Improvising With A Bansuri Flute

A bansuri is a side blown flute originating from the Indian subcontinent. It is produced from bamboo, and is used in Hindustani classical music.

One of my favorite ways of improvising with another musician, is to provide a harmonic framework (chords with some melody), while a skilled player of a physical instrument, improvises along with me. Usually, I am providing accompaniment, but sometimes I also move to the forefront of the musical scene.

Deep Ganguly, playing a Bansuri Flute

By clicking (following) the links below, you can listen to two improvisations I did with the music of Deep Ganguly, who is a skilled player of the Bansuri Flute, and many other ethnic flutes. I am using the Cello sound, with Piano/Strings for the chords. A lower-pitched melody sound, such as the Cello, is a good contrast to the higher Bansuri Flute sound.

Example of Improvising on the KeyMusician Keyboard with a Bansuri Flute Player

Another Example of Improvising With Deep Ganguly on Bansuri Flute

So now you’re all excited to give this a try, there are some things you first need to know about the Bansuri Flute.

This particular ethnic flute, does not play in a major or minor scale.

It plays in the Dorian Mode, which is neither major, nor minor, and thus is different from the music you’re used to hearing.

Some ethnic flutes don’t even play in a diatonic scale, which is probably too difficult for us to deal with. But we can handle the Dorian Mode just fine. You just need to learn how to set the key-signature properly.

So what are those modal scales, and how do we use them?

All of the possible scales built on the diatonic-scale, are known as the modal scales. The major and minor scales we commonly use (shown in bold in the table below), are two of these scales, and also have a modal scale name:

The Modal Scales (using all white keys):

Starting Note Letter

Modal Scale Name


Ionian Mode (major)


Dorian Mode


Phrygian Mode


Lydian Mode


Mixolydian Mode


Aeolian Mode (minor)


Locrian Mode

How To Set The Key-Signature for the Dorian Mode

First, play along with the flute player’s music, to identify the note the tune is based upon. The player may be able to tell you what note it’s based on, but you can figure it out by playing along with it, using the key-signature with no flats or sharps.

You’ll probably notice that some notes need to be sharped, or flatted, to avoid sounding bad.

When you’ve figured out the note the piece is based on (it could include a sharp, or a flat), set the KMK’s key-signature to the minor key name based on that note name.

For example, the piece you listened-to above, is based on A, so we would set the key-signature to A-minor (using the performance pane’s “Transpose” button, as shown in the screen-shot below:

Setting the key-signature to A-minor

Since the Dorian Mode is a minor-sounding mode, you can improvise with it set this way, except that every time you play the 6th tone of the scale it’s based on (an F in this case) you will need to sharp that note (using Page-Up).

But we can do better than that. There’s a way to set the key-signature to where we don’t need to sharp or flat any note to play in the Dorian Mode.

Take the value shown in the “Number Flats/Sharps” drop-box (the 2nd from the top), and either add one sharp to it (as in the case above, or if the key-signature uses sharps), or take away one flat from it if the key-signature uses flats.

In our case (A, Dorian-Mode), it will look like the screen-shot below:

Setting the key-signature to 1-sharp, for the Dorian Mode scale based on ‘A’

With the key-signature set for the Dorian Mode scale the tune is based on, you can improvise with both hands on the melody section to your heart’s content.

But what chords do you use with it?

You should definitely use the modal chords system, selected by its radio-button on the “F1 Help/Setup” pane:

In addition to that, here are the starting (root) chords for each of the modes. We are using the key of C (0-none), so the chord root-notes start with C, as shown in the Chord panel:

The chord names in the picture above, correspond to the numbers on the numeric keypad, used to select them. So saying a 1-chord, a 4-chord, and a 5-chord, is the same as saying, a C-chord, an F-chord, and a G chord.

You might just translate the chord progressions you use with major scales (the 1-chord, the 4-chord, the 5-chord, and back to the 1-chord) to the other modes.

To do that, say for the Dorian mode (whose root note is the 2nd tone of the diatonic scale, you would add 1 (if you end up with 8, change it to 1). So the 1-chord would actually be the 2-chord, the 4-chord would be the 5-chord, and the 5-chord would be the 6-chord.

That would make the Dorian mode 1-chord a D-minor, the Dorian 4-chord a G-major, and the Dorian 5-chord an A-minor.

You can try this method. If you like it, it’s good.

You can also look at natural chord transitions, or transitions between chords where one or more notes are in-common between the two chords:

This chart is based on the notes of the diatonic scale, set in this case to C-major, but it also applies to whatever modal scale you are using. In other modal scale key-signatures, the chord-name buttons will be on different numeric-keypad keys.

If you start out with a D-minor chord (the root chord of the Dorian mode), you can go to the G-major chord, and come back to the D-minor. Those vertically-adjacent chord transitions (C to F, D-minor to G, and E-minor to A-minor) work very well.

The D-minor to F-major transition also works well, making the combination of the Lydian and Dorian modes something that works.

You can learn more about all the different modal scales, and playing them on the Keymusician Keyboard, by clicking-on (following) the link below:

The Modal Scales

I hope this article was interesting and informative. And maybe you will come up with some good improvisations with players of the Bansuri Flute!

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