An Introduction to the most Versatile of World Flutes

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Most of the world flutes we encounter can only play one or two scales, some even limited to just a few pitches. Those that can play more than one scale take many years of strict discipline to master and may even require complicated cross fingerings, half-holes and even odd head movements to play more than four or five pitches.

But what if there was a flute that, even if you owned only one of them, you could play all the same scales as a Native American style flute, a Pueblo (Anasazi) style flute, a Bansuri, a Shakuhachi, a Mojave style flute –and it's extended cousin the Mojave-6?

What if this same flute could also play exotic scales like the Dominant Harmonic (aka Silk Road, Spanish Gypsy or Arabian scale), the Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Major, all the Chinese pentatonic scales (diao), plus several Japanese scales like the Minyō, Ritsu, Ryo, Kokinjoshi, Hirajoshi, Akebono and Ryukuan? Or even unusual scales from Ethiopia like the Tizita major and minor, the Batti major and minor, the Ambessel major or the wonderfully named Yematebela Wofe scale?

And what if this flute could play all of these scales without any odd cross fingering and could also play some of these scales starting on more than one note?

If such a flute existed in the pantheon of world flutes you'd want one, wouldn't you? I know I would. Well it turns out such a flute does exist and it's been around in one form or another for a very long time. Over 8,000 years in fact. That flute is the Xiao, , (pronounced: showh as in "shower").

Before we get to the nuts and bolts of the xiao, we should take a moment to review its history which is much longer than that of the Pueblo (Anasazi) flute's. While the earliest Anasazi flute found dates back about 1,500 years, the earliest known version of what became the xiao dates back to 6,000 BC and was made of bird bone. There are also proto-Pueblo (Anasazi) flutes that also were made of bone, so for a true comparison of the dates we should look at the flutes that resemble the ones we know today. The first xiaos that look similar to the ones we have today appeared during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), which is about 500 years earlier than the earliest Pueblo flutes. There is a clay figurine of a xiao player from the Han period in the Nanjing Museum. It is believed these flutes were imported from the Qiang culture, which is located in northwestern Sichuan, or Szechwan, province in western China. This area was part of the Silk Road. Traders might have had flutes with them for entertainment and these became one of the items being traded or sold. These early xiaos did not yet have the same hole placement or even the same number of holes as today. The number and placement of the holes was not standardized until the Jin dynasty (265-420 AD). These flutes also had different names. One of these ancient names was: shudi, or shuúzhúdi ( lit: “vertical bamboo flute").

Before the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) any flute made up of one tube was called a di. The name xiao was used for a group of tubes put together like a panpipe. During the Tang dynasty the transverse flute became increasingly popular and from that point on the name di became associated with transverse flutes. The name xiao began to refer to a vertical end-blown flute and the Chinese panpipe became called the paixiao, or a "row of xiao". However it was not until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that the name xiao became standardized for the specific instrument we know today.

Variations of the xiao include the qinxiao, which is a narrower version, and the fatter, shorter southern version called the nanyin dongxiao ("southern sound notched flute") or nanxiao, from Fujian and Taiwan which was imported into Japan in the 14th century and later became the Shakuhachi.

While traditionally xiaos are made of purple bamboo, which is wrapped to stabilize and prevent cracking, they can also be made of jade, porcelain and ivory. Domestic xiaos are made of wood.

The modern xiao has six or eight holes. The extra two holes on the eight hole version do not give the flute more pitches, but make some of the notes easier to play. In my experience, eight is the most common number of finger holes found in the U.S. Traditionally, xiaos are used as a solo instrument or paired with a guqin, a Chinese zither. The xiao's sound is rich and mellow like a Pueblo (Anasazi) flute but smoother, with less wind and air noise. Xiaos can also play two octaves with the same fingering for all but two of the highest notes.

In the West most xiaos come in either the key of C or D. The Chinese name these keys based on the pitch a 4th above, or F and G. Since most world flutes are bottom note centric we will name the key by the flute's bottom note. All examples will be shown for a xiao with C as the bottom note. Without having to half-hole, or use any bizarre cross fingering, a xiao can play 10 pitches. Here are the pitches a xiao in the key of C can play.
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Four Xiao
Left to right
Golden Xiao
(Geoffrey Ellis)
White Tiger
(Geoffrey Ellis)
Red Tiger
(Geoffrey Ellis_
(Vance Pennington)

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While the intervals in the example above are based on the bottom note, in this case C, the root is moveable depending on which of the 10 pitches a scale might start on. This is not unlike pianos, guitars or orchestral "silver" flutes, which are not limited to one scale based on their lowest note, but can play many scales starting on many different pitches. This is one of the most versatile features of xiaos.

Typically a player holds the xiao at a 45˚ angle to the face, although like the Pueblo style flute this will vary slightly from player to player and flute to flute. Also like the Pueblo style flute, the angle to the face/jaw is more crucial than the angle to the body. In other words, if the head is lowered or raised, the flute needs to move with it to maintain the angle.
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Holding a Xiao

The mouthpiece of a xiao is similar to a Pueblo (Anasazi) flute but with a deeper notch, like a South American Quena. Although there are many variations, the xiao discussed in this article is of the northern style and has a capped mouthpiece with a notch cut into it. Traditionally the cap is derived from a joint in the bamboo.
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Xiao Mouthpiece

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Xiao Holes

The xiao has eight holes. Seven in the front and a thumbhole for the upper hand in the back. The holes on the front are divided by three on the top and four on the bottom. We can label each hole for reference. (Note: This is not a TAB system.)
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Full Piper's Grip

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Modified Piper's Grip

Although technically not necessary, depending on the tonality of the scale, a player can elect to keep either hole #2 or hole #3 covered at all times for stability.

In the videos below I am playing a xiao using a modified piper's grip.

A Dream of Spring

Wind of the Desert

The xiao has so many scales we can't possibly look at all of them here, but since most world flute players understand scales starting on the bottom note of their instrument we will focus on the scales that the xiao can play from the bottom note.

Diatonic scales are the most common scales used in Western music. They are made up of seven pitches within an octave.

The first scale we will look at is the diatonic major scale. Usually just called the major scale, this is also known as the "do-re-mi" scale. In Western church modes this is called the Ionian mode. This is the most common scale used today in Western music. The xiao can play four diatonic major scales.
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Major diatonic scale (from bottom note)

The xiao can also play a diatonic minor scale on the root note. Again, this is usually just called a minor scale. Its Western church mode name is Aeolian. This is also the scale of the Mojave-6 flute. The xiao can play four diatonic minor scales.
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Minor diatonic scale (from bottom note)

In Western classical music it became common to raise the minor 7th of the minor scale to a major 7th. This produced a stronger melodic tension and resolution from the major 7th (the "leading tone") to the octave and allowed for the dominant, or V, chord to be major. To play the harmonic minor on a xiao replace the min 7th of the minor scale with the maj 7th of the major scale. The xiao can play a harmonic minor scale starting on the root and the maj 6th. Although not as common as the scales we've looked at so far, if the minor 3rd of an harmonic minor scale is raised to be a major 3rd then we get the harmonic major scale. Another way of looking at this scale is as a major scale with a flat 6th.
Before we leave the seven note scales it should be mentioned that the xiao will play one complete version of each of the diatonic modes. These modes are called ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian and locrian. They can be played on the xiao using the notes of any of the xiao's major scales.

Let's construct a dorian mode using the major scale starting on the bottom note of the xiao as an example. Playing the notes between the low D and the D an octave above it will produce a dorian mode:
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Dorian mode

While modes exist for the diatonic major scales, there are no modes for pentatonic scales in Western music.
We will take a much more detailed look at pentatonic scales later when we look at how to play Chinese scales on the xiao. However, this would be a good place to talk about the two main scales in the world of Native American flutes, which are the the scales found on the Pueblo (Anasazi) style flute, and the modern Native American style flute.
The main scale on the Pueblo (Anasazi) style flute is the major pentatonic. The major pentatonic scale's most defining characteristic is that it has a major 3rd and a perfect fifth. None of the other common Western pentatonic scales have this combination. The xiao can play the major pentatonic scale starting on six different pitches. Here is the major pentatonic scale on a xiao starting on the root:
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Major pentatonic scale (from bottom note)

The xiao can also play the basic scale of the modern Native American style flute, the pentatonic minor. The most defining characteristic of the minor pentatonic is the combination of a minor 3rd and a perfect 5th. None of the other common Western pentatonic scales have this combination. The xiao can play six minor pentatonic scales, each starting on a different pitch. Here is the minor pentatonic scale on a xiao starting on the root:
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Minor pentatonic scale (from bottom note)

Before we move on to non-Western scales, let's review the number of different scales that we've looked at so far that the xiao can play.

6 minor pentatonic (Native American style flute) scales
6 major pentatonic (Pueblo/Anasazi style flute) scales
4 major diatonic scales (the "Do-Re-Mi" scale)
4 minor diatonic (Mojave-6) scales
2 harmonic minor scales
2 harmonic major scale

Next we'll take a look at some of the scales from China, Japan and Ethiopia that the xiao can play. Since space is limited the fingering charts for these scale will not be shown. However, you can easily find the fingerings for any note using the scales already shown.

Although their musical cultures are quite different the similarities between Western and Chinese scales is surprising. The Chinese use a system similar to the Pythagorean tuning from Western music to develop a 12 pitch scale. From these 12 pitches Chinese musical theorists derived heptatonic scales, seven pitch scales that are, for the most part, the same as the Western diatonic scales. However, most traditional Chinese music is based on pentatonic, or five note, scales. The two left over pitches from the diatonic scales are used as auxiliary, or "color", pitches. The Chinese pentatonic scales do not have any half-steps, similar to playing only the black keys on a piano.

While Western music does not give names to any of the pentatonic scales or refer to them as modes, the Chinese do. The Chinese name for a scale or mode is diao. Each scale is named after the name of the pitch that functions as the root of the scale.
Here are the five notes in the Chinese pentatonic system:
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Each of these notes, and the scales that are based on them are associated with objects found in nature. Here are a few of these connections:
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The name of a scale is a combination of the note name + "diao" (scale). The five pentatonic scales are: gongdiao, shangdiao, juediao, zidiao and yudiao.

The most common scales used in Chinese music are the gongdiao and zidiao, but the xiao can play all of the Chinese diao. For Native American style flute players (NAF and Pueblo/Anasazi) the main scales would be gongdiao and yudiao. The gongdiao is the same as the pentatonic major (the scale of the Pueblo/Anasazi style flute), while the yudiao is the same as the minor pentatonic (the scale of the Native American style flute). It should be noted that the juediao has the same pitches as the mis-named mode-IV pentatonic minor for the NAF. (In Western music, regardless of what NAF players might have been misled to believe, there are no pentatonic "modes".)

For an example of a gongdiao played on a xiao see the major pentatonic scale above. If the maj 3rd of the gongdiao scale is moved to the 4th a zidiao scale is obtained:
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Zidiao scale (from bottom note)

To see and hear an example of the yudiao see the pentatonic minor scale above. The Zidiao is the same as the pentatonic major, but starting on the 5th.

While Chinese and European music theory and scales share some common elements, the scales found in Japan can be quite different. This is true even though much of the basic foundation came from traditional Buddhist chant that was imported from China. The Japanese pentatonic scales, or modes, that do not have half-steps are called chosi and were derived from the Chinese diao. The two main scales are the ryo and ritsu. The ryo and ritsu scales are the basic scales of a style of Buddhist chant called shōmyō, which originated in China and made its way to Japan through Korea.

The ryo scale is the same as the gongdiao or major pentatonic scale. For an example of the ryo scale see the pentatonic major scale above. The xiao can play six different ryo scales.

For an example of the ritsu scale see the zidiao scale above. The xiao can play six different ritsu scales.

One of the most distinctive features that make Japanese scales and modes different from the Chinese scales is the heavy use of half-steps. As we have seen, the basic pentatonic scales of China and the West do not have any intervals smaller than a whole-step. Many Japanese scales have half-step. These scales are called hemitonic.

One of the best know Japanese scales with a half-step is the akebono scale. It is produced when the 3rd of a major pentatonic scale is lowered, or flattened, creating a half-step between the 2nd and 3rd pitches in the scale. The xiao can play four different akebono scales.
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Akebono scale (from bottom note)

Other Japanese scales that the xiao can play are the hirajōshi, kumoijoshi, kokinjoshi, minyō and ryukyu. The minyō is the scale that the Shakuhachi flute is tuned to and is the same scale as the Chinese yudiao. Considered to be a folk music scale, the minyō is the same scale as the Western minor pentatonic which is the basic scale of the modern Native American style flute. The xiao can play six minyō (Shakuhachi) scales.

The xiao can also play many scales from traditional Ethiopian music. The music of Ethiopia is a mix of Mid East and African influences. The scales used in traditional Ethiopian music called kiñit, show the influence of the Arabic maqams, a system of melodic modes like Ragas from India. Traditional Ethiopian chant, which dates back to the 6th century and is called Zema, uses seven notes, similar to China, most Ethiopian music is based on pentatonic scales.

Ethiopia also has a traditional four holed flute called a wašänt or washint. These are oblique end-blown flutes made of bamboo and were believed to have originated with shepherds or cowherds of the Amhara culture. They vary in length from 11" to 27" long and players typically carry many different wašänts with them to play in different scales.

The xiao can play many of the Ethiopian scales, or kiñits. Here is one simple example:
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Yematebela Wef scale (from bottom note)

Lastly, let's look at the one scale that can not be played on the root of the xiao. The dominant harmonic scale, which goes by many names including, the Silk Road, the Spanish, gypsy and the Freygish scale. This scale is also associated with music from the Middle East, including, Hebrew, Turkish and Arabic music. It is also found in music from India.

The dominant harmonic is the same scale as the harmonic minor we looked at earlier only starting on the 5th degree of the scale instead of the root, which is called the dominant, and is indicated by the arrow as shown in the illustration below:
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Dominant harmonic scale

Xiao Improvisation
(With full Piper's Grip)

You could try your luck at ordering a bamboo xiao from a Chinese importer, or ebay, but you can't be certain of the tuning. Plus bamboo needs a lot of care. Bamboo can crack or split from changes in temperature and humidity. The other option is to get a good quality xiao made of wood by a maker in the United States. Currently there are only two makers producing these instruments: Geoffrey Ellis and Vance Pennington. I highly recommend Geoffrey Ellis’ flutes. There are Xiaos available through other outlets. Some domestic, like Amazon, and others which ship from China. I do not currently own any flutes from China, but those individuals I’ve talked who have, say the bamboo splits quickly or arrives split. I’ve heard the same stories from people who have purchased xiaos from Amazon.

When purchasing a xiao check that the notch and the area just inside of it are clean and smooth. You should not feel any ripples along the notch but a smooth crescent. While not razor sharp the notch should not be dull. The splitting edge should curve down into the flute, like the inside of a bowl. If it has a blunt shape it will not efficiently split the air flow. The inside of the flute body should be sealed and smooth. The smoother the better. While a coat of lacquer is not required, it should be sealed to prevent moisture from penetrating the wood. The inside should feel smooth to the touch and you should not see any splinters of wood or bamboo when you look inside. The body of the xiao should be straight.

The length of a xiao can vary and the mouthpiece can be both capped or uncapped. The presence of a cap is typically determined by the style of xiao but a custom made xiao can have either mouthpiece style.

Scott August is an award winning recording artist and world flute player. His six album have won multiple awards, including a Native American Music Award (NAMMY), an Indian Summer Music Award and two Zone Music Reporter Awards. He was classically trained on cello and piano and holds a Bachelor's degree in music composition from USC. Between 1990 - 2003 he composed and produced music for TV commercials and corporate films including NASA and The Discovery Channel. August is also the author of four books for North American Indigenous style flutes. His music and books can be found at his label, Cedar Mesa Music. He gives workshops and private internet (Skype) lessons for NAF, Pueblo (Anasazi) style and Xiao flutes, through the Santa Fe Flute School.

Finger diagrams courtesy of Clint Goss,