A Guide to Traditional Irish Wooden Flute Tuning
I’ve had a couple of emails from customers recently regarding the tuning of their new traditional Irish wooden flute. One customer had purchased my cocuswood flute and was having trouble with the C#. It was coming in flat.
Another customer had purchased a Des Seery Delrin flute and was finding that the flute was coming in somewhat flat against her guitar.
This issue arises quite a bit in the world of traditional Irish flute music. So I thought a blog post on the fascinating subject of tuning on the Irish wooden flute was due.
Variable Tuning on the Irish Wooden Flute
When it comes to tuning on the ‘modern’ Irish flute it is most important to bear in mind that these flutes are based on the simple system conical bore flutes of the early and mid 1800s and predate the modern Boehm flute.
‘A flute is deliberately given variable normal tuning so that it can respond to changes of pitch in other fixed-pitch instruments for which tuning is not practicable (pianos, accordions, concertina, pipes)’ – Fintan Vallely
To this end, most Irish flutes come with a tuning slide to aid the player in adjusting to the correct pitch for the playing environment. Extending the tuning slide flattens the pitch of the note and closing it sharpens the pitch of the note. The tuning slide is standard on all good makes of Irish flute.
Pratten Style Irish Flutes
The McNeela range of Irish wooden flutes is based on the Pratten Perfected flute model from the mid 1850s. Robert Sidney Pratten, a larger than life figure, designed a flute to fit his own style of playing and to produce a big sound – the result was a large conical bore flute with a larger than standard embouchure, large tone holes and a fair amount of heft.
The Irish Flute Style
The larger tone holes and the larger embouchure suited the man himself but can, and have, presented problems to the modern player.
It’s worth noting that once the modern and more player friendly Boehm flute was introduced in the mid 1800s the simple system flutes of yore began to be abandoned and ended up in second hand shops where they made their hands into the poorer musical population.
This concurrent flute subculture eventually hit Irish shores where the simple system flute enjoyed a continuous stream of popularity due to its cheap price. It was thus a playing style known as the Irish flute style was born.
Tuning Issues on the Irish Wooden Flute
So you have a flute based on a pre Boehm design which demands that the player adjust to it rather than the other way around. This flute has variable tuning and is not tuned to equal temperament. The large tone holes and embouchure present an added problem for players and can often upset the sensitive ears of the modern musician.
Some players may notice that going from the C# to the D is off key somewhat and other players may notice general flatness or sharpness in the notes, or specific notes, more particularly the foot notes, will sound slightly off key.
McNeela Irish flutes are designed and built to produce a powerful and pitch perfect low D, a hugely important note in the traditional Irish music realm as the majority of traditional Irish tunes are played in the key of D. In order to achieve this great low D we’ve sacrificed the tuning on the C# somewhat but don’t worry, read on!
How to Compensate for Flat Tuning on an Irish Flute
Now there are players who play flatter than others and makers have been known to actually design and make flutes to suit that player. Other players may need to adjust their embouchure to fine tune the note.
There are so many resources available to the Irish flute learner and as each flute player is different it would be redundant of me to try to give detailed tips however the solution may rest with your technique and here are some of the common methods used to correct flat tuning on the Irish flute.
The Angle of the Air Stream on the Irish Flute
Fintan Vallely wrote in his seminal flute tutorial, The Irish Flute, that perfect tuning is not necessarily essential at an Irish music session, especially if achieving it interferes with flow and rhythm. Older players may also hear the music differently and these players would and should always be deferred to.
He does, however, recommend turning the embouchure away from you to raise the pitch – “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.”
To read a more detailed account from Vallely have a read of an extract from his excellent flute tutorial here.
Jim Stone on the Chiff & Fipple forum recommends lifting your chin and/or rolling out the flute and blowing over the hole. Or lifting your chin and/or rolling out the flute and blowing down into the hole. The angle of the air-stream lifts the note’s pitch.
The Hard D on the Irish Wooden Flute
Matt Molloy is famous for his ‘hard’ low D, a technique he developed to produce a strong and tuneful low D.
Akin to an uilleann piper’s hard D, it’s the D played ‘hard’ with loads of edge, complexity and volume using an embouchure technique that Molloy developed.
It may very well be the case that Molloy was compensating for a flat D on his Pratten Perfected Flute and was overblowing the D to raise the pitch. In any event developing this should also help you produce a perfectly tuned low D.
Further Research on Irish Flute Tuning
I would consider Fintan Vallely’s flute tutorial, The Irish Flute, and Conal Ó Gráda’s flute tutorial and CD, An Fheadóg Mhór, to be essential reading material for anyone wishing to tackle the Irish flute, let alone the tuning.
A quick tour around the excellent flute forum, Chiff & Fipple , will also throw up plenty of online discussion and debate regarding the complexities of simple system Irish flute tuning and how to master it.
You are of course always welcome to contact me if you’ve any questions at all regarding the McNeela Irish Flute range. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to help and answer any questions you may have.
Thanks for this article.
I bought a McNeela flute a few months ago and was worried about the tuning of the C #. So developing the technique could improve the tuning on that note? By the way, the low D sounds great in my flute.
Hi Cris, thanks for your comment and sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Yes, developing your technique should definitely help. Let us know how you get on!
Hello Paraic, I purchased a McNeela Blackwood some time ago and as a novice I find this blog very interesting. It is a fine,well made flute with great tone. I hadn’t noticed the C# as flat and the low D is very good. Thanks for the article.
THat’s great to hear, John. Thanks for the feedback. Paraic
A lower 7’th and 6’th bring the tuning closer the harmonics -in the overtone spectrum. Good Indian Bansuris are still tuned to the harmonics of the key-note = left-hand, three holes covered ( major scale, in mixolydian mode) Playing with singers, violinists and similar works fine. The irish flute / pratten-conical could have the same tuning-ideal – or not ?