The intonation of most flute players is inconsistent worldwide, professional
players included and varies from country to country. In many countries, it is masked
by a virtuoso technique and a rich tone leading the listener to be captivated by
these attributes, but disguising the underlying problem. The flute doesn't naturally
lend itself to big dynamic changes which persuades the performer to use only small
nuances so as to veil changes in pitch. Players avoid playing loudly and softly because,
sensibly, they prefer to steer clear of intonation difficulties. ‘Don't bother with
loud and soft playing. It is easier to play with minimal expression.’
As the air speed/pressure is lowered to play softly, the pitch drops; when the
air speed and pressure rises when playing louder, the pitch also rises. At the extreme
ends of the nuances, the rise and fall in pitch is considerable and apart from the
recorder, the flute is unique in this - unlike the remainder of the woodwinds. Reed
instruments have a 'built-in' correction which operates to their advantage and which
accounts for the fact that other winds don't have the same pitch differences when
playing loudly and softly as flutes. When the clarinettist wishes to play softly,
they blow less hard -which lowers the pitch - but at the same time they reduce the
aperture between the reed and mouthpiece. If they didn't do that, the note would
be breathy or disappear completely and this action also has the effect of preventing
the pitch from dropping. This is an over-simplification, but the same idea works
for the double reeds too though players still have to correct the relatively small
changes in pitch between forte and piano, but not to the same degree as flutists.
Reed instrument players indeed have to control the pitch but it is not as variable
as on the flute. We flutists have to learn a different technique to play accurately
What is important is not how to correct a flat or sharp note, but the perfect
control of intonation which allows the player to use loud and soft notes, crescendos
and diminuendos to be truly expressive, something exceptional amongst flute players
This technique involves using the jaw and lips to raise the air stream and uncover
the mouth hole when making a diminuendo to prevent the pitch from dropping and has
been set out in detail elsewhere.* Some teachers suggest that moving the jaw is wrong;
others suggest that the lips must remain relatively still; others again that pitch
is controlled by a procedure called 'support' (the Holy Word of Teaching); others
again suggest correcting the pitch by rolling the flute in and out; some performers
suggest, 'Think sharp'; another well-known player confessed, 'I have had the socket
of the headjoint highly polished so that I can move the headjoint in with my left
hand when a pp passage is imminent!' A famous professor was more than once observed
tugging his ear lobe when the student's intonation was appalling, though no practical
corrective solution was offered.
Some of these techniques might help to correct a pianissimo flat note, but are
flawed as a method of playing expressively. Some are just silly. Even so, a number
of players have managed to play quite well in tune, perhaps learning to control their
intonation by instinct, or even being forced to do so for survival in our competitive
* Practice Book One - Tone. Trevor Wye. (Novello) pp 34 - 37
3. Twelve popular misconceptions about flutes and intonation.
* Fingers and Key height: 'Keep your fingers close to the key cups; your technique
will be faster and neater.' This popular culture of keeping the fingers close to
the keys - and of repairers keeping the key cups low - encourages a faster performing
speed and a neater technique, a practice found mainly among flutists. Other woodwinds
keep their fingers fairly clear of the holes or the notes would be flat, but this
has the same effect on the flute. If the player uses an open hole (French Model)
flute and plays with the fingers almost touching the keys, it will result in a slightly
muted tone and some flatter notes. In fast passages, of course, it is not significant,
but in slow tunes, close fingers will affect the intonation. Players who adopt this
technique are in effect playing a closed hole flute, in effect, a flute with the
Repairers and players like the 'feel' of a closer mechanism, but when the key
cups are too close to the tone holes, the sound is very slightly muted, more so on
closed hole cups than open. The foot joint cups should be no less than 3.8mm above
the tone hole and as much as 4mm; the right and left hands ideally the same This
will ensure the clearest tone and correct intonation.
* The C# sharp problem: 'There is no 'correct place' for the C# hole. It is up
to the performer' There is a good position in which to place the C#2 tone hole and
we three have spent several years of experimenting to determine where this should
be. The note still needs care and practice to centre the tone, but the pitch is adequate.
On most flutes, including the original Cooper Scale, it is too sharp, a common complaint.
Putting fingers down in the right hand to correct a sharp C#2 should not be necessary
and in any case, only allows the player to create extra resonance so that the timbre
may be altered. Adding fingers also alters the partials (harmonics) and though it
does help with technical stability, it hardly affects the pitch.
* 'Open and closed hole flute scales are the same' This is a fallacy and irresponsible
of flute makers to ignore basic acoustics just to simplify the manufacturing process.
It is more economical for the maker to 'tool up' making one flute body for both open
and closed hole flutes but is a lazy approach, and assumes the customer doesn't care.
Manufacturers producing both open and closed hole flutes with the same scale are
surely working on the fact that the customer doesn't know.
The air vibrates in a curved cone above the tone hole. The top of the cone is
interrupted by the key cup and pad but a hole in the cup allows more venting, resulting
in a sharper note. Ideally, all tone holes should have open cups above them and experimental
flutes using this idea are currently available for use by extended technique aficionados,
but for the normal orchestral player, the five open cups* as on a 'French Model'
flute offer several alternate fingerings and can help to tune otherwise difficult
notes, particularly in the third octave. Eldred Spell's experiments have established
that the left and right hand open cup correction is different. The open holes are:
E, F, F# A & A#.
* '...different versions of 'equal temperament' Examples from makers brochures:-
'A mathematically constructed scale'; '...offers perfect intonation', 'After many
years we have perfected a true scale ..........’
Makers inventing their own versions of equal temperament is analogous to making
different lengths of a foot-rule with the inches unevenly placed. Guitar frets are
uniformly placed by all makers according to equal temperament.
As Elmer Cole, Albert Cooper and other flute makers and designers have revealed,
Boehm's Schema, a way to mathematically calculate the position of the tone holes
set out in 1847 to give us a good scale, doesn't actually work quite well enough
in practice. That is to say, the math takes us to a starting point: from there on,
there are a number of variables which are not completely understood, but include
the open hole allowance, the key rise and the tone hole diameter correction. This
much is known: we three had to experiment and change the scale figures accordingly.
We are not completely satisfied that the scale set out below is the last word, but
it is much better than older versions of Cooper's Scale and better than any popular
flute maker's scales today.
At the time of writing, (March 2011) we have just acquired a cheap flute allegedly
built to Cooper's Scale which required the removal and replacement of no less than
eight tone holes to turn it into a playable flute.
* 'It is not flutes which are out of tune, but flutists' Actually, it's both.
An eminent flute maker made this statement many years ago while making flutes at
A-435 to be played at A-440 or higher! The manufacturing quality of these flutes
was beyond question, but like a horse with three legs, a serious setback for the
performer, yet many esteemed players performed on these flutes, perhaps not exploring
much in the way of dynamic change but building a successful career playing them.
One wonders how much better it would have been for them to have an accurately tuned
flute rather than spending a lifetime correcting - with some skill - the mistakes
of the maker.
* 'Open hole flutes are better'. Both can be good: the tone is not affected
by only the five open cups (see above), but if that were true, there would be five
good notes and seven poor ones. Many flutes, both open and closed hole models, have
key cups which are not open enough - in other words, they do not rise sufficiently
above the tone hole. As our scale below shows, part of the RCS allows appropriate
ventilation below the key cup. Keeping the cups closer to the tone holes is splendid
for speed and dexterity, but muffles the tone and flattens the pitch. Our advice
is to ask your repair person to ensure that the foot joint and right hand key cups
are open to 3.8mm. at the front, and the G# and left hand keys and thumb keys almost
the same. This will ensure that the fullest tone will be possible.
Blocking up the open holes because of a faulty hand position should be seen only
as a short term solution even for one key cup. Those with small hands are advised
to use this temporarily - or change to a closed hole flute.
* 'You can get used to any flute and play it well in tune. I just takes time.'
It is true that a skilled player can get used to a poorly scaled flute and - depending
on their ears and ability - can adjust and play reasonably well in tune: others aurally
less fortunate may play with faulty intonation but will probably never know it, though
their colleagues may know. But why start off with a three-legged horse? A well constructed
scale will allow the greatest technical and musical freedom.
* 'There is no perfect scale; players just have to get used to and adjust to
what they have' True, they can, depending on their skill, but why should they? This
is the same as suggesting that a badly tuned violin can be played in tune by an accomplished
performer by 'getting used to what they have'. This is an excuse by uninformed flute
makers to justify their ignorance about flute scale design. A poorly designed scale
will hamper the development of a performer. Times are so competitive now that the
sensible student must ensure his career has the fewest obstacles.
* Can the listener tell whether the flute has a good scale? Yes, and with experience,
quite often. When a student is having problems with intonation, we can make a good
guess as to the probable scale and often the maker too. The characteristics of some
flutes (flat Bb2s & B2s and a sharp C2 & C#2, etc.) is a fingerprint as to its general
* 'Correct the flatness in pitch by rolling the flute in/out with your hands’
(from a published booklet on 'steps to acquiring good intonation'. This booklet
also contains: the advice: ‘slide your finger off one of the five open holes when
flat..., and practice to become proficient at that technique'. Moving the flute inwards
or outwards with the hands should never be an option to remain in tune when using
dynamics. There is quite enough to do expressively - while keeping a careful control
over the tone - without rolling the flute in and out. It is a ridiculous solution
for pitch control and will lead to instability and poor performing habits. It can
be used of course, as a means of flattening a note when note-bending, and it is used
in contemporary music. Sliding the fingers off too, will correct a temporarily flat
note and is useful for special, or alternative fingerings, but is useless as a long
term solution to pitch control and expression.
*'Correct sharpness by making more room inside your mouth and throat'. Unless
this action also affects covering the mouth hole, it is unlikely to affect the pitch
of a note. It may however affect the tone and harmonic balance, but as a device to
be used by a performer for seriously controlling the pitch and for expressive purposes,
it is nonsense.
*'The 'Donut' improves top E'True, but only a very little - but it also seriously
lowers the quality of A1 & A2, and in most cases, makes these notes flat. The authors
have collectively removed several donuts from flutes both to good effect and to the
delight of the player. Some makers have enlarged the A hole to make it sharper so
as to insert a donut, but this has also spoiled the quality of the note.
4. Is your Flute in Tune?
This checking process will take a little time and is best done where there is
quiet. Allow at least 30 minutes to complete it and be prepared to repeat it on successive
days as each day may produce slightly different results. We three are quite experienced
in this technique after testing hundreds of flutes. You will need a longer time.
1) Warm the flute thoroughly for a few minutes and then play low C, hereafter called
Move up to the second harmonic, C2, by overblowing, as illustrated at a).
Now take your fingers off the keys to compare the second harmonic of C1 to the natural
note an octave above - C2 - as at b). If it is not exactly an octave, adjust the
headjoint, moving it in or out until the two Cs - the second harmonic of C1 and the
normal C2 - are as closely as possible at the same pitch. Do not move your lips or
make any alteration to the intonation with your lips. Just accept what the flute
is telling you.
2) Repeat this for C#1 and compare it with the natural note an octave above as shown
below at c).
Typically, the two C#s are not in tune, even though the two C naturals are. This
illustrates the problem we face: the maker may not have constructed the scale carefully
enough. If the two Cs are in tune, the two C#s should also be in tune. It is a common
problem and we will return to it later.
3) Now check the pitch of C1 and C2, this time with your tuning machine: probably
the upper one is sharp and the lower one flat. If this difference is small, don't
worry about it yet. The important step is to ensure the two Cs are as nearly as possible
in tune using both the harmonics and the machine to check them. This ensures you
have the correct octave-length.
Before the next step, read the following carefully:- you will be using 3rd harmonics
(a twelfth above the fundamental) to check the pitch of the second octave of your
flute. Unlike 2nd harmonics (octaves), the 3rd harmonics should be slightly sharper
than the natural note*. What you have to do is determine the difference between the
two notes or the degree of sharpness. You must train your ear to hear the degree
* This is the difference between natural 'just intonation' and man- made Equal Temperament.
Continue to the next step:
4) Play C1 again, this time over blowing it until it produces the 12th above, G2,
as at d) below. Compare this harmonic with the natural G2. There should be a difference,
but is the gap large or is it small as it should be? Though small, the difference
should just be discernable. Make a note of the size of the difference or gap. Do
not make any alteration to the intonation with your lips or jaw. It is tempting,
driven by fear about what you may find, to 'adjust' the intervals so as to justify
the money spent on your 18ct gold cherished flute.
c) Play C#1 and by over blowing to the 3rd harmonic, compare it to the natural G#2.
Make a note of the degree of difference in pitch. Now play D1 and compare it with
A2. Continue through Eb1 comparing it with Bb2; E1 comparing it with B2(3) and then
F1 comparing it with C3. You can make a 'double check' here between the 4th harmonic
of C1 (C3) and the 3rd harmonic of F1, also C3. Finally, check the C#s, using both
3rd and 4th harmonics.
You will have to be patient, making a note of how large the gap is between the
natural middle register note and the harmonic. There should be a small difference,
the harmonic usually being sharper. It is the degree of sharpness you are noting.
The amount of swing of your tuning machine indicator between the two notes, may also
Depending on your flute, there will probably be varying differences between each
middle register note and it's harmonic. More importantly, does the difference between
the two notes vary much as you change notes? There may even be one or more notes
where the harmonic note is actually flatter than the natural note you are comparing
it with and if so, add this to your list as it is an important pointer.
Note:- 1) On some flutes, D2 is sharp and pulling out the foot joint - (yes, the
foot), may largely, though not completely, correct this. So, if your flute has a
sharp D2, pull the foot out a little, and repeat the experiments above. You have
to do this because you are using the four foot joint notes, low C, C# D and Eb (five
notes if you have a low B foot) to check the middle register notes, and this will
affect the overall results.*
2) Head joints can affect the general intonation though it is rare to find such a
badly made head that both the tone and the octaves are defective. However, we three
have come across head joints which play C#3 flatter compared with C#2. Sometimes
the problem is with C2 and C3 as well as C#2 and C#3 and there may be several reasons
why this is so. So, when checking your flute's intonation, if possible, check your
head joint on another flute as it could be the head joint which has the problem.
Finally, after all these checks, which may take a few days or more to complete,
you might find that your flute is quite well in tune. Then again, you may find that
your 18 carat gold masterpiece has been constructed to an imperfect scale and that
the difference between the natural note and the harmonic of the lower note is too
variable. At the very least, though pleased, disappointed, puzzled, cross, angry,
or perhaps doubting the validity of this test and of your own ears, now you know.
* You may find that there seems to be no logic in your findings, and you may
also question whether the low notes - which are used to check the upper notes - are
themselves in tune? You may need to seek advice on what to do.