Native American flute

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The Native American flute is an end-blown flute fashioned either from cane (such as river cane), hardwood (such as walnut), or softwood (such as cedar).

Theoretically, the instrument's archetype is the Anasazi flute developed by the Ancient Pueblo Peoples of Oasisamerica. The Anasazi flute seems to derive from Mesoamerican flute designs.[1][2]

One study that surveyed the physiological effects of playing Native American flutes found a significant positive effect on heart rate variability, a metric that is indicative of resilience to stress.[3]


Native American flute crafted by Chief Arthur Two-Crows, 1987

There are many stories about how different Native American peoples invented the flute. In one tale, woodpeckers pecked holes in hollow branches while searching for termites; when the wind blew along the holes, people nearby heard its music.[4]

The earliest extant Native American flute made of wood was collected by the Italian adventurer Giacomo Costantino Beltrami in 1823 on his search for the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is now in the collection of the Museo Civico di Scienze Naturali in Bergamo, Italy.[5]

Earlier flutes of river cane have been found, the earliest being a flute in the collection of the Museum Collections of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. It was recovered in about 1931 by Samuel C. Dellinger and recently identified as a flute by James A. Rees, Jr. of the Arkansas Archeological Society. The artifact is known colloquially as “The Breckenridge Flute” and was conjectured to date in the range 750-1350 CE.[6][7] This conjecture proved to be accurate when, in 2013, a sample from the artifact yielded a date range of 1020–1160 CE (95% probability calibrated date range).[8]


Native American flute anatomy

The Native American flute is the earliest flute recognized to have two air chambers. An internal wall (sometimes called a plug) inside the instrument partitions the two chambers: The slow air chamber (also called the compression chamber or mouth chamber) and the sound chamber (otherwise known as the pipe body, playing chamber, resonating chamber, tone chamber, or variable tube). The sound chamber contains the sound hole (or distal mouth opening or true sound hole) and the tone holes (finger holes).

The slow air chamber can serve as a secondary resonator, which can give some flutes a distinctive sound. The two chambers are acoustically connected by a narrow channel, called a flue, that is formed by the top of the plug and the bottom of a removable block (or "bird", "fetish", "saddle", or "totem").

The "traditional" Native American flute was constructed using measurements based on the body - the length of the flute would be the distance from inside of the elbow to tip of the index finger. The length of the top air chamber, as well as the distance between the whistle and first hole, would be one fist-width. The distance between individual holes would be one thumb-width, and the distance from the last hole to the end would generally be one fist-width.[1][9]

Contemporary Native American flutes can take ergonomic considerations into account, even to the point of custom flute designs for individual flute players. However, the ergonomic issues related to these instruments are not well-studied and ergonomic designs are not widespread; one study reported that 47–64% of players reported physical discomfort at least some of the time, while over 10% of players reported moderate discomfort on an average basis.[10]

Plains flute[edit]

In a plains flute,[9] 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").

Woodlands flute[edit]

Woodland flutes differ slightly from plains flutes in design and how they are constructed. They generally have the flue in the body of the flute, as opposed to the block, and the fipple is not cut at as sharp an angle. The mouthpiece is blunt and goes against the lips, not between them. The holes are usually burned, not bored.[11]

Drone flute[edit]

The drone flute, which is of Aztec origin, comprises two or more flutes built together. Generally, the drone chamber plays a fixed note which 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.[citation needed]


Native American flutes were made from bones at first, now they are made from various materials. Juniper, redwood, and cedar are popular because they have a nice aroma. The soft woods are generally preferred by most flute players, because of the softer tones produced by the wood. Other harder woods such as walnut and cherry are appreciated for the clear, crisp, richness of sound that they can produce. Bamboo and river cane can contain either soft or clear, crisp tones depending on size and species.

Although traditionally flutes would be made from river cane, bamboo or a local wood, more exotic rain forest woods or even plastics are now used. Today flute makers use many exotic materials too, like ceramic and glass.[1][9]

Native-American-style flute, fashioned from cedar.

The Warble[edit]

A distinctive sound of some Native American flutes, particularly traditional flutes, is called the warble (or warbling). The warble sounds as if the flute is vacillating back and forth between different notes. However, it is actually the sound of different harmonic components of same note coming into dominance at different times.[12]

The warble can be approximated by use of vibrato techniques. The phase shift that occurs between different harmonics can be observed on a spectrograph of the sound of a warbling flute.[12]


Performed on a 1987 flute crafted by Chief Arthur Two-crows.

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Performed on a 2001 flute crafted by Rick Heller.

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Modern Native American flutes are generally tuned to a variation of the minor pentatonic scale, which gives the instrument its distinctive plaintive sound. Recently some 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.[13]

Early recordings of Native American flutes are available from several sources.[14]


Native American flutes typically have either five or six holes, but an instrument may have zero to seven, including a thumb hole. Various makers employ different scales and fingerings for their flutes.[15]


A busker in New York City's Broadway-Lafayette subway station playing a Native American flute.

During the late 1960s, the United States saw a roots revival of the flute, with a new wave of flutists and artisans such as Doc Tate Nevaquaya, John Rainer, Jr., Sky Walkinstik Man Alone, and Carl Running Deer. Mary Youngblood won two Grammy Awards in the Native American Music category for her flute music. She remains the only Native American flautist to be distinguished in this way, as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences retired the category in 2011. Today, Native American style flutes are being played and recognized by many different peoples and cultures around the world.

Flautists and composers[edit]

Notable and award winning Native American flautists include: R. Carlos Nakai, Aaron White,Charles Littleleaf, Tate Itu (Дикий Ветер) Russia, Joseph Firecrow, Joseph RiverWind, David R. Maracle, Kevin Locke, Joanne Shenandoah, Robert Mirabal, Douglas Spotted Eagle, Timothy Archambault, Troy De Roche, Jeff Ball, Douglas Blue Feather, Jay Red Eagle, Timothy Tate Nevaquaya, Robert "Tree" Cody, David Atlas, Arvel Bird, John Two-Hawks, Mary Youngblood, Michael Searching Bear, Jonny Lipford.

A few classical composers have written for the Native American flute, including James DeMars, David Yeagley, Frank Martinez, Brent Michael Davids, Jayce Allisson Karl, Philip Glass[16] and Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate.

1990 Indian Arts And Crafts Act[edit]

The 1990 Indian Arts And Crafts Act of the United States criminalized deceptive product-labeling of goods that are ostensibly made by Native Americans. In the United States, wrongfully claiming that an artifact is made by Native Americans is a felony offense. Only a flute fashioned by a Native American person can legally be sold as a "Native American flute". However, any manufacturer or vendor may legally describe this type of flute as a "Native-American-style flute".


  • Songkeepers (1999, 48 min.). Directed by Bob Hercules. Produced by Dan King. Lake Forest, Illinois: America's Flute Productions. Five distinguished traditional flute artists - Tom Mauchahty-Ware, Sonny Nevaquaya, R. Carlos Nakai, Hawk Littlejohn, Kevin Locke – talk about their instrument and their songs and the role of the flute and its music in their tribes.[17]
  • Journey to Zion (2008, 44 min.). A documentary by Tim Romero. Santa Maria, California: Solutions Plus. An inspirational documentary about Native flute enthusiasts attending the Zion Canyon Art & Flute Festival located in Springdale, Utah, the gateway to Zion National Park.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Clint Goss (2010). "A Brief History of the Native American Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  2. ^ History of Native American Flute, Zadjik Productions
  3. ^ Eric B. Miller; Clinton F. Goss (January 2014). "An Exploration of Physiological Responses to the Native American Flute" (PDF). arXiv:1401.6004. Retrieved 25 Jan 2014. 
  4. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "Legends and Myths of the Native American Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  5. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "The Beltrami Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  6. ^ Clint Goss (2012). "The Breckenridge Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2012-01-05. 
  7. ^ James A. Rees, Jr. (July–August 2011). "Musical Instruments of the Prehistoric Ozarks". Field Notes Newsletter of the Arkansas Archaeological Society (361): 3–9. 
  8. ^ James A. Rees; Jr. (July–August 2013). "The Breckenridge Flute Dated with ARF Grant". Field Notes Newsletter of the Arkansas Archaeological Society 373: 11–12. 
  9. ^ a b c Anatomy of the Plains Flute,
  10. ^ Clinton F. Goss (January 2015). "Native American Flute Ergonomics" (PDF). arXiv:1501.00910. Retrieved 7 Jan 2015. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Clint Goss; Barry Higgins (2013). "The Warble". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2013-03-06. 
  13. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "Keys of Native American Flutes". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  14. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "Early Native American flute Recording Discography". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  15. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "Native American Flute Fingering Charts". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  16. ^ "Philip Glass: Music: Piano Concerto No. 2". New York: Dunvagen Music Publishers. Archived from the original on 2010-08-24. Retrieved 2010-08-24. 
  17. ^ Joyce-Grendahl, Kathleen. "Songkeepers: A Video Review". Suffolk: International Native American Flute Association. Archived from the original on 2010-08-12. Retrieved 2010-08-13.  And: National Museum of the American Indian.[dead link]
  18. ^ "Journey to Zion documentary website". [dead link]

External links[edit]