A guide to flute tuning on the Irish flute. This post is an extract from ‘A Complete Guide To Learning The Irish Flute‘ By Fintan Valley.

This book can be purchased here.

The 4 Different Tuning Aspects 

This is every flute player’s personal nightmare, shared generously with people on other instruments. There are four aspects to tuning;

  1. Individual instrument tuning
  2. ‘Fixed’ tuning
  3. Personal tuning &
  4. Tuning to others

The first two tunings concern how in-tune the flute is with itself.  The individual tuning is determined first by the quality of the instrument, and in most cases will be absolutely fine. But you can check it with a standard electronic tuner if you feel the need.

The fixed tuning is set by a cork set in the top of the head of the flute, and is normally okay and should not be tampered with.

Personal tuning is about how you blow the instrument. It will always be problematic in the beginning, but the player’s ear will direct the body to move the flute, roll it, and wriggle it so that each blown note is reasonably accurate.

However, some beginners have a serious problem with these adjustments and continue to blow out of tune. This may be due to deficiencies in the relationship between hearing and action – fundamental problems. But more likely it is due to lack of practice, sloppiness or lack of thinking. For it is indeed possible to blow every note on the flute totally out of tune with other instruments; this is because there is so much variability among blowing positions, mouth shape and wind pressure.

Tuning to Others

Normal tuning, is most important when playing with others, assuming that the other three versions of tuning are adequately taken care of already. The flute is deliberately given variable normal tuning (referred to from here on as ‘tuning’ only) so that it can respond to changes of pitch in other fixed-pitch instruments for which tuning is not practicable (pianos, accordions, concertina, pipes).

Like the fiddle, the flute is made to be tuneable because it can be (fiddlers can easily adjust the tension of strings to adjust the pitch). But unlike the fiddle the flute can not normally be tuned by someone else for the player, for everybody has an individual mouth-shape.

Tuning of the flute is done by lengthening or shortening the instrument — achieved by adjusting the distance between the blowing hole and the top finger hole. Most flutes have a tuning slide which makes this easy. Moving the slide in, raises the pitch, makes the note higher, moving it out, lowers the note. But on flutes without a slide, the first joint below the blowing hole can be adjusted successfully in exactly the same way — by sliding the joint parts in or out.

Personal Tuning

If your flute is all in one piece — such as walking-stick flutes — no tuning is possible, but such instruments are usually accurately pitched and will be in tune with fixed-tuning instruments when they are warmed up. Until a flute warms up, you can adjust the tuning at your mouth by altering the blowing angle: rolling towards you lowers the pitch, rolling away raises it.

Typically musicians will tune up before starting to play by playing an A note on a chosen instrument, and all tuning to that same instrument. After a time, when your flute warms up, re-tuning will be necessary. You will generally find that though your A will be spot on, not all of your other notes will be. This is normal, and you must compensate by slightly rolling the flute as described above. It is better not to think too much about it at this stage for, as you progress, your ear will adjust notes automatically.

Why Tune?

The obvious fact is that if instruments are not in tune they sound discordant and unpleasant. But it is a bigger issue with the flute for it does not remain in tune forever in relation to other fixed-tuning instruments. This is to do with the nature of both the player and the wood.

The wood responds to humidity and temperature – the colder it is the lower the pitch, the warmer it is the higher the pitch. You have to compensate for this by adjusting the effective length of the instrument. The player’s mouth is a variable too; when the lips are put to the flute they may be flabby, swollen or maybe firm, but when playing for a while their condition will change slightly, at which point they remain stable for some time.

Each of these factors affects tuning, and if the player is frequently stopping and starting, then the flute and the player’s mouth are changing intermittently too. Each time the instrument is picked up again, something has to be compensated for. However, under most playing conditions – in the absence of extreme cold – the tuning effort needed to get back in tune after a break should be nothing more than an adjustment of the blowing angle.

While waiting for the flute’s pitch to rise to that of the other instruments, it is a wise idea to hold back a bit with volume or energy -the flute will be back in tune usually by the end of the first tune.

What to Tune to?

An electronic tuner is a useful device to check tuning as its use doesn’t require another person. However you can also tune to a tin whistle in the key of D or another fixed-tuning instrument.

Tuning is usually done to the A note on most instruments. Play the A (2) note on the whistle, keep it in your head and pick up the flute and blow A. You should be able to assess if it is higher or lower than the whistle. Adjust the flute and try again.

If you are in company, get a person on a fixed-tuning instrument like whistle, accordion or concertina to play the A for you at length, and blow your A while moving the slide appropriately. If you are entering a group that has been playing together and has warmed up already, then you can (usually) take the A from a player on any instrument, even (most easily) from another flute.

Hearing ‘in Tune’

When tuning to another person get them to play a long A note and play along with If you are in tune, your note will match theirs perfectly. If you are grossly out of tune, move the slide in or out b large amount until you hear the pitch getting closer – you will hear a kind of wavering, called ‘beats’.  At this point you need to move very slightly in or out. As you move down, out of tune, the beats get very fast and disappear in discordance when you are totally out of tune. As you move up, into tune, the beats get very slow, and disappear when you are totally in tune.

All this is hard to appreciate in a noisy session, or when people are sitting around restlessly waiting to play. But if you are not in tune it will simply not sound good. However, some of the best sessions have a faint discordant character to them – the sum of ins and outs of tune cancel out in a session sound which has tremendous edge and energy.

Sometimes the effort of perfect tuning under certain circumstances can destroy the rhythm or the chemistry of the occasion, especially if older players are present who may have a different ear for the music. A session is not a performance. It is a social event involving artistic expression and collaboration. A stage performance is different however – session conditions do not apply under the magnifying glass of silent scrutiny and, in most stage circumstances, tuning is vitally important.

Practice tuning at your leisure with someone blowing A on a whistle (even a non musician) so that you get to know the feel and sound of the ‘beats’.`

A wonderful extract from A Complete Guide To Learning The Irish Flute By Fintan Valley.

This book can be purchased here.

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