?

Modern woodwinds, such as a recorder or penny whistle, are tuned to contemporary musical scales and this is reflected in their varied hole sizes and spacings. In comparision, if you look at the historic plains flutes, you find the holes in a single flute are roughly the same size and have a rather uniform spacing. It can be argued that this uniformity is visually more aesthetic than holes of apparent random spacing and sizes that occur in modern tuned instruments. Additionally, researchers of historic flutes have been unable to find flutes with consistent tunings which would allow them to be played together in harmony. These historic instruments appear not to be tuned in the modern sense. Although with our modern trained ear, we occasional find historic flutes that approximate a portion of a modern scale. Sometimes we resort to cross fingering to get them to fix our preconceived notions of what is proper.

One cannot ignore that ergonomics plays an important part in the placement of finger holes and length of the flute. On some of the longer flutes, there is an ancient innovation of widely spacing the left hand from the right hand. This obviously increases the range of notes that are possible, while still being comfortable to play.

We get to the modern makers, who feel the market pressures of selling to the general public and musicians. Now everywhere you look, you find concert tuned flute. Also for various reasons, minor pentatonic flutes are quite popular. Because of this, there is a modern myth that Native American flutes have always been pentatonic.

There are those who elaborate this myth by saying Native American flutes minor pentatonic, or a combination of mode 1 & 4 pentatonic. There are other makers that argue there 6-hole flutes are not pentatonic, because their primary scale includes an additional note that is perfectly in tune. Whether it’s pentatonic mode plus a note, or Dorian mode minus a note, or the six note Raga Mahohari mode, such labels are attempts to contemporize the Native American Flute.

Even the term mode 1 or mode 4 flute annoy some Ethnomusicologist. The contemporary use of this term comes from outside of academia and differs from its historic use. So the use of the term 'mode 1 pentatonic' is considered academically ill advised. But within the flute community, it is still a popular label.

This is not to say the tuned flutes are bad. Flute duets are a popular activity at any flute circle gathering. It is wonderful to play carefully tuned instruments together. It is easier for some to play conventional songs on tuned flutes and easier for others to recognize those songs. This is not to say one can’t play recognizable songs on un-tuned flutes.

So flutes that are promoted as concert tuned, pentatonic, diatonic, or chromatic are modern tuned instruments. And this poses an engineering problem for the flute craftsman. The spacing of the notes in contemporary musical scales is not uniform. Some notes are spaced widely apart while others are spaced closely. For instance, if you take a 5/16 drill bit and drill holes in the right places to just play the notes of the minor pentatonic scale without cross fingering, you end up with a hole spacing sort of like this:

o = open finger hole

I believe Michael Graham Allen was the first to introduce such a five-hole NAF that is now much imitated.

There are some limited possibilities to moving the holes so they are more uniformly spaced, if you allow the holes to have different diameter, or undercut the holes. But the gap between the bottom 3 holes and the top 2 holes is just too big, unless you wanted your holes to look like a recorder. So one trick that evolved is to put an extra hole, in the gap found in five hole flutes.

• = closed finger hole

Of the 6-hole flutes, this configuration is probably easiest to teach the public how to play the minor pentatonic (mode 1) scale, i.e., "Just keep the 4th hole from the bottom covered." One could say this was the beginning of modern cross fingering. Another fingering evolved from the idea of “Just keep the 3rd hole from the bottom covered”, mode 4 pentatonic. Flute makers quickly figured they could build flutes they played both scales, if they tuned the 4th hole correctly.

Other makers had different experiences when it came to tuning minor pentatonic. Sometimes they had slightly different objectives when creating tuned instruments. Practically all use the same fingering for the first 5 pentatonic notes:

all holes closed

open one hole at a time from the bottom

skip the 4th hole

The big difference is their choice for the next note, the octave note:

Ken Light and others.

Butch Hall Classic Alternative (Gm),
Watershed, and others.

Few makers.

Many makers and Butch Hall
(recent flutes, older Cm and F#m kit).

Butch Hall Classic
(Older Am,Gm drone,F#m,Fm,Em,Dm).

Sometimes an alternative fingering.

Many makers kept with the simplicity of the 5-hole fingering; "Just keep the 4th hole (from the bottom) covered", or sometimes they would count from the other end and say "just keep the 3rd hole (from the top) covered", or those who are applying their western traditions may simplify away the counting and say "this is a courting flute, keep your ring finger down." Others tried to stay closer to the uniformly space and sized holes of the past flutes. Some choose a spacing that allowed access to a more chromatic scale through cross fingering. Some makers just imitated the flutes they first learned. Others innovate or repeat the evolution of the recorder with tapered bores, fingers with a pair of holes for easier half holing into the major scale, thumb holes for upper octave and keys over the hard to reach holes.

This led me to the summarizing the flute makers into 3 categories: the traditional, the modern, and the easy. The traditionals try to respect the uniform spacing and size of holes, although some notes may only be approximate. The easies try to make flutes that are easy to play, although this may sacrifice the range of notes possible. The moderns try to support and extended scale that is much closer tuned to the modern ear. Some have found this requires a different fingering from "the easy" flutes. All three have their place. Many flute makers struggle to find their place between these three extremes.

So far I've just discussed the minor key flutes. There are a number of flute makers that make major key flutes. For whatever reason, they are not as popular in the NAF community. Maybe if people like such a scale, they gravitate to the recorder or Irish whistle. But there are performers such as Mary Youngblood and John Rainer, Jr. that play diatonic or major key NAFs. The flute makers of such flutes have the same issues about hole size, spacing, and fingering. Unfortunately to get a really well tuned diatonic NAF, the configuration of holes starts to look like a European recorder. Some makers are content to approximate the scale so the flute has more uniformly spaced and sized holes. Sometimes they add a thumb hole to add one more note to their flute, so they don't have to cross finger. (FYI: Some ancient bone whistles from Mesoamerica had thumb holes.) Some makers are even talk about putting keys on their flutes. To many that sounds very unconventional, but as a flute maker at the Taos Pueblo once told me, “Aren’t we in the new millennium.”

There are some who take a nearly religious stance on tuning, spacing, thumb holes, keys, the warble and such. The history of the NAF is long. The plains flute that we all love appears to be a recent invention, maybe 180 years ago. When one go back to the earlier NAFs, one can see many innovations or revolutions in their design. I can say I'm glad for those innovations, because they appear to have eventually led to the plains flute. But I wouldn’t want to see it evolve into the ultimately optimized silver flute. We know where that path leads.

As a flute maker, I do ponder the arguments of how far do we innovate the NAF before it is no longer the NAF. Sometimes you stand on the shoulders of those who came before you, and other times you need to know when to jump off their shoulders and explore a new path. So maybe this is just what it means to be part of a living craft.

 --- Robert Gatliff   admin@

 --- 2009.12.20 - Elaborated the description of "easy" fingering.
 --- 2009.12.20 - Revised the terminology with Butch Hall flutes.
 --- 2006.01.30 - Elaborated on the use of Mode 1 & 4. Fixed a minor typo.
 --- 2004.01.30 - Fixed some minor error.
 --- 2003.01.03 - Revised with new dates on the plains flute.
 --- 2002.11.27 - Original essay.