In the previous article of the “How to Tune Native American Flute” series, you’ve learned the very basics of music theory and tuning software/hardware. With this knowledge, you can finally establish a fundamental note of the flute, or in other words, define the flute’s key – this will make the flute sound good, and will allow you to calculate finger holes placement later on and tune the entire flute to minor pentatonic scale. Let’s get started!

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Right now, we’re talking about tuning the instrument in accordance to music theory. Native people, no matter of what culture, had little knowledge of music theory, obviously, so they were tuning their instruments by ear and by experience.

By now, your flute should be making a sound. Everything would be all right if it wouldn’t be for the theory of music that says our flute, most probably, isn’t making a clear and steady note. In order to do this, the flute must be tuned.

Establishing a Fundamental Note

Without the finger holes, all we can play and tune right now is the main note of the flute, called the fundamental note, too. It’s the sound the flute makes when all the finger holes are covered. It’s also known as the Native American Flute’s Key.

Very important – do not make the finger holes until the fundamental note of the flute is established! This is so because the finger holes placement can be properly measured only after the fundamental note is ready.

Sometimes, it may happen that your flute already makes a clear note, as proved by your tuner. This may happen if you’re lucky, or if it’s yet another flute in the row and you just know where to cut it in order to achieve targetted note. If the flute does not make a clear and stable note, we need to tune it.

As mentioned in the previous tutorial of the series, most tuners allow you to define the standard pitch frequency – thus, if you wish to tune the flute to classic A=440 Hz, you need to set that frequency in the tuner (or not, if it’s a default frequency). If you wish to tune the flute to popular 432 Hz tuning, you need to set this frequency in the tuner. That’s it! Everything else is the same, blow the air, make the sound and keep tuning :).

In case of the fundamental note, the tuning occures by shorthening the length of the sound chamber – meaning, you make the flute shorter by cutting off piece by piece on the end. What you need to do right now, is to turn the tuner on, then play the sound on the flute and see what comes out on the tuner’s screen. Our goal is to make sure the note the flute plays is well within the green zone of the tuner.

Tuning, Tuning…

If the note is below the green zone, you need to shorten the tube a bit. If the note is above the green zone, you need to shorten the flute a lot because the only reasonable option is to make the fundamental note higher.

  • In order to lower the note we would have to make the flute’s tube longer – you can do this, of course: just glue a wooden ring to the end of the flute – this requires some tools to make that ring which will fit the rest of the flute.

If you can’t enlarge the flute, the only way out of this is to make the flute sound higher. So keep cutting the end of the flute off and play the flute between the cuts until the tuner shows the instrument plays a clear note in the green zone. Sometimes, you can use a sander to sand the end of the flute if the note misses the green zone by few cents. Usually, a full note on the flute equals 25 mm of length. For example, if your flute plays in the key of E, and you wish it to play an F, you need to cut about 25 mm off the tube and the flute’s note should be closer to the key of F now.

Let’s take a look at some physics – basically, the sound is a wave, and the length of the wave defines the depth of the sound. Low sound equals long sound wave, while high sound equals short sound waves – this „length” of the wave is not really the length of the wave, but the length of the distance the sound has to travel in order to reach the escape point. Basically, as long as the air resonates in the tube of the flute, it make sound. When it escapes the tube, there is nothing to resonate within any more, and the sound is „gone”.

Therefore, it’s quite simple to understand – if we wish the flute to make a higher sound, we need to shorten the way the air has to travel within the resonance tube – this way ends with the end of the flute, or with the tuning holes, or with the open finger hole or holes. It’s not a very scientific explanation, but it’s easy to understand, right?

  • Because of that, high pitch flutes are very small, and low pitch flutes, like basses, are very long.

Let’s get back to tuning – most Native American Flutes are 30-45 cm long on the sound chamber – this makes the play the notes like B4, A4, G4, F#4 and E4, or even D4. Shorter tubes will give you notes in the 5th octave, and longer flutes will give you notes in the 3rd octave. Recall the ordering of the notes from the previous post:

Cb → C → C# → Db → D → D# → Eb → E → E# → Fb → F → F# → Gb → G → G# → Ab → A → A# → Bb → B → B#

This will help you target the specific, clear and steady note. So now, just play the note, look at the tuner, and cut the end of the flute off piece by piece until the flute plays a steady fundamental note in the green zone. When the note is „green”, the fundamental note is established.

Pieces cut off from the end of a branch flute.

Pieces cut off from the end of a branch flute. It was one of my first flutes, made with a little too square chisel ;).

Make sure the note played by the flute is +/- few cents in the green zone no matter if you blow the air into the flute weakly, normally or strongly – this will help with the tuning process.

The Tuning or Directionl Holes

Until now, you’ve learned that in order to establish a fundamental note of the Native American Flute, you need to cut the end of the resonance chamber. But there is another way to establish a higher note if you wish the flute to remain longer. This method is about creating tuning holes.

These holes are traditionally known as direction holes and usually there are four of these. Since I’m not a Native American, I don’t feel comfortable with explaining the traditional aspects of the four direction holes, so let’s stick to the modern term of tuning holes.

Basically, a tuning hole or holes is a way to create an escape hole for the air stream. It’s place near the end of the flute and it “shortens” the flute without cutting away the end of the tube. You just drill holes in the sound chamber’s body and the flute plays a higher note already. Some flute makers make four holes around the body of the flute, some make two horizontal holes, but either way, as long as the hole is big enough, the sound can escape, and the fundamental note goes higher.

An example of a tuning hole on a High Spirits Golden Eagle flute.

An example of a tuning hole on a High Spirits Golden Eagle flute.

In order to make the direction holes, you really need to do the math, or at least use some basic table of flute’s measurement. You can use a Flutopedia calculator to calculate the distance from the true sound hole to the direction holes front wall, or you can use the table below and mark the place where the holes should be drilled.

You’re interested in the first and third column in general – the first columns gives you the key of the flute (fundamental note), and the third column shows you how long the sound chamber should be in order to achieve this note – all measures are given in millimeters. For example: if you want your flute to be in the key of G4, and your sound chamber is 40 cm long, you should drill the tuning holes 6 cm from the end of the flute, or 34 cm (340 mm) from the True Sound Hole.

First column shows the key, second kolumn is the bore diameter, and the third column shows the tube's length.

First column shows the key, second kolumn is the bore diameter, and the third column shows the tube’s length. Measures in MM.

The middle column shows the diameter of the bore – it becomes bigger along with the note getting lower.

Another way to calculate the position of the finger holes is to play the flute without them and notice the fundamental note the flute plays already – let’s say it plays in the key of F4 – if we want to flute to play G4, we need to measure the distance of, give or take, 25 mm from the end of the flute up, and this is where the hole should be drilled. 25 mm usually equals the distance between two full notes – „usually”, because the diameter of the sound chamber affects this distance – but it’s something for another article.

Once the direction holes are drilled, they need to be tuned. This is an important step, because right now you can already learn how to tune the rest of the finger holes, as well.

Basically, if the hole plays a lower note than intended, we need to enlarge the hole. But if the hole plays a higher note than intended, we need to make the hole smaller. Making the hole smaller is more difficult – usually, we need some wood glue and saw dust – place the glue inside the hole, and add the saw dust and let it all dry, then go back to tuning. It’s a bit more difficult than it sounds :).

Making the hole larger is simpler – drill it with a bigger drill, or enlarge it with a burning tool or with a dremel. In case of direction holes, basically, you enlarge all the holes, trying to enlarge them closer to the true sound hole, and after each enlargement you check the notes with the tuner. You continue to enlarge all the holes until the fundamental note of the flute is in the green zone.

Summary

Your flute should play a steady and clear fundamental note by now. From this point we can finally move on towards calculating finger holes placement for Native American Flute. This process, along with final tuning, will be covered in the next tutorial.

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