Flute Myths Exploded!

Like every other field of human endeavour, the flute world is liberally sprinkled with myths, misconceptions and, shame to say, some downright mistruths.  Some of these stem from folklore, some from promotional spin and some, well, who knows where.  But whatever their source or nature, our task here is to debunk them where they need debunking.

Who to trust?

Inevitably, from time to time, I'll be in disagreement with other sources in books, on the internet, or at your local session.  So why trust me and not your other source?  Answer, no good reason!  But if the matter in contention matters to you, raise my disagreement with your other adviser and invite them to take it up with me.  If they can convince me they're right, I'll graciously back down.  Needless to say, I'll expect the same of them!

And, if there are questions that are bothering you that are not answered below, feel free to spring them on me.

Our topics

I've broken them down into several categories, each including a number of topics:

  • About flutes

  • About flute care

  • About flute-making methods and materials

Go for it!

About flutes

Pick a flute that is played by a professional you admire

Nice idea, but, like most things , it's not that simple.   Professional players tend to be rather gifted individuals (or we'd all be doing it!), genetically predisposed to flute (or they'd be playing an instrument they were predisposed to).  They also tend to be rather more disciplined and devoted than most of us (or we'd all be doing it!) and put in more hours per day practice than most of us can manage in a week. 

I spent a pleasant hour with Cathal McConnel, at the Boxwood Flute Festival in 2002 where he was a tutor and I was a flute-maker in residence.  Cathal tried out my various flutes, and pronounced them very good, prompting me to ask him for a blast on the flute he was playing, a Rudall & Rose that, well, seemed to involve rather more rubber bands and electrical tape than I remember on most of their work.  Cathal passed it over, smiling, and predicted I wouldn't get a note out of it.  He was impressed when I got down to the A, reasonably firmly, but not much below it.  He took it back and effortlessly filled the room with great playing.  Genetically predisposed.

The reality is that most professional players could play a broomstick, and indeed, some of them do.  Playing the same make and model of flute that your hero plays is no guarantee whatsoever that you will ever sound like them.  Finding the flute that best suits you is the surest and fastest way to success and satisfaction.  

My own experience is that you may need something easy at first.  My first wooden flute (in about 1971) was a Boosey Prattens in less than perfect condition.  It exhausted me and I could not keep it up.  In London in 1974 I bought a midsize holed B&S flute from Paul Davis which I could manage.  Years later I went back to the Prattens.

Good flutes should be hard to play

Who came up with this one?  Who knows, but it resurfaces from time to time.  Seems the underlying idea is that a really good flute is hard to play but if you can get on top of it, it brings some advantages (usually unspecified) over wimpy flutes that are easy to play.  But the reality is that some flutes suit some people better and a flute you find hard to play or unsatisfying in some other regard may be perfectly fine for somebody else.  It probably goes to the matter of flexibility in embouchure (yours, not the flute's!).

If you're finding your flute hard to play, and you've put a reasonable amount of effort trying, then it's pretty likely it isn't the flute for you.  Don't let anyone bully you into persevering with it, stop wasting your time on it and invest that time looking for the flute that is the right flute for you.

Wooden flutes are harder to play than metal flutes

Some of them are.  Makers have a technical expression for these - we call them "bad flutes".  There is no reason why a well-made wooden flute in good condition should be any harder to play than a well-made metal flute in good condition.  Indeed, metal flute owners often have wooden head-joints made for them and are often astonished how well they play.  I've made a number of such heads and have always received that response - I think we excavators have a bit more room to move than the fabricators.  

The materials a flute is made of make no difference

Ah, at last we can pin down a source for this one - John Coltman, Baltimore flute researcher.  John published the result of an experiment in Scientific American which is often touted as being the last word on this topic.  Unfortunately it isn't, and for easily understandable reasons.

John's experiment involved (from memory) three flutes made of three different materials, the most outlandish being concrete.  I seem to remember that only the bodies differed, but I can't be sure, and it doesn't really impact on our findings.  Essentially, an assembled audience was unable to tell the difference between the sound of the three flutes.  The conclusion reached is that materials a flute is made of makes no difference.

There is good scientific basis for John's findings - the performance of a flute is going to be principally determined by its shape - the shape of the bore, the shape of the embouchure hole, the shape of the finger holes.  The moving parts of a flute are air molecules, and the flute itself is simply the container for the vibrating air column.  Providing it's a satisfactory container - it's smooth, it doesn't leak and it's strong enough not to vibrate and rob energy from the vibrating air column.  John's three materials adequately met those criteria.  

But supposing your container wasn't so perfect.  To test the difference timber can make, I made a flute from our local plantation timber - pinus radiata - a coarse, soft, porous timber used for building framing.  It leaked so badly at first I couldn't play a note below A, and even those notes were weak and noisy.  So there's a major difference immediately!  With the typical 4mm walls of a wooden flute, I could suck air right through the walls!  Once heavily oiled (ie we plugged the leakage), it would play down to the bottom notes, but not with great enthusiasm.  I could feel the body of the instrument vibrating, and that energy has to come from somewhere.

So who's right, John or me?  Answer, both of us, because we're looking at slightly different questions.  John was probably aiming his experiment at the metal flute market, particularly those who spend vast amounts of money on flutes of exotic metals.  It probably didn't occur to him to consider using materials that were inadequate containers.  Why would you do that?

But inadequate containers is wooden flute business.  No wood is perfectly smooth, perfectly airtight and infinitely strong, although most of our flute timbers are adequately smooth, airtight and strong for our purposes.  That's why they are called flute timbers!  But my experiment shows that it is a spectrum, and that a timber not at the far end can be expected to give slightly different results to a timber at the far end.  Boxwood would be such a timber - about 80% of the density of timbers in the african blackwood category.  Coming back a little more, the "fine furniture timbers" - rosewoods, walnut, etc are half the density or less, and a good deal coarser in the grain - we should certainly expect less of them.  And that's why they are not normally used for flute-making.

Should we expect listeners to be able to tell the difference between rosewood, boxwood and blackwood?  Probably not.  In my experience listeners listen to the music and the musician, not the instrument, unless it is very bad indeed.  Was it the violinist Yehudi Menuen who, more than a bit cheezed off with the public attention given to his Stradivarius, came on stage, played to rapturous applause and then shocked his audience by smashing the fiddle, which turned out to be a cheap student model.

I would expect an experienced (and blindfolded) player to notice some differences in the performance of similar flutes made from radically different timbers, and to be capable of consistent and meaningful discernment. 

"Good enough for a beginner"

Arghhh, was there ever a meaner trick than this?  A beginner flute player has enough hurdles to jump over without saddling them with a flute that is hard to play, out of tune, unreliable or whatever else might make the instrument unsatisfactory for an advanced player.  I learnt to play on a cheap metal Boehm flute and almost gave up entirely after 6 months (wouldn't that have made a difference to my life!).  Fortunately, I came across a good flute player at a party and tried his flute.  I could play!  Next morning found me down at the music shop, trading in my heap of junk on a good flute.  If you have any reason to doubt your flute, ask a good player for an assessment, or conspire to try out a known good flute.  Life's too short, and this music is too much fun to be missing out.

Only an Eb key is needed for a flute to be fully chromatic

No such luck!  Baroque or one-key flutes approximate chromaticism, but at a high price.  The holes are absolutely tiny, the sound very quiet and the player is lipping notes up and down like mad to try to keep the instrument in tune.  The overall effect can be magnificent in the hands of an experienced and talented player, but never loud enough for Irish music.

Unfortunately, once the holes are made big enough for the instrument to be able to compete with fiddles and other session instruments, all hope of chromaticism through cross-fingering is gone.  Some notes on Irish flutes can be successfully half-holed, and these are fine for accidentals, but playing in keys distant from the basic key of D is not really on.

A wooden head will make a Boehm flute sound like a wooden (i.e. conical) flute

Ah, if only!  Unfortunately, most of the sound of a wooden (i.e. conical) flute is traceable to its shape, not the materials from which it's made.  In my experience, a well-made wooden head on a metal flute will make it sound like a better flute, but not a wooden flute.  

There is one way though in which a metal flute can be made to sound more like a wooden (conical) flute, and that is by employing an embouchure hole similar to those on wooden flutes - i.e. elliptical in the case of 19th century flutes, or round in the case of baroque flutes.  (It wouldn't actually matter if the head was metal, plastic or wood, it's the shape of the hole we're looking for.)  

By employing the old-style elliptical or round hole, we reduce the venting, which reduces the "cut-off frequency", which reduces the power of the upper harmonics, making the flute sound darker.  There is a trade-off though - the reduced venting will also reduce the efficiency  of the flute.  Depending on our frame of mind, we can accept that as baroque refinement, or condemn it as a lack of responsiveness.  Adopting the Irish style intense air stream playing approach will restore overall volume of sound, at the cost of increased wind noise and player fatigue.

Those two open holes on the foot of an Irish flute are a sign of a good flute.

No they're not - they're just the holes which used to be covered by the C and C# keys in the 8-key flute which the maker copied.  Before the 19th century, flutes went only down to D, and so didn't have the two holes, and were much shorter.  It's perfectly OK to terminate a modern Irish flute at the length required for D, or to extend it further, providing a termination hole where needed for D.  

More of concern is what happens to the bore down there.  Many makers continue to taper the bore down to near the end, just as the old makers did.  There is no point in this if you don't have the keys to play those low notes.  It's smarter to find the bore dimensions in this area that will give the best D, rather than favouring notes that can't be played!

About flute care

Synthetic (mineral) oils will rot your flute

This one seems directly attributable to people who sell non-synthetic oils, so we can hardly expect an unbiased account.  I haven't seen evidence of this, nor can I think of a mechanism that would account for it.  Mineral oils are very stable, inert compounds, not renowned for initiating any activity other than slipperiness.  

It's further alleged that some well-known woodwind companies sell and promote the use of mineral oils as bore oil in order to rot the instruments they have sold to you, in order that you will have to buy a new one sooner than necessary.  If it were true, it would be a very high-risk strategy - a company whose instruments seemed to rot or split a long time before the average would quickly get a bad reputation.  In reality, it is in the companies' interest for their products to serve well.

We know water will rot timber, and that soaking your flute in oil before it gets wet helps repel the water.  So it seems that a fairer statement would be "mineral oils will help stop water rotting your flute".

Moral of the story would seem to be "Seek an independent assessment before succumbing to snake-oil salespersons".

Sudden temperature changes crack flutes

This one seems to have grown out of the polymer flute business too.  The rumour is that as you dash from your car to your house in winter, your wooden flute - in its case,  stuffed into your arctic-rated sleeping bag and clutched to your body - will nonetheless spontaneously fragment into a thousand pieces, perforating your rib cage with shrapnel and causing a lingering and horrible death.  Or that if you dare breathe one note into your flute before it has been warmed to body heat, you will be rewarded with a loud cracking sound, almost drowned out by the sound of the nearest repairer's cash register.  Relax, it's all rubbish.  

And to prove it, I carried out an experiment where I put a flute head into the oven and then into the freezer, and after both ordeals played it immediately, entirely without damage (to me or the flute).  Read all about it at Effect of heat and cold on flutes.

Polymer flutes don't need swabbing after playing

Certainly, lingering moisture in a polymer (or metal) flute will not cause it to crack, but it's still not a good idea to put it away dripping.  Moisture condensed from our breath is rich in bacteria and essential nutrients, and a flute that isn't cleaned out routinely soon starts to smell like a sewer, particularly in warmer climes.  Don't go there!

Letting your wooden flute get wet will damage it

Um, have you looked inside, ever, after playing for a while?  The inside of your wooden flute is soon awash with water.  If water on the inside doesn't hurt it, why should water on the outside?  Answer is, it won't, unless you leave it there for so long it starts to soak in.  And with these dense, fine timbers, that's a long time.

So if it rains on your flute, wipe it off when the rain stops.  If your flute is starting to smell more like a gym than a musical instrument, wash it out in warm water with some household detergent added.  Just make sure to dry it off, and leave it out to dry, rather than committing it to its case where any remaining moisture can't escape.

Be careful of your flute though when crossing water in a boat.  It will sink.  Polymer flutes even more so.  African Blackwood is 20% heavier than water; acetal 40%.  Boxwood is a gamble at 96%.  With ivory will possibly float, with silver will probably sink!

Tuning slides should not be lubricated

Ah, this one is easy to source and easy to deal with.  Boehm flute players are advised by their flute makers not to lubricate their tuning slides, as it can attract dirt and grit which gets jammed in the slide.  The usual advice is just to keep the slides clean.  

But there's a big difference here - Boehm flutes are stored with the head detached at the slide, but wooden flutes are stored with their head joined to the barrel by the slide.  Engineers will tell you that two pieces of metal (eg a nut and bolt) should never be in contact without lubrication - to do so invites "metal fret" - a cold-welding process by which the metal from one piece "picks up" onto the other.  Corrosive by-products from the moisture inside the flute add to this problem, all conspiring to jam your slide permanently together.  Metals rubbing together without lubrication also wear much faster, and nobody needs a loose slide.  Lubrication is the answer, not the problem.  A light smear of cork grease is all you need.  

When you feel the slide is no longer moving freely, clean the grease and gunge off with some methylated spirits (denatured alcohol), and apply a fresh smear.  Don't use bore oil - depending on its formulation it may help stick your slide together.

Air travel is bad for flutes

It's often claimed that travel by aircraft poses a problem for flutes. Let's check it out.

Firstly, forget the old wive's tale that warns of depressurised holds.  If it ever was the case, it certainly isn't now.  The air in the hold is exactly the same air that's in the cabin - only the least of partitions separate them.  Your pet travels in the hold - it's unlikely to survive outside at the pressures and temperatures you'd encounter at 31,000 feet!  We mail our flutes to you by air - they travel in the hold and suffer no consequences.

More of concern is the dryness of the air in both cabin and hold.  But take a reality check - the longest flight is probably not much more than 24 hours - just how much transfer of water can occur between the ultra-dense, oiled wood of your flute and the air in that period, especially muffled as it is in its case or bag inside your luggage?  If you are concerned, take out this cheapest and best of all insurance - wrap the pieces of your flute in cling-wrap, or pop the flute in its case into a sealed plastic bag, or, sparing no effort or expense, do both!

But while we're on the topic, spare a thought for the poor flute player.  Being 75% water and encased in only a thin membrane, you can transfer moisture content rapidly between body and air.  You will dehydrate, making your blood thicker, making it run slowly and clear clots slowly.  Alcohol, the flute player's instinctive remedy for flute separation, will increase dehydration.  Inactivity will increase the chance of blood clots, particularly in the legs.  One of those comes loose and then gets stuck in the heart or brain and your flute is looking for a new owner.  

So forget about the flute, tucked up comfortably in the luggage, and worry about yourself.  Some "travel socks" (from your pharmacy) to minimise problems in the lower limbs, some aspirin to thin the blood (check with your doctor first!), and move around the cabin as much as decorum permits.  Avoid Morris Dancing however.  While it is excellent exercise it may well get you ejected through the emergency exit.

The "correct" stopper distance is one diameter of the head bore

Close, but not the complete story.  The conventional stopper distance is one diameter of the head bore - about 19mm for the typical conical flute.  But recognise it is a compromise, not a golden rule.  A shorter distance - typically about 16mm - will enhance the third octave at the expense of the bottom octave.  A greater distance - up to about 23mm - will enhance the bottom notes, at the risk of driving the top of the 2nd octave flat, and making the third octave hard to play and very flat.  For Irish music, I recommend increasing the stopper distance until you find the highest note you normally play starts to tend flat.

About flute-making methods and materials

Wooden flutes must warp or crack 

This one is a favourite of the poly flute makers, but there's no proof for the assertion, quite the opposite in fact.  There are plenty of 18th century wooded flutes in museum collections surviving quite well, thank you very much, despite no doubt hundreds of years of indifferent treatment.  It's the 19th century instruments that are almost always cracked, and the causes are usually obvious - almost always because the heads and barrels are lined with metal that prevents the wood moving with the weather.  By comparison, the lucky 18th century flutes had no liners, and no reason to crack unless damaged by accident.  Choose a flute design that takes into account the wood's need to move, look after the flute in the usual ways and there's no reason it won't be in perfect working order in several hundred years time.

Interestingly, there are many situations in which wood is less affected than polymers - polymers melt at surprisingly low temperatures, Delrin at 177C, lower than the temperature at which wood burns.  They are affected by creep (changes in dimension over time), and can be adversely affected by solvents, bleaches, alkalis beyond pH 9 and acids with a pH of less than 4.  And delivering mothers might be wise not to play their polymer flutes after inhaling nitrous oxide!

Incidentally, I have no problem with polymers being used for flutes - I do it myself if asked.  But I do have problems with spreading false rumours about alternative materials.

Partial Slides will not crack flutes

It's sometimes suggested that partial tuning slides (i.e. those that don't run the full length of head and barrel) are better in that they don't promote the same cracking full slides do.  Unfortunately and predictably, this isn't completely true.  Partial slides crack flutes partially, but they still crack flutes.  French flutes crack in the barrel and in the lower end of the head where the slide lives.  English post-Boehm flutes crack at both the socket end of the head and the head end of the body, where there are partial slides tucked into both pieces.

And it's not just slides that crack flutes - silver-lined sockets do it too.  So the general rule is to avoid any situation where metal is entrapped inside wood.  Or find some way to buffer the metal, eg my New Improved Tuning Slide.

Post mounting is better than block mounting

Better for what, one is tempted to ask.  We'd need to come up with an agreed list of criteria for a mounting system before we could fruitfully compare differing systems.  If the aim is to permit free and quiet movement and secure sealing, both systems seem to fit the bill.  Post mounting enthusiasts often claim that blocks are prone to breaking, but I'd have to say I've seen more broken keys than broken blocks on 19th century instruments.  And I've definitely seen more splits caused by post mounting than by block mounting, and had to deal with more split or splayed hinge tubes and loose posts than broken blocks.  I'd go with whatever pleases you visually on this one.

African Blackwood is in danger of extinction

Another popular fiction from the polymer lobby!  Fortunately capable of easy dismissal.  Declaring species as endangered is the job of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).  CITES is a body set up by  international agreement between Governments. Its responsibility is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.  

But don't take my word on it, go to the CITES website and do a run on African Blackwood, Dalbergia melanoxylon or Mpingo (English, botanical and Swahili).  If it's considered endangered, it should be there.


While we're on the topic of environmental responsibility, it seems to me that wood is a renewable resource, while polymers are based on fossil fuels, so if you're looking for an argument ...

Cocuswood is extinct

This one was almost true.  Cocus comes from Cuba, Jamaica and the islands around them (the "West Indies").  Demand for the timber in the 19th century drove it well beyond commercial unavailability to the very edge of extinction.  Fortunately it did survive, and is slowly staging a comeback, but not yet in "commercially viable" terms.  Small amounts are available from "boutique" timber dealers.  Costs are high, appropriate to its rarity.  Fortunately, we now have a wide range of alternative timbers for instrument making, so there is no need to seek out and destroy the last cocus tree.  It is wonderful to be able to get pieces to repair 19th century flutes and make replacements for missing or damaged sections for them in a timber that will match.

Thread is better than cork

Certainly better for darning your socks.  As a lapping, I prefer cork - it's more resilient and doesn't cause the bore to compress.  Neither is fatal, so consider anyone who gets hysterical about either approach potentially dangerous.

Update!  Since I wrote that, I've bumped into a lot more flutes whose bores have been distorted badly by thread wrapping, some very badly indeed.  But, make up your own mind after reading this investigation into the topic.

Leaf springs are outmoded

The old makers invariably used leaf springs - traditionally brass - under their keys.  Some modern makers prefer coil springs, some needle springs.  Does it matter?

I think so - I reckon the old makers had it right.  With coil or needle springs, the amount of force required to operate the key increases exponentially the further you open the key.  Problem is, the starting force has to be high enough to ensure the pad is squashed hard enough against its seat to make it airtight.  As you open the key more, that force increases, giving the keys a heavy kludgy feel.  Not good.

By comparison, a well designed leaf spring doesn't have to increase in pressure as you open the key; indeed it can drop.  It can actually drop so much (if you don't get it right) that the key will stay open (that's not good either!).  The art is getting it "just so" - so that about the same amount of pressure required to lift the pad off the hole is also enough to open the key entirely.  That gives the key a delightfully "snappy" action.

A little maintenance is needed occasionally to keep this magic working.  A spot of cork grease applied to the tip of the spring will prevent friction and wear. 

Needle springs do have their place - on flutes with normally open keys (like the Boehm).  Here the spring force has only to be enough to hold the key open against the force of gravity.  It still increases exponentially as you start to close the key, but the starting force is so mild you don't notice.

Silver isn't hard enough for a tuning slide

This one must come as a shock to Boehm flute players - they've been using sterling silver slides for over 150 years.  But there is sterling silver and sterling silver...

When sterling silver has been heated to near melting point (eg during a soldering operation) the metal is left in its "annealed" state and is really soft.  You certainly couldn't use it in this state for a tuning slide - it's so soft you could squeeze it flat between your fingers.

But when it has been hammered over a mandrel, or drawn through a drawplate or otherwise mechanically stressed, it assumes a new state, "hardened".  In this state it becomes very hard indeed, and springy.  Just the qualities we want in a tuning slide.

Brass, copper and nickel silver are exactly the same - they too have annealed and hard-drawn states and are only suitable as tuning slides in the hardened condition.  The benefit silver has over them is that it is considerably less prone to corrosion.

A plain cylindrical flute can be in tune

Aw, wouldn't that be handy.  We'd all be making and playing flutes from bamboo, electrical conduit, water pipe, rolled up newspapers, car exhausts and so on.  Unfortunately, it isn't true - the head of a flute must contract for the octaves to be in tune.  In a "cylindrical" flute like the Boehm, the contraction appears as a tapered head.  In a conical flute, it is conspired to look like a cylinder.  But it must be there.

You can force a simple cylindrical flute into tune, but recognise you are forcing it.  That is taking processing power from you, and teaching you habits you will have to unlearn if you then get a well-bored flute.  Only you can decide if that's an approach that is going to work for you.


Well that wraps up my supply of explode-worthy myths at this time, but do feel free to pass your myths on for processing!  And if you don't agree with anything I've said and still reckon you're right, do please get in touch.  I don't claim to be always right, although I did know someone who was once.


Back to McGee-Flutes Home Page

Created: Dec 04.  Last updated, March 11.