Pentatonic Minor Thoughts

It’s snowing as I write this. I almost wrote “snowing outside,” but then realized what a silly thing that was to say. Of course it’s snowing outside. If it was snowing inside, that would be either remarkable or a serious problem, possibly both. What is somewhat notable is that it wasn’t supposed to snow today. Or at least that was the prediction yesterday. But then friends and relations from down south have been posting snow pictures for the last few days, snow from Texas to Georgia. It was snowing in MS back when it wasn’t snowing here, only about eighty miles from the Canadian border. I was starting to feel left out, which is another silly notion. When they have enough snow that the local hardware stores start stocking snow shovels, then we’ll talk.

In addition to the guitar (no segue for you), I’ve added a couple more instruments to my “can’t play this worth a flip” category: pennywhistle and native style flute. By most accounts, the pennywhistle has only been around since the late 18th century. The native flute, by contrast, can be traced back for a few thousand years, and if you throw in the Neolithic bone flutes, a lot longer. Modern examples, whether of the five or six-hole variety, are tuned primarily to the pentatonic minor scale in different keys, though an advanced player can play other scales on the same flute; the older flutes (a few intact examples survive) were apparently tuned to the ear of whoever made it. Rather like how guitars can be relative tuned so that the notes and chords sound fine together until you try to jam with another guitar in standard tuning, where the differences suddenly become relevant. One gets the impression that the original native flute was a solitary instrument unless everyone in the group was playing an example made by or tuned to the same maker.

Yes, I know. But I’m just learning this stuff and now so will you. I’m mostly trying to be clear about my own understanding of a given subject, and I tend to do that by writing it down. As I’m doing here.

One interesting facet of learning the native flute is the order of learning. Once you have a handle on how to sound the notes and play the scale cleanly, the next order of business isn’t learning songs. No, the next order of business is: improvise. As long as you’re in the scale there’s no such thing as a wrong note. Try playing them in different orders, learn trills and (note) slurs and even bending notes. Odds are you’ll have made up your own songs even before you learn anyone else’s. And you’ll be ready to do that, if you want.

I do. I’ve even heard “Stairway to Heaven” on native flute, though it’ll probably be a while before I tackle that. Maybe “Silent Night.” After all, ‘tis the season.