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Right in Tune

by Clint Goss, clint@goss.com, October 7, 2008

This article appeared in Voice of the Wind, 2008, Volume 4.

Standing on a grassy hillside in the Berkshires, I played the first notes on my first Native American flute. Sun … breeze … birds … and that wonderful flute sound that captures us all …


After playing solo for a while, I went to a local flute circle gathering. The organizer provided a heartbeat rhythm on his buffalo drum, and we each played our flutes in turn. One pulse … one heartbeat … one intent … melody and rhythm together …

Resonant Heaven.

Later on, other musicians and instruments started showing up in my life. Guitar, piano, and cello players, all wanting to explore the combination of their sounds with the bag of Native Flutes I had now acquired. We sat down to jam and …


More exactly: sometimes cacophony, sometimes heaven. Some flutes worked great with some instruments. Sometimes. We would play together in a small room and it might sound great. Playing the same combination of instruments in a larger space with more people listening … “not so good”.

What’s going on? It wasn’t the key we were playing in … the experienced people I played with knew how to play their instruments in the minor key of whatever flute I played. It turned out to be the difference in tuning between my flute and their instrument. Some instruments such as guitars and cellos, could re-tune to my flute, but that was a huge hassle.

Being a jam-loving player, I wanted to maximize the Heaven, minimize the Cacophony. I also wanted to minimize the amount of re-tuning my friends had to do with every new flute I pulled out of the ever-bigger flute case I kept showing up with.

My first instinct was “this flute’s out of tune”, but that did not ring true. The same flute-and-piano combination would sometimes be Heaven and sometimes Cacophony. It was clear that the same flute would sometime be in tune with the piano and sometimes have a wildly discordant tuning.

Over the years, I have learned that the most important musical instrument, by far, is our own ear. Listening deeply to our sound is a musical practice that has grown to include how our sound relates to the other sounds around us.

Playing in tune is a lifelong endeavor for all musicians. It is part of the game of constantly listening to our sound and its pitch relationship to the other sounds around us. Simply having a flute that the is “concert-tuned” or which happened to be in tune yesterday is no guarantee of its tuning today, in this musical setting, in these weather conditions.

There are two big kinds of “in tune” questions related to Native Flutes:

Is the flute in tune with itself?

Is the flute in tune with some outside standard, such as another instrument or pitch meter?

Playing Solo

For a flute to be in tune with itself means that the intervals between the notes have a pleasing vibrational relationship. A flute that is in tune with itself will generally sound good to the ear when played solo. Since Native American flutes were traditionally played solo, sounding pleasing to the ear was the only tuning requirement for a good flute.

As we will explore below, being in tune with itself is as much a matter of the way we play the flute as how the flute maker tuned the flute.

With the arrival of electronic pitch meters, flute players began looking to an outside source to tell them if a flute was in tune. This has several pitfalls:

  1. We play differently when we are standing over a hovering meter, watching it waver to and fro. One of the biggest things that affect the pitch of a note on the Native American flute is breath pressure. When we play freely, a particular player will often emphasize higher or lower notes with more breath pressure. When we stand over a pitch meter, that emphasis tends to change dramatically, changing the tuning of each note.
  2. Pitch meters are typically based on a system of tuning called Equal Temperament, which has some compromises and generally does not yield the best sounding instruments.

This second point is a big one. Many systems of tuning were developed, beginning with Pythagoras and the ancient Greeks, where the notes sounded in tune with each other. However, all these systems had the flaw that the frequency relationship between neighboring notes changed from one note to the next. This meant that you could not transpose a melody to another key without retuning the instrument. Many cumbersome solutions were tried, such as harpsichords with five sets of keyboards, each tuned to a different key.

Equal Temperament is a way of tuning the 12 notes in our scale that came into wide use over the last 200 years, beating out many other possibilities. The reason for its predominance is primarily that the intervals between adjacent notes have the same ratio between their frequencies. That meant that music could be transposed from one key to another without retuning the instrument to the new key.

The compromise is that each of the intervals between notes in our 12-tone scale is out of tune from the perfectly sounding interval. In some cases the compromise is slight, but in other cases the note is as much as fifteen percent out of tune. The problem is particularly severe with the interval of the minor third, which is the first interval between the bottom two notes on typical Native Flutes.

For more information on this issue, as well as some graphic and sound samples of different tunings, see the Wikipedia entries for “Just Intonation”. Since each Native Flute tends to be played in one or a very few keys, it is an ideal instrument to be tuned to the more consonant “just intoned” tuning rather than equal temperament.

The bottom line, for me, is to go back to the question “how does the flute sound to me”. I play all the intervals and many songs on a flute, and try to subjectively determine how I like the tuning of the flute.

The Cents of Tuning

Most electronic pitch meters have a small microphone and a moving needle that shows the pitch of a steady tone. The needle typically points straight up when a tone is in tune, to the left when the tone is flat, and to the right when it is sharp.

It is customary to divide the range of pitches from one note to the next higher note into 100 “cents”. You can think of each cent as one percent of the way between a note and the next higher note.

Playing With Others

When we begin to play with other instruments or play over recorded backing tracks, a whole other world of tuning issues and questions opens up. When you hear a native flute against other instruments, even a 10 or 15 cent difference between the flute and the other instruments can be very noticeable, and a 30 cent difference will often be blaring.

If the flute is in tune with itself, that's a great starting point, because the whole flute tends to go sharp or flat in response to a number of factors:

1. Breath Pressure

If we increase breath pressure, the pitch of the notes gets sharper. The sound also gets louder. If you play a flute softly in front of a pitch meter and the meter registers the notes in tune, that flute will only stay in tune with the pitch meter if you continue to play softly. If you then start playing with a piano or a backing track, chances are you will need to blow harder to play louder and match volume with the other sounds. Your flute will get sharp and sound out of tune.

Another issue is that each player varies their breath pressure differently as they play up and down the scale. Some flutes are tuned so that they sound best when you blow harder on the higher notes. Others require a more even breath pressure across the scale. So, whether a flute is in tune with itself depends substantially on the playing style of the player. A flute that, for you, is in tune with itself may not be in tune for another player.

I have a gorgeous flute that is, for me, in tune with itself, but is typically very flat on the pitch meter when I play it at home. When I play with my riff-loving, groove jamming piano friend, I've really got to blow it to be heard … and then it often sounds perfectly in tune!

2. Temperature

Every instrument reacts differently to temperature. Most can be retuned with more or less difficulty, but most Native Flutes cannot.

Our notes are generated from vibrating columns of air. As that air gets warmer, it becomes less dense and sound travels faster. It turns out that the pitch of a note that we hear from a flute increases when sound travels faster.

Our flutes get sharper as the temperature inside the flute rises.

How much sharper? Standard physics formulas published by Owen Cramer ([Cramer 1993]) tell us that pitch rises about 17 cents with a 10°F rise in temperature. That amount of pitch change would be noticeable to most listeners when we play with other instruments.

Have you ever noticed a performer blow into the finger holes of the flute before they play a song? This creates a nice, whooshing, wind-texture, but it also has the effect of warming up the air inside the flute. The air temperature rises from room temperature inside the flute in the space of a 3 minute song, and this is one way to pre-warm the flute before playing and keep it at a more even temperature.

3. Humidity

Increased humidity has the same effect on Native American flutes as increased temperature, since humid air is less dense than dry air. However, the effect is modest … I have been told that this amounts to an increase of 7 cents from 0% to 100% relative humidity.

4. Position of the Bird

This is the one straightforward adjustment that Native American flute players have for pitch.

As the bird (block, totem, fetish) on top of the Native American flute is moved up the body (toward the mouth end of the flute), the flute gets sharper. Moving the bird down the body makes the flute flatter. These movements of the bird are similar to changing the overall length of the sound chamber.

However, moving the bird more than a small fraction of an inch has dramatic effects on sound quality. Try moving your bird up and down your flute while holding a single note. It can be done with one hand while covering some of the upper holes on the flute with the other hand. Listen deeply to the sound as it changes. When does it become more breathy? More reed-like?

Also, move the bird down the body and see how it affects the flute’s tendency to overblow into the upper register. Each flute reacts differently to changes in the position of the bird, and you need to experiment with each flute to find the sweet spot.

Another possibility is to actually change the bird. Some flutes have birds that are designed to be rotated 180° - one side has a flat face and the other side has a chimney (i.e. with side “wings”). This can produce a dramatic pitch change, as well as a change in the sound of the flute. See if you have any flutes where the bird can be easily rotated and give it a try.

Yet another innovation, found in both traditional and modern Native American flutes, is a movable splitting edge. The splitting edge is the sharp edge at the foot-end of the sound hole that actually creates the vibrating air column when you breathe into the flute. The effect of moving the splitting edge is also dramatic.

And finally, there are flute designs that allow you to change the length of the flute. This usually takes the form of a two-part flute with a fitting that can be adjusted, as is common in orchestral instruments such as the Western concert flute or clarinet.

Back to the Player

All this talk of technical issues makes our head spin. As players, we want to just go out and play, play, play. Of course, our ears are the most important aspect of our playing. And it is our ears that tell us when we are in tune with other instruments.

A wonderful exercise is to learn to listen deeply to our sound, and to come to know the sound of “sharp” and “flat” in relation to another sound. This is most easily done when playing against a steady drone sound, such as a shruti box or a didgeridoo. You can also experiment with a double flute (also called a “drone flute”), moving the position of each bird independently or trying to adjust breath pressure of one side verses the other.

Once you know by ear the sound of “sharp” and “flat”, this article has described a number of techniques to adjust your playing to be in tune with the sounds around. In addition, vibrato can be used to effectively mask some tuning issues between instruments if the span of your vibrato is greater than the error between the instruments. If you can do that, then you can taper off the vibrato and slide into pitch with the other instrument. Some find the vibrato of Native Flutes is wider than most other instruments, and this allows us to dance around the other instruments.

Of course, when we are playing solo, many of these tuning issues are academic. If the flute is in tune with itself, to our own ear, for our style of playing on that flute, that is really all that matters. Then you can go back and just … Play, Play, PLAY!

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