Making sense of third-octave flute fingerings

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:




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 ventte6
tf5open venttf6
tfs5open venttfs6
tg5open venttg6

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.

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5 thoughts on “Making sense of third-octave flute fingerings”

  1. 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. 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.

  3. 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.


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