Getting the hard, dark tone.

"Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy,
which sustained him through temporary periods of joy."

(William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939)


It has bothered me for some time that Irish flute players produce and seek a tone quite different from Classical flute players', yet their way of doing that is not clear.  This difference of tone can partly, but not fully, be explained by the differences between our flutes.  We prefer conical while, these days, classical music players tend to go with Boehm's cylindrical bore flutes.  Conical flutes do produce a darker tone than cylindrical flutes, all other things being equal.  But the difference in tone colour is much more than that, and, for some reason I can't explain, the topic of how to get it hasn't been accorded the level of significance I think it deserves.  We all take our tone seriously, yet teachers of Irish flute do not seem to go much into it, if at all.  Perhaps it's assumed that new players will stumble on the secrets, given enough time?  Or that they will adopt the ideal approach "naturally" if not lead up the garden path with an inappropriate approach?  Perhaps teachers are not confident enough of their own ability to go into it?  For whatever reason, there is a vacuum.  While there has been some discussion on some of the Internet forums recently, I'm unaware of any permanently available, straightforward "set of instructions" on how to achieve the hard dark tone we associate with Irish flute.

In many ways, I'm not the ideal person to fill that vacuum.  I'm not a flute teacher, indeed, these days I'm not even a professional flute player.  But, in the absence of anyone better, I'll make the start.  Others might like to tidy up later.  Or come barrelling in with a sound refutation! 

This is perhaps not the time I'd choose to present this information.  I'm working up to some serious research on flute tone, and ideally, I'd finish my preparations and carry out that research first, and thus be able to present this information from a more secure footing, with some sound bytes and technical analyses to back it up.  But, time ticks by, and I'd like to have something available while we wait for the lab results to come in ...

To complete this list of excuses, I won't argue that the method I'm about to outline is the only way, the best way or the right way to produce the kind of tone we associate with top-class Irish players.  If you think you know a better way, or feel you can present it in a better way, feel free to get in touch.  Indeed, I'd like to know of any other approaches so I can put them to the test as part of my Flute Tone Investigations series.

(The explanation below is based on notes I'd prepared some time back, and have been sending out to customers and correspondents.  I've received some good feedback about it, so hopefully it will help others to gain more satisfaction from their flutes.)

Getting the hard, dark tone.

Especially if you've come from the classical tradition, or been influenced by someone who has, you probably tend to blow "across" the top of the hole towards the far edge. This gives a bright, lively tone which may not be the tone you are looking for for Irish music. It also gives a fairly sharp pitch. Try this two-stage approach for achieving a darker, more mysterious, and flatter tone...

Turn the head of the flute in towards you, typically so the far edge of the hole is in line with the middle of the finger holes. Cover as much of the embouchure hole as you feel comfortable doing. None of this is critical, so don't obsess over it!

Now, time for a little experiment.  Blow, in your usual style, a low G note. Listen to the tone. As you blow, push out your top lip, or pull in your bottom lip, or both, so that you are directing your jet of air more and more downwards, "towards the centre of the flute". As the jet aims lower and lower, you should hear the sound harden and darken, as more of the energy is directed away from the fundamental of the note, and into its second harmonic. It will still sound like low G (i.e. we haven't "jumped to second octave G"), but it will sound firmer and "reedier" - more like the same note on a reed instrument. It might help you to visualise trying to blow a grain of rice off your chin. Or, as I've heard it imaginatively put, aiming your breath at the 2nd button on your shirt.

Now, experiment with wafting the jet up and down.  Up towards the edge, then down towards the centre of the flute, and you should hear the range of tonal possibilities available to you. (You'll probably want to adjust the opening between the lips at both ends of the range to get the cleanest tone.)  And once you've heard the range, and can reproduce it at will, you're in a good position to decide where along that soft-hard spectrum you want to be.  I'm inclined to be right up the hard end (blowing toward the centre of the flute), where the reedy tone has more penetrating power, and you can actually hear yourself over the phalanx of reeds and strings arrayed against you.

Once you have it working for G, try it out right across the flute range. You'll find it especially useful for replacing that wispy, mushy, flabby bottom D with a firm, resonant, "Hard" D.

When you come to trying the new approach out on tunes, I'd suggest a slow song tune, or air, so that you have time to appreciate and adjust the tone.   Try your new tones on friends, asking them if they prefer "this" (edge) or "this" (centre).  You'll know when you're getting somewhere when they much prefer the harder tone!

Nothing to smile about

Now that we have discovered how to produce the hard tone, is there a better way to approach the flute to make it more automatic?  Back in my early days (the seventies), beginner flute players were told to smile, in order to smooth the lips.  But is that good advice for us?  Try this experiment:

  • hold the palm of your hand in front of your mouth to feel where you are directing the air

  • smile and blow

  • now frown and blow.

You'll probably find that the jet that had been hitting the middle of your hand now hits somewhere down near the base of the palm.  So, it seems frowning, not smiling, sets up our lips better for the "blowing to the centre" approach.  So don't turn that frown, upside down ...

Other effects

The "blowing down towards the centre" approach appears to have other potential benefits for players of 19th century flutes that have very flat lower notes, or players of modern flutes that are close copies of these.  We believe that, using this technique, the energy is directed away from the flat fundamentals into their harmonics, which tend to be in far better tune with the rest of the flute, thus overcoming the flatness.  This seems a more plausible theory than the "lipping it up" theory which preceded it - it doesn't seem likely that one can "lip up" a flute as flat as many that are being played successfully.  We haven't subjected the theory to clinical trials as yet, but it's on the list!

Fortunately, the converse is not true - there is no harm in applying the blowing downward approach to a flute where the low notes are in good tune.  Unlike lipping up, it will not drive in-tune notes sharp.

Further reading

It might come as a surprise that not only Irish flute players made use of this technique.  Indeed, it was the staple fare of 19th century classical flute playing.  Interestingly, the great Mr Nicholson, who was a household name in London in the early 1800s, taught that the hard tone (blowing down) should be used most of the time, with the soft tone (blowing to the edge) only being used for special effect. You'll find his instructions at: .

Gunn, a slightly earlier Scottish teacher gives similar instructions at: .

And towards the end of the 19th century, Rockstro is holding out for a tone about halfway between soft and hard! Seems that air-jets were becoming more upwardly-mobile.

If you want some idea of what's actually going on acoustically here, see:



I hope something in the above will work for you.  Again, my apologies it's a bit rough, but I'm moved to get something out there.

Post script

Since writing the above, a product aimed at assisting metal flute teachers get these same ideas over to young students has been brought to my attention (Thanks, Holmes!).  Their You-tube videos illustrate well what I've been talking about above.


More on tone and holding the flute:

Or:   Back to McGee-flutes contents page...


Created: 21 February 2010; Last edited 19 March 2010.