Native American Flute in Film Scoring. Part 2

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In the previous part, I introduced you to Native American style flute. We talked about what it is and how it is tuned. Then we discussed how we can use it in film scoring. In this part, we will start with a short paragraph or two about virtual instruments, and then we will discuss music notation for a NAF.

Virtual Instruments

If you are a film composer and you need to use a Native American style flute in the score, but you don’t want to hire a musician (either there’s no need, or you simply want to start with a mockup), you can use virtual instruments – it’s a common practice for many years now.

While there aren’t many virtual Native style flutes (compared to the amount of virtual brass or string sections), there are still a couple of options.

Thus, more DAW-focused film composers may use Mesa Winds, a virtual instrument for Kontakt produced by Orange Tree Samples. You can get it here:

It’s very nice and very natural in its sound, although as always, it cannot replace the actual player. But so far it is the most versatile virtual version of a NAF, with most articulations and best dynamics. No one else produced a Kontakt instrument with this level of quality.

Best Service also offers a Native style flute in their Ethno World 6 library, although I never tried it, so I can’t speak of its quality. Grab it here: 

And finally there is Ra, an ethnic library by EastWest QuantumLeap containing simplified versions of a Native flute. Again, it is a simplified version with a nice sound, but very limited number of articulations. Grab it here:

Nakai’s Tablature

One of the things that make playing Native style flute so easy is the popularity of both graphical tablature, and so called Nakai’s tablature. Graphical tablature is basically a set of diagrams telling the player which holes to close and which to open to play the melodies. This makes flute music, not just NAF, but flute in general, very accessible to ordinary people.

Nakai’s tablature is something different.

Carlos Nakai is a musician and scholar of Native American heritage, and is considered to be one of the main driving forces that lead to revival of Native American flute’s music. He developed a simplified way to notate music for Native American style flute, using a standard staff, marked with special four sharps. Take a look at the image below:

Four sharps on the staff – they do not suggest the key, they tell us this is a Nakai’s tablature.

On the staff, each note is placed either between the lines, or on the lines, and each note corresponds directly to the fingering on the flute. All of this is not related to the key, but to the flute itself. Basically, with this way of notating music, you can play the piece on any Native American style flute as long as it is contemporary tuned to a minor pentatonic scale with five or six holes. Thus, this notation is arbitrary – the notes do not represent actual notes (like on a piano), but the holes that need to be closed to achieve a given pitch on a given flute.

When playing these notes like you would normally do, the sound achieved will not be the desired one if you’re composing for a key different than F#. Because when composing minor pentatonic for F#, with four sharps on the staff, you will actually achieve these notes as shown on the figure above.

So, if you want to write for Native American flute in the key of F#4, you just put four sharps on the staff and write for minor pentatonic. 

But what if you want to write for a flute in the key of A, or G? Well, we use the very same staff and the very same notes.

In the figure above, the lowest note between the first and second line simply represents the lowest note on the flute. For example, if the flute is in the key of A, then the lowest note is A, and all the following notes are C, D, E, G and A an octave above. If the key is F#, then we have the notes F#, A, B, C#, E and F#. As you can see, this is a typical minor pentatonic scale. When composing for Native flute, first decide for the key (the lowest possible note), and then build your piece using minor pentatonic notes for this key. And then transpose everything up or down to fit the notes like on the figure above, and specify the key of the flute.

This may be a bit confusing, but Nakai’s tablature is very simple for NAF musicians – you can write your piece on this staff with these notes and these four sharps, and the NAF player will be able to play the melody on the flute no matter its key and/or tuning. From the perspective of sharing music this is a great solution.

When you write your piece in, for example, A Minor Pentatonic, and you use the above notation method, but you specify the key of A for the player, you will get the recording in the desired key.

Here is a short list of common keys (usually in alto, 4th octave) and the notes of minor pentatonic they can play:

  • A – A, C, D, E, [F], G, A
  • B – D, E, F# [G], A, B
  • D – D, F, G, A, [A#], C, D
  • E – E, G, A, B, [C], D, E
  • F# – F#, A, B, C#, [D], E, F#
  • G – G, A#, C, D, [D#], F, G

The notes in square brackets are not part of minor pentatonic, but can be played with special fingering on a six holes flute (five holes flute lacks one hole, which makes playing these notes impossible).

All of this makes playing and sharing music a lot easier, especially for those who cannot read traditional notation. But it also creates problems. For example, a lot of great flute players cannot read traditional music. That said, Nakai’s notation differs from traditional notation only in manner of representing the pitch. The length of the notes (whole notes, quarters, 8ths and on), bars, tempo, beat and other things are the same, but it is up to the player to learn it.

By the way, you can learn a lot about Nakai’s tablature and flutes in his book, “The Art of the Native American Flute” (Canyon Records 1996).


In the next part, we will discuss finding Native style players that can record your composition, and I will provide you with some tips and suggestions when working with these musicians.

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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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