Flute Acoustics

Flute Acoustics: the mystery and the science

simple drum

Madinga slit drum – simple drum

The flute is the second oldest musical instrument in the world but flute acoustics are highly complicated. The drum is the oldest musical instrument in the world, and their acoustics are rather straightforward. A hand or mallet strikes the drum and it begins to vibrate. The air around the drum expands and compresses to create sound waves.

Completely unlike the drum, the flute produces a tone by splitting an airstream on an edge. There are many different kinds of flutes. For example, a recorder is a kind of flute. The recorder produces a sound when air blown through the mouthpiece is directed at the sharp edge of the whistle. Pan pipes are also a kind of flute, because air is blown over the opposite edge of an open tube. Instead of keys, each tube on the panpipe is a different length and creates a different pitch.

On all flutes, vibration is caused by the displacement of the jet of air and the pitch is formed by a resonating pipe. Changes in the pitch are produced by changing the pipe length. That’s the short explanation of flute acoustics.

flute acoustics

giant pan pipes

For a more technical explanation of flute acoustics, check out these websites:

Flute acoustics: and introduction

General info on acoustic physics of the flute: (also other instruments)

The modern flute is an acoustic wonder. The lip plate and tone hole are carefully crafted for the proper edge resistance. The Boehm System flute that most flutists play has 18-20 keys. The keys open and close tone holes to create approximately 40,000 fingering combinations. The flutist’s bible for fingerings is A Modern Guide To Fingerings for the Flute by James Pellerite. It contains page after page of standard fingerings, multi-phonics, trills, tremolos, and fingerings for special situations.

flute acoustics modern flute

A student recently told me about some online resources for fingerings. (Thanks, James, for the links!)

“The Virtual Flute” allows you to find fingerings using an algorithm. You can ask it to generate all tones that can theoretically be produced by a given fingering or you can ask it to find all the fingerings for a given pitch (or pitches). This is a fantastic resource for composers looking for new sound capabilities of the flute. It’s also a novel way to find new fingerings for difficult passages in flute music or to find fingerings that may be useful for correcting pitch problems.

Another website offers flute fingerings for a variety of flutes, including ones with different footjoints and Baroque flutes:

 Note-by-Note acoustic response data (experimental):

Opening and closing the tone holes isn’t the only thing that influences pitch. The angle of the air, speed of air, and temperature of the room will have an effect on the pitch. Manufactures have different “scales” they use to determine the size and placement of the tone holes. I am especially interested to know if there is an algorithm that understands the slight differences in a manufacturer’s scale. There are some trill fingerings that are radically different depending on which brand of flute is played. Some flutes will have extra tone holes, such as the C# key and this creates even more fingering possibilities. Because pitch and tone quality are inextricably linked on the flute, the player’s body will have some mysterious effects on the sound coming out of it. But that’s going down another rabbit hole…

Flute acoustics is a fascinating topic, one that is worthy of study. Save these links for a good reference and enjoy a bit of a left-brain workout when learning about the science of acoustics. Now, go practice!


The Weird and Wonderful Uvula

The Weird and Wonderful Uvula

What do uvulas have to do with flute playing and teaching? Quite a bit, actually. Read on for a wacky slow motion video of the uvula in action and an explanation for why this might be of interest to musicians.

The uvula is the fleshy bit of skin that hangs down in the back of your mouth. It’s useful for gargling, though nobody really knows why we have one. Two fascinating facts: 1. if a large uvula causes you to snore, you can have it removed – and 2. some people pierce them. Yuck!

I saw this video today by the Slow-Mo Guys and had to share it with you:


Slow-Mo Uvula Video

Flute players use the uvula for a special technique called flutter tonguing.

To flutter tongue with the back of the throat, a player must be able to control the tempo of the “uvulations” – faster for high notes and slower for low notes – and keep the beats steady. Flutter tonguing can also be done by rolling the tongue, and some people prefer this method. Flutter tonguing with the rolled Rs will sound a bit more percussive, but it works well… if you can do it! However, after 31 years of flute playing, I’m still trying to learn how to roll my tongue. Fortunately, I am really good at gargling!

How To Flutter Tongue with the Uvula

Keep the air strong and steady to flutter tongue with the back of the throat. Focus on keeping the back of the mouth open and relaxed. The trick is to be able to let the uvula flap on the airstream while maintaining a good embouchure. Then you have to forget about what is happening at the back of the mouth and play the notes as usual.

Here’s a good YouTube video on the two types of flutter tonguing. The video begins describing and demonstrating the uvula, or throat, method. (By the way, I love the little pop-ups on this video.)

Flutter tonguing on the flute is really fun and it sounds neat. Most people can’t tell how this sound is produced, especially because it doesn’t look different from regular flute playing.

Have fun, be silly, and don’t forget to practice everyday!


Goal Setting for the Practice Room

Goal Setting should be part of every musician’s practice session.

There are many kids of goals in music. Some goals will be achieved within a single practice session, others will take longer to achieve. Regardless, simply writing down goals is a powerful first step in making your practice as effective and efficient as possible.

Today is the first day of lessons after the winter break, and I am talking with my students about their musical goals for the year. Together we are setting New Year’s Resolutions for music. The goals we are developing are mainly long-term goals, like improving tone, learning repertoire, winning first chair in the fall, or memorizing all the major/minor scales. Articulating these goals is good for the student and it’s good for me as a teacher. Once I know what a student’s goal is, I can create a plan and offer the right materials to assist that student’s progress. Goal setting is a positive experience for the student because it promotes motivation and focus,goals are dreams with deadlines

Students should develop the habit of setting goals as part of music practice. Ideally, goal setting should happen at the beginning (Practice Session: Part 1) because it’s easier to build an efficient practice session with and endpoint in mind. When creating practice goals, it’s a good idea to set some short-term goals that can be achieved during a single practice session because meeting those goals is very satisfying and builds confidence that other goals can be met also.

I have always encouraged my students to set goals because it has been a useful tool for me in my development as a musician. Many other music teachers also recommend goal setting so this isn’t something I’ve invented. However, I had no idea that researchers have been looking into the benefits of goal setting since the 1930s. Goal setting really works and there are many scientific studies to prove it! There’s even a codified theory, Goal-Setting Theory, to explain why goal setting is useful.

Goal-Setting Theory

Setting goals affects outcomes in four ways:

  1. Choice: goals narrow attention and direct efforts to goal-relevant activities, and away from perceived undesirable and goal-irrelevant actions.
  2. Effort: goals can lead to more effort; for example, if one typically produces 4 widgets an hour, and has the goal of producing 6, one may work more intensely towards the goal than one would otherwise.
  3. Persistence: someone becomes more likely to work through setbacks if pursuing a goal.
  4. Cognition: goals can lead individuals to develop and change their behavior.

from Latham, Gary P.; Budworth, Marie-Hélène (2007). “The study of work motivation in the 20th century”. In Koppes, Laura L.; Thayer, Paul W.; Vinchur, Andrew J.; Salas, Eduardo. Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. Series in applied psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 353–382 (366). ISBN 0805844406. OCLC 71725282

Write Down Your Goals

A recent report on NPR (“How Writing Down Specific Goals Can Empower You”) discussed the role of goal-setting in achieving academic success. Schools around the world are trying one simple thing. They are asking students write down their goals. Teachers have found that their students have higher achievement after committing to the written goals.

goal setting imageIn my studio, I know that some students skip the goal-setting step in their practice. They believe they will remember their goals without writing them down, or they worry that it takes too much time, or they think it’s silly. However, this study from McGill University in Montreal suggests that putting pen to paper has a powerful effect on achievement.

Make Goal Setting a Habit

Goal Setting also improves non-academic skills like communication, resilience, creativity, and problem solving. The development of these “soft skills” may be more important than cognitive skills that can be measured by a standardized test. Employers are increasingly looking for people who are able to complete complex projects. Musicians are particularly good at this!

Adding goal setting to your daily music practice might make your entire life better.

Goal setting, like many other things, gets easier with practice. Once setting goals has become a habit in music, it’s easy to include it in other parts of your life.

Keep that pencil and notebook handy. You are going to need it.

whatever the mind can conceive, it can achieve