As a beginner, you might not know that your flute technically needs to be tuned every time you play it. But what does it mean to be ‘in tune’ and how do we do it??
This blog will get a bit scientific and look at how ‘sound’ works, explain why tuning is important, what affects it, and includes my personal step-by-step video guide to flute tuning.
How sound works
Musical instruments produce many sounds (musical notes) that each have a unique frequency heard by the human ear. Sound travels in waves and is produced when an instrument vibrates. For flute, it occurs when we blow across the embouchure hole and make the air blown into the flute tube vibrate.
Frequency (measured in Hertz or Hz for short) is the number of waves that occur in one second. It’s also referred to as the pitch of a sound. A high frequency sound wave produces a high pitch and a low frequency sound wave produces a low pitch. When a musician plays any note, it’s possible for the note to vary or ‘bend’ slightly in sound wave frequency to be either higher or lower than its correct value. Playing notes higher than their correct pitch is called ‘sharp’ and playing notes lower than their correct pitch is called ‘flat.’
Reference pitch of flutes
To calibrate our flutes to play at this correct ‘reference’ value and play notes at their intended frequencies, it’s necessary for us to make some minor adjustments both in our own playing technique as well as to the flute itself. We call this process tuning our flute. Every flute is designed to play all of its notes, relative to a reference pitch. However, there is some confusion if you search online as to the reference pitch of flutes.
Many modern flutes are now designed to play a low octave A note at 442Hz. The old pitch standard was 440Hz although it’s unclear when the change actually began. This means an A played at 440Hz is ever so slightly lower than an A played at 442Hz. And all the notes played on a flute with a reference pitch of 440Hz are slightly lower than a 442Hz flute, and so on.
Depending on the needs of the player (such as which country they perform in or whether they play in orchestras), professional flutes can be custom designed to reference pitches, often between A440 and A446. It’s worth checking with your flute dealer or the manufacturer for the pitch of your flute if you are unsure. In reality the difference in these two most common frequencies (A440 andA442) is almost undetectable to the untrained musical ear. But its’ worth noting in case you come across tuning difficulties down the track.
How your flute produces sound
A modern flute has precisely placed holes covered by pressing down on the keys. The positioning of these holes relative to the embouchure hole and each other, as well as their height and size is known as the scale of the flute. The Boehm scale is the basis of the flute scales used today. Flute makers have made modifications to this scale over time. The Powell, Cooper, Bennett and Deveau scales have all been developed in an effort to improve timbre and the ability of all flute notes to play in tune with one another over all octaves. Using different fingerings, players change the length of the column of vibrating air. A longer tube produces lower pitch and a shorter tube produces higher pitch. It’s this concept of lengthening or shortening the flute tube to lower or elevate pitch that forms a large part of the flute tuning process.
What can affect flute tuning?
There are lots of factors that affect flute tuning. Overall these factors fall into three main categories – you (the player), the instrument itself and the environment you’re playing in.
Arguably the most important environmental factor that affects flute tuning is the temperature of the room or area you are playing in. As the temperature grows hotter, the flute has a tendency to play sharp. As the temperature gets cooler, the flute has a tendency to play flat. Cold air inside a cold flute is denser than warm air inside a warm flute. The colder air provides greater resistance to the vibrating sound waves, slowing them down and producing a lower pitch. That’s why it’s important to warm your flute to ‘playing temperature’ before tuning as well as tuning in the performance location immediately before you play. Because flutes are relatively small instruments, they can heat up and cool down relatively quickly in response to changes in temperature. Larger instruments take longer to change temperature. So if you're playing in a group, tuning multiple instrument groups together is a challenge!
Variability in how individuals play the flute can also greatly affect flute tuning. To name just a few, changes to the embouchure shape and size, air speed and air angle all have the ability to sharpen or flatten playing.
- Air speed/ volume – Not using enough breath and playing with a slow air speed results in playing flat. This is often a problem when beginners try to play softly. Over-blowing and using too much air is another common mistake that results in playing sharp. This often happens when trying to play loudly. Playing in tune over a large dynamic (volume) range will take practice. It’s not a result of blasting more or less air into the flute, but controlling the speed of your air through the size of your embouchure lip opening.
- Embouchure coverage – Covering too much of the flute embouchure hole will result in playing flatter. Rolling the flute in towards your face, pressing it into your chin too hard, or positioning it too high or low on the lips can also change the pitch.
- Air direction – Directing more or less air into the flute can be controlled by moving your jaw and lips. Directing air lower by dropping your jaw slightly lowers the pitch and directing air higher over the hole by pushing your jaw out slightly raises the pitch.
For all these reasons it’s important for flute players to settle into their natural playing embouchure before tuning
The configuration of the flute is one of most important factors affecting flute tuning. The head joint, body and foot can be independently moved in relation to each other. By changing the distance between these parts, it changes the flute length and therefore its pitch (as I mentioned earlier). Flute players can alter the length of the flute to tune it to the correct reference pitch by pushing in or pulling out the head joint from the body. It’s normal for your flute to need adjustment like this every time you play from few millimetres up to 15 millimetres. Depending on the environment you are playing in, it can be slightly different each time. Another way the length of the flute can be changed is by adjusting the cork inside the head joint. This should rarely require adjustment and should only be done by an experienced teacher or technician.
Why is flute tuning important?
A flute player’s performance needs to accurately reflect the sound that the composer originally intended. And so the flute must produce notes at the proper frequencies. Also importantly, when we play with other flutes or in an ensemble or orchestra, all of the instruments must be properly tuned (or calibrated to the same reference point) so they produce the same frequency notes when performing together. Otherwise, the sound waves travel at slightly different speeds and they clash to produce a ‘waah waah’ effect. In theory, musical notes are in tune when they have the same frequency. In reality, we try and get as close as we possibly can (taking into account all the other factors
How to tune your flute
What you’ll need for flute tuning:
- Your assembled flute
- Your tuning rod
- A tuner. This can be a physical tuner, an online tuner or an app on your phone
Watch me take you through a quick example of flute tuning below…
Beginning in tune is one thing, but continuing to play in tune is another! Playing over a range of dynamics and octaves while remaining in tune is challenging for even advanced players. Modifying your playing technique to control tuning during playing will be the subject of a future blog… so stay tuned…