If you could use one word to describe your flute tone (or how your flute sounds), what would it be?
Rich, clear and focused?
Or... fuzzy, weak and airy?
If you'd use one of the latter descriptions, there's some simple reasons why this is happening to you.
(And don't worry. They can be fixed with some surprisingly small adjustments).
In this article I’ll explain what is meant by flute tone, what affects it most and some super easy troubleshooting tips to zero in on INCREDIBLE sound.
What is meant by 'flute tone'?
Flute tone or tone colour or timbre refers to the quality of sound a flute produces.
(We'll get on to describing the types of sounds in a minute.)
In general, tone helps to distinguish different musical instruments. They just 'sound' different, right?
A note on a trumpet sounds 'different' to the same note played on a flute or a clarinet.
Check it out...
(This is the frequency spectra of the same note played on three instruments. I'll fill you in on the details soon, but just look... the general 'fingerprint' of the notes look totally different!)
It can go to a level deeper too.
Tone can describe the subtle differences of the same note played by different flutists like here...
(Check out how different the fingerprints look between players playing the same note).
OR the same player playing the same note on two different flutes. (What?!)
So who cares about tone?
Well, just as if you were reading a fairy tale to a child and voicing different characters, your flute tone can help to communicate a mood or emotion.
And different genres of music often require different variations of tone colour.
How sound works in the flute
To understand flute tone colours, we need to understand how sound is produced in the flute first.
When you blow, the vibrating air inside the flute produces sound waves.
The number of waves occurring each second is known as the frequency.
When we play a note, we are actually playing several note frequencies at set intervals from the original note (called overtones) all at once. This collection of frequencies is known as the harmonic series of each note.
For example, here's the harmonic series of low D...
So when you play a low D, these are actually all of notes that are blended together to give low D it's characteristic sound.
But overall, what we hear is one dominant note (low D, known as the fundamental).
The differences in tone colour between musical instruments are due to characteristic combinations of overtones from this harmonic series.
Check out the frequency spectra of a note played on a flute versus a trombone...
Next, I'll show you some spectrographs of notes played. Each coloured line represents a harmonic overtone within the note. The greater the height of the line, the more dominant that overtone is.
A study by Yorita, found some general conclusions about tone preferences...
Notes that lacked the upper harmonics or had one excessive harmonic were considered the least pleasant for listeners.
Check out the spectra of this 'poor' quality note. And see that one of the harmonic frequencies is really standing out above the rest.
Now look at the spectra of the same note judged as 'great' quality. See how there's a way better balance of harmonic overtones?
(Just an aside... Harmonics are an INCREDIBLE way to develop tone and embouchure flexibility. If you're struggling particularly with your lowest and highest notes then join our >>> Optimize your Flute Tone workshop. In this step-by-step lesson we show you exactly how to use harmonics and long tone exercises to zero in on clear, consistent sound).
Describing flute tone colors
You’ll hear lots of different words used to describe flute tone such as dark, bright, singing, rich, dull, airy…
There's actually a frustratingly large number of ways to describe tone, and research agrees, it’s highly subjective.
Back to the Yorita study, here's ALL the different words that were used to describe the notes (and the number of times they were used).
So in this study, participants listened to notes played by several flutists and were simply asked to describe the quality of the sound.
But other notes were far more difficult and showed a confusing mixture of tone descriptors by the participants.
Interestingly, the more experienced flute players who listened to the notes showed they preferred different tone colors to less experienced players.
I think we all agree. The extremes of flute tone such as ‘breathy’ or ‘clear’ are relatively easy for listeners to distinguish.
But some descriptions of flute tone are more subtle and require an ear that has been trained by listening to many examples of flute playing.
For example - can you identify a 'mellow' tone or a 'bright' tone?
As a general rule of thumb words such as dark or mellow describe sounds that are rich in the lower overtones. Bright, edgy and hard typically describe sounds that are rich in the higher overtones.
Listening to lots of great flute players can help you gain a better sense of tone.
How flute tone is affected
Subtle differences in flute tone colour can be modified by emphasising either the lowest or highest overtones. There are two major factors overall that contribute to the strength and number of these flute overtones
- The embouchure shape of the player; and
- The quality of the materials and cut of the embouchure hole itself.
(We cover both of these 'pillars of sound' and more, in our >>> Optimize your Flute Tone workshop).
The vertical and horizontal placement of the flute against your chin as well as the shape and size of your aperture make up your embouchure.
All influence the angle, distance and speed of air striking the embouchure hole.
All are key factors in good tone production.
Slow air speed favours lower overtones producing a darker, fuller sound.
Faster air speed favours the higher overtones producing a brighter tone.
Experimenting with different aspects of your embouchure is the best way to change your tone.
So related to the embouchure is this concept called resonance.
A resonator is a hollow cavity that vibrates with and amplifies sound waves.
Essentially it acts as an echo chamber that adds volume and enhances the combination of overtones within a sound.
The flute tube acts only as a partial resonator, meaning the body of the flutist (i.e. the mouth and throat) must also act as one. The position of the tongue, jaw, soft palate and cheeks are all factors that the flutist can control to influence the resonator's size and shape.
The size of the resonator needed to produce the purest and most intense sound depends on the pitch of the note. Higher notes require smaller resonators and lower notes require larger resonators.
Adjusting the size of these body resonators appropriate to the pitch of the note being played will produce a fullness to your sound over the entire note range.
(Creating resonance and the role of your tongue and mouth is another 'pillar' that influences your flute tone. Learn more in our >> Optimize your Flute Tone workshop).
Flute materials and tone
Flutes can be made from metals and alloys that range significantly in price and quality.
Many players swear that certain materials have distinctive ‘tone colors.’
For example the tone of silver flutes is often described as bright whereas gold is described as warm and deep.
Do more expensive flutes sound better?
Most experienced players would say yes!
But it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the improvement is due to the higher quality materials or the more precise craftsmanship of a handmade flute.
Studies to determine whether material really influences flute tone colour have been conducted.
One such study tested whether experienced players and listeners could identify the material a flute was made of, and describe the tone of each.
A passage of music was played by various players on flutes made from seven different materials. The sound spectrums were analysed and found no statistically significant difference in flute tone between the flutes played by each player.
Once again, the tone descriptors used by the listeners often contradicted one another, showing the subjective nature of stereotypes players have of flute material types.
Troubleshooting flute tone
Whatever word you want to describe your flute tone, your objective should always be to produce a sound that is pleasant to the listener.
So take some time experimenting with aspects of your embouchure and begin to understand how even the smallest of changes can make a massive difference in your tone.
Play one note (such as a low G) for this exercise, close your eyes or record yourself and slowly work through making changes to
- The vertical and horizontal position of the flute
- The positioning of your arms (is your flute parallel to the ground or at an angle?)
- The amount of lip coverage of the embouchure hole (by rolling in and out)
- The length and depth of the aperture (also by rolling in and out)
- The angle of the air jet by moving your jaw and/or lips back and forward.
- The speed of air (by decreasing or increasing the size of the aperture)
Can you zero in on a tone that sounds the best to you (remember - we're aiming for focused, rich and clear).
If you can, the real test is if you can you match that same tone when playing higher or lower notes.
Next, you can attempt to enhance these different tones by playing around with the idea of resonance. Practise by forming the vowel sounds A-E-I-O-U, dropping your jaw, yawning with your mouth closed as you play to make changes to the shape and size of the mouth and throat cavity.
If fuzzy, airy, weak sound is all that you can manage right now, watch our 45 minute workshop and learn the simple exercises that will help you to troubleshoot your tone. From airy and inconsistent, to confidently clear.
Harby, K., UNSOUND REASONING. Scientific American, 1998. 278(3): p. 20-21.
Jiang, W et al.Music Instrument Estimation in Polyphonic Sound Based on Short-Term Spectrum Match. Available from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-01533-5_10
Linortner, R. Wall material and the sound of the flute. [cited 2017 2 September]; Available from: http://iwk.mdw.ac.at/?page_id=97&sprache=2
Wilcocks, G., Improving tone production on the flute with regards to embouchure, lip flexibility, vibrato and tone colour, as seen from a classical music perspective, in Department of Music. 2006, University of Pretoria.
Yorita, R. and J. Clements. Using spectral analysis to evaluate flute tone quality. in Proceedings of Meetings on Acoustics 169ASA. 2015. ASA.