The Native American flute has a very distinctive sound that has won it a certain degree of notoriety in different kinds of New Age and world music recordings. The instrument originally had a very personal character and was played without accompaniment in Native American courtship, healing, meditation and spiritual rituals. Today, it is commonly heard as a solo instrument, but may also be played with other instruments or vocals.
There are two different types of North American flute, the plains flute and the woodlands flute. Each is made in a slightly different way. Both types of flute are available from Magic Wind Flutes.
There are many stories about how different Native American peoples discovered the flute. A common thread throughout these stories is the woodpecker, who put holes in hollow branches while searching for termites. As the wind blew around these branches and through the holes left by the woodpecker, it created sounds that the people noticed and sought to recreate.
As charming (and possibly true) as this story may be, the actual development of the flute probably did not follow this pattern. Modern theory generally holds that the flute was developed by the ancient Pueblo Peoples based on Mesoamerican designs.
In the late 1960s a new wave of flautists and artisans like Doc Nevaquaya and Carl Running Deer sparked a so-called roots revival centered around the Native American flute. Of special importance is R. Carlos Nakai, who has achieved considerable mainstream acclaim for his mixture of the flute with New Age and ambient sounds.
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 acts as a secondary resonator, which gives the flute its unique and 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. This makes for a less reedy sound.
The “traditional” Native American flute was constructed using measurements based on the body. The length of the flute, for example, would be determined by 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 types of wood. Juniper and redwood are popular, as they provide a nice aroma. The softwoods are generally preferred by most flute players because they produce the brighter tones. Harder woods such as walnut and cherry are prized for the richness of sound that they can produce. Although traditionally flutes would be made from river bamboo or a local wood, more exotic rainforest woods or even plastics are now used.
Some modern Native American flutes are called “drone” flutes. These flutes are really two (or more) flutes built together. Usually, the drone chamber plays a fixed note that the other flute can play against in harmony. The drone may also change octaves as it resonates with the melody played on the adjacent flute.
Modern Native American flutes, including those available from Magic Wind Flutes, are generally tuned to a variation of the pentatonic scale. This is comparable to playing only the black keys on a piano and results in a distinctive plaintive sound that is unique to the Native American flute. Native American flutes usually have 5 or 6 holes, but instruments can have anything from no holes to seven (including a thumb hole).
Recently some flute 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.