Making sense of third-octave flute fingerings

February 17, 2015

I recall as a beginning flutist (coming from background in saxophone) finding the third-octave fingerings to be a confusing, illogical jumble, but they do actually make some sense. There is an incorrect explanation for these fingerings that I hear every so often, and have seen published on a couple of flute-related blogs recently. It goes something like this: the flute’s third-octave fingerings are some kind of combination of two different first/second-octave fingerings. For example:

ta4 + te5 = te6 ?
1424179983 1424179997 1424180007


tbf4 + tf5 = tf6 ?
1424180013 1424180018 1424180777

If I squint my eyes just right I can sort of see how this almost makes sense fingerings-wise and overtones-wise, but ultimately this system is unnecessarily confusing and also doesn’t reflect acoustical realities.

Here’s a better way to look at third-octave flute fingerings: they are the same as the first/second octave fingerings, with a vent opened. This is very similar to how upper registers are achieved on the reed instruments: by adding an octave or register key or releasing a whisper key to open a vent. Since the flute doesn’t have dedicated vent holes, toneholes are used.

For some of the third octave notes, additional keys must be added or subtracted to improve pitch, tone, or response; again this is analogous to the systems used for the reed instruments. But here are the simplest examples of opening single vents for the third octave:

te5  open vent te6
1424179997 1424183194 1424180007
tf5 open vent tf6
1424180018 1424183208 1424180777
tfs5 open vent tfs6
1424184167 1424183218 1424184173
tg5 open vent tg6
1424184151 1424183227 1424184158

It is probably worth pointing out that having any “system” for remembering fingerings is just a crutch; for a performing musician, the only practical “system” is to thoroughly habituate them to the point that no conscious thought is required. Practice carefully and be on the alert for dubious pedagogy.

Make your own handsome woodwind fingering diagrams with the Fingering Diagram Builder


  1. Meri Newell

    Good explanation. I talk about vents as well because I work overtone exercises along with teaching the fingerings, even with young students. BTW-checking the box proves nothing of a kind.


  2. Geoff Allen

    Excellent explanation! (And the fingering diagrams help drive it home.)


  3. Ed

    That is the same idea with clarinet. People get confused about that high register. It is all about overtones and different venting to get the harmonic to speak in tune.


  4. Gary Garner

    All great. What are shown are actually 4th partials (fundamentals an octave lower than shown). Starting with high Ab, we have two vents for every note. A is a 5th partial of low F with 1 and 4 vented (although it has no acoustical basis, it’s easier for students to remember it’s like low A and trade 1st fingers); Bb is a 4th partial with 1 and 1st trill key vents; B is a 5th partial of low G, venting 2 and 2nd trill key; C is a 6th partial of low F, venting with thumb and G#. No pinky, of course, on top three.


  5. Gary Garner

    Sorry, I neglected to say that high Ab is low low Ab with thumb and 1 vented.


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