Native American Flute in Film Scoring. Part 1

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Using Native American style flutes in a score is quite close to my heart, because a score was the first place thanks to which I have learned about this wonderful instrument. Then I have learned how to play it and how to build it. The score in question: a couple of episodes from a TV classic, Northern Exposure, a show about a New York doctor who ends up working in Cicely, Alaska. Oh, they don’t do shows like this anymore.

I have heard Native style flute in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and in Planes: Fire & Rescue – in all these cases the instrument had this soothing, calming effect (please, do let us know in the comments if you know other shows and movies, in which a Native style flute is used). And while a Native American flute, a NAF, as used in scores, is often a cultural cliche, I’m not here to discuss cliches. I want to talk more practically about using a NAF in a score.

In this series of articles, you will learn:

  • What is a Native American style flute.
  • What are the keys for this instrument, and what scale can it play.
  • What are the limitations of a NAF.
  • What is Nakai’s tablature and how does it relate to traditional music notation.
  • Where to look for Native flute players and how to work with them, considering that not all of them are fluent in traditional notation.

I want to explain the things above from a composer perspective. If you want to know more about actually playing and building this type of flute, I have a lot of practical articles on my blog,

An improvised piece, in this case it’s a D4 in A=432 Hz (more on that later).

An Introduction to NAF

Native American style flute, or a NAF for short, sometimes known as “First Nations Flute” or “North American Love Flute” since it was a courting instrument, is, as the name suggests, strongly associated with Native American culture.

Native American style flute is a type of whistle, usually made of wood and in the way it produces the sound it is similar to a penny whistle or recorder. The material gives it its characteristic sound that cannot be replicated with plastic or metal body. It is considered to be a traditional Native American instrument, but the history remains disputed.

While mastering this instrument, like any other, requires time and practice, a Native style flute is surprisingly easy to learn. The way it produces the sound is almost automatic, and fingering is very simple and natural. It’s also tuned to minor pentatonic scale, and thus all of this makes this instrument very popular among people who want to express themselves musically yet do not want to spend too much time learning how to play an instrument. It is gaining popularity as a tool of relaxation in the chaotic modern world.

These days, Native style flutes are contemporary tuned to minor pentatonic scales. They have five or six holes, the sixth hole being the fourth hole from the end, which is used in extended scales (for example, minor pentatonic is the main scale of the flute, but six hole flutes can produce a major scale, or scales with blues-y or arabic feel, too).

Tuning of Native Style Flutes

Native flute cannot be re-tuned – once it is made in a specific key, it stays this way. The most popular keys are A, G and F# – all of them in the fourth octave, around the alto voice. Flutemakers also build A, G and F# in the soprano voice, the fifth octave, and there are also bass flutes, such as E4 or D4, somewhere between alto and tenor (they are bass instruments from Native flute perspective). You can find flutemakers building larger, lower-sounding flutes, but in reality, anything below F#4 may not sound like a Native style flute (it sounds nice, but the “cultural associations” regarding sound may be missing).

An example of F#4 key. Please forgive the quality, I recorded this years ago before I had any decent recording gear.

(Be careful when hiring a musician, since Native style flute is often popular with New Age artists, and many of them use instruments tuned to A=432 Hz, instead of A=440 Hz – specify the key and tuning before ordering a recording.)

Searching for Sound

To get this “cultural association” sound, great for shaping Native American atmosphere, it is best to use the following keys: A4, G4 and F#4. Anything above or below this may not sound well for traditional feelings. Other keys are more suited for experimentation, like for sound design or more “New Age” feel when necessary. 

Due to its pleasant natural, wooden sound and strong “associations” with inner peace, nature and spirituality, a Native style flute can be nicely used not only to provide the feeling of “Native culture” in documentaries or other creative productions, a NAF can also be used in any score that wants to emphasize the feeling of nature, or inner calmness. As such, it is important to use long notes, pentatonic melodies and traditional ornaments such as grace notes in the middle of the note, or at the very end of it on release. Personally I would avoid dynamic melodies or additional special effects such as a warble when trying to achieve a traditional feel. 

When looking for inspiration, in case you need more traditional sound, listen to “Earth Spirit”, an album from the late 80s by Carlos R. Nakai. When you need more experimentation, Native style flute albums by Coyote Oldman are the place to go.

While Native flute is often used in New Age music with a lot of additional reverb, in scores it is best to use a gentle and limited reverb, a more natural one suggesting the sound reflected by mountains or canyon walls. The more natural the sound, the better. Thus, we’re not talking about Enya’ level of reverb :).

Before we end this part, I want you to go online, visit YouTube and Spotify, SoundCloud and Jamendo, and simply search for Native American flute music. Listening to music can be very inspiring for film composers.


That’s it for now – we talked a bit about what Native American style is, how is it tuned, and how we can use its “sound associations” in film scoring as composers. In the second part, we will discuss music notation, and how writing for NAF differs from typical notation.

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Wojciech Usarzewicz

Wojciech Usarzewicz

Wojciech Usarzewicz is a music composer from Poland. He enjoys studying cinematic scores. He composed music for TailQuest: Defense, an indie tower defense game coming soon on Steam. He published a completely free course, Interactive Game Music for Beginners in which he teaches how to work with FMOD and adaptive game music.

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