Changing octaves on the flute: a survey of published opinions

November 30, 2012

On the flute, there are several notes that have identical fingerings: each note from bottom-line E through third-space C-sharp has exactly the same fingering as the note an octave higher. Obviously, some factor other than fingerings must account for the octaves, but flutists as a group seem to be unclear on what it is.

I got curious and dug through some pedagogical sources to see what flutists have published about it. I have compiled my findings into a chart:

To achieve the upper octaves on the flute

I have started from the baseline of the lowest octave’s tone production methods, and framed the authors’ ideas in terms of what has to be done to move into higher octaves. And I’ve grouped the answers together as best I can, hopefully with reasonable accuracy as to the authors’ intended meanings. For example, “move jaw” and “move jaw forward” obviously overlap, but I separated them to try to maintain the authors’ original levels of specificity. And “jaw” and “chin” may really be the same thing for most flute-playing purposes, but I’ve separated in them in a case where the author seemed to see them as distinct.

Some of the authors address the issue specifically and in detail, while others just mention something in passing, so the chart does not necessarily represent their complete and definitive views. I have provided a bibliography with page numbers so you can read the authors’ words in context, and I highly recommend doing this if you’re interested in the topic. I’ve color-coded things so you can see at a glance which ideas are most popular, though I don’t think this is an issue to be settled by popular vote.

There are some surprising outliers. Most authors who mentioned the size of the aperture indicated that it should get smaller in the upper octaves, but a couple insisted that it should not change. Several authors indicated that the distance from the aperture to the blowing edge decreases for upper registers, but one said it actually increases. There’s significant disagreement on whether blowing harder is part of achieving the higher octaves.

I think some of the differences of opinion shown in the chart may be due to flutists actually doing the same things but describing them differently. It’s also possible that the techniques listed can be combined in different ways to create different tone production “recipes” that produce similar results.

I’m interested in continuing to expand this in the future. If you can point me toward a published source, then send it along (I’m not really interested in anecdotes or private opinions), or let me know if you think I have misread or misinterpreted someone’s views (especially if you’re the author!).


1.0, November 30, 2012, initial release.


  1. Syd Polk

    For me, by far the biggest thing I do is move my jaw forward for high notes and back for low notes. The secondary controller is the position in my mouth of the tongue. And yes, my aperture probably gets bigger on lower notes.


  2. Geoff Allen

    An interesting problem! I know that for me, all I can really tell you I do when choosing the octave I’ll play is, umm…., choose the octave to play. :-)


  3. Jerry Pritchard

    Bret, I think you have hit it exactly on the head: you can make the air vibrate twice as fast (the definition of an octave) several ways or by changing each of the factors a small amount.
    —Blowing harder works, but then you are always sharp in the high notes.
    —Moving the lower lip forward and shortening the distance the air has to travel works, but may flatten the pitch or change the tone color so that you have to raise the angle of the air to compensate.
    —The low notes respond better when the air is directed to the lower part of the wall of the riser and the higher notes respond better when the air strikes the top of the wall, but the low notes may be flatter.
    —Making the aperture smaller works because this increases the speed of the air reaching the flute, but lets less air out and so the tone is softer.

    Each of these methods has an effect on the intensity and timbre of the flute tone’ and using varying combinations of them in a personal “recipe” is what makes the flute tone so individualistic…and so endlessly interesting.

    I am surprised than none of the authors cited discuss the effect of raising the position of the tongue in the mouth and bringing it forward.


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