Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why is my flute always flat?

Dear Fluters,

A flute student who is trying to figure out why their flute is consistently flat. even though the headjoint is pushed all the way in, wrote to me on my "comments" this week, and so I thought I'd just add a checklist here for those who find their flutes seem consistently flat.

What could be the cause of a flat flute?

Most common causes of "flat" flutes (will not play in tune at A-440):

1. Headjoint cork is out of position.
The crown of the flute if twisted to tighten it, actually pulls the flute's headjoint cork outward a millimeter at a time for every revolution of the crown (many students don't know this.)

Check your headjoint cork position with your cleaning rod to see if it's set at 17.3 mm. The mark on the end of the rod should show in the center of the blow hole. Some cleaning rods are mis-marked. So if you suspect your cleaning rod's mark is incorrect (as some are) measure the cleaning rod's marking with a fine ruler in millimeters. The marking on the rod should be at 17.3 to 17.5 millimeters from the flat end. (double click picture to make larger, then use back button to return here.)

2. Your lower lip is over-covering the blow hole.
For playing in the low register, be sure that your lower lip is not over-covering the blow-hole. For low and middle register the lower lip should only cover 1/4 to 1/3rd of the blow hole of the flute.

3. You are trying to check your tuning with a cold flute in a cold room.
It takes a few moments for a flute to come up to pitch if it is cold. If you are trying to tune a cold flute, it will always sound flat. So, before tuning, close all the keys and breathe slowly through the closed tube to warm it up. Do this prior to beginning to tune, and in rehearsals, do this after several bars rest, so that the flute is warm when you re-enter the piece of music.

4. You are blowing too softly, too slowly, or too timidly.
This is very very common.
To learn to play a flute with a large, resonant, round sound is one of the first things you'll learn in private flute lessons at the intermediate level. Almost all beginners tend toward playing too quietly, and wasting their air (too large a lip-aperture, or unknowingly allowing air to escape through their nose as they blow).
To correct this, see this article on how to learn to play forte with a full sound.

For more information about common reasons for flat pitch see these articles on my website:

Why would novice flute band students play consistently flat?

How do I tune in a cold room or rehearsal hall?

How can I fix a flat low register?

Dozens more general Flute Tuning articles for beginners, intermediates and advanced players are here.

In general I think that it is possible (but very very rare) that the student who originally wrote to me about playing flat in pitch is playing a flute that cannot be made to play in tune at A-440. Some antique flutes still exist that are pitched at A-435 to A-439, and there are miscellaneous old band flutes (more than 40 years old) of unknown origin that may have a slighly larger diameter, or oversized flute length or headjoint length.

However almost every modern flute I've ever seen that played "flat" had either the headjoint cork in the wrong place (too far out) or the student was playing with slow air and a small sound and often too rolled in on the chin as well.

In general, to bring a flute up to pitch, if flat, the student needs to practice on a daily basis on increasing the amount of air speed that they blow the flute with. They need to increase the FORTE end of their dynamic range, and work on a smaller and more precise aperture in their lips to create a more vibrant and full, colourful sound. This takes time, and is best done with the help of a private teacher.

Once you've learned to play with a full rich and resonant sound, you may find that you indeed are pulling the headjoint out because the flute is now too sharp.
You may also find that you need to raise or lower the flute's pressure on the chin so that the "air-reed" is lengthened. This is all part of the learning curve for novice and intermediate flutists.

Once a flute's headjoint draw position allows the flutist to be consistently in tune (when warmed up) over all three octaves, and their skills are starting to develop for playing in tune using dynamics, it's a good idea to mark the best headjoint draw with a shiny-surfaces permanent marking pen, to allow quick assembly each and every time you put the flute together. Having a single placement of the headjoint develops consistency that is necessary to further discoveries about tone quality, air-speed and tuning.

You can always remove the mark and re-mark using such a marking pen (remove with alcohol)if your embouchure and style of playing changes over the course of your own tone development.

However I find that once located, the marking method is a boon for daily consistency. Student flutists can pre-set to their normal marking and then just heat the flute gently in order to play in tune with any ensemble.

For the novice flutist who's still working on all the variables (air speed, blowing angle, tone quality, pitch, etc.) marking the headjoint's draw is still an excellent method to guage what changes are being made over time.

Just by knowing that you played in tune for a week or two at a certain headjoint draw, and always lining up the same way, you may find that if you do find your flute playing flat, you'll know that it's only because you are:

a) playing in a too cold room
b) playing with too slow an air-speed.
c) rolling the headjoint inward, or over-covering with your lower lip.
d) aiming the air downward too far in angle.
e) and, last but not least; playing with other instruments that are sharp (un-tuned pianos, sharp string players, clarinets that are squeezing their reeds and sharpening unexpectedly etc.)

At least you aren't moving the cork around anymore, without realizing it, because you know now to leave the crown alone. hahahahaha.

Remember to check your cleaning rod's cork placement mark for accuracy.
There were a slew of cheap flute cleaning rods with wrong markings around for a decade or more. Doh. :>)

Hope this helps,
Comments (29)
Anonymous Fluty Flynny said...

I have the same problem, usually because my flute is freezing. My flute teacher suggested another way of sharpening the pitch, by changing the embouchure. By bringing your lips forward away from your teeth, ie creating more of a tunnel in your mouth, the pitch sharpens.

Thanks for a fantastic blog - keep posting and pleas keep us updated re your book!

Sunday, August 01, 2010 12:59:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Flynny,
Yes, letting the lips come forward off your teeth gives you a longer tunnel to blow through, and this tunnel can be aimed upward in angle.
However if the tunnel was aimed downward in angle, the lower lip might cover even more blow-hole and thus the pitch would flatten.
So yes, it works, but only when you aim the tunnel upward in angle comparably.
Best, Jen

Friday, December 17, 2010 2:54:00 PM

Blogger Simon Clark said...

I have been playing flute for over 20 years and my flutes are always a little flat, and yes after warming it up they will come into tune but I need to just pick it up and play the flute solo from cold.
Any other instrument I play can be tuned to the band but the flutes have this design problem.
So thank you for your blog now I know what I have to do, cut 5mm off the head!
It might make a nice silver ring.
Simon Clark.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 8:50:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Simon,
There are other solutions that might be better in the long run. Cutting off the headjoint so you can insert it farther into the tenon is exactly what happened when the flute scale was skewed by American flute makers when copying the French design from the early 20th century. The result of shortening the headjoint is an uneven scale; where the right hand notes become flatter and the left hand notes become sharper. This means that the flutist must lip up and down to play the one octave scale in tune, and the three octaves are all affected by a different percentage.
You knew this right?
You're just kidding right?

The answers that we all agree on these days are:
a) change to a flute with a modern scale to reduce the amount you have adjust from note to note
b) or, pre-warm your flute two to three bars before you have to play when the room is cool.
This can be done by warming with the breath down a closed tube, or by keeping the headjoint warm (on padded chairs, under the left knee works well for flute/picc.)

Good luck with your headjoint surgery....doh. Jen

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 11:14:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

P.S. for Simon:

Before you cut your headjoint, send an email to Trevor Wye and ask his advice. He knows all about the mechanical re-tuning of flutes.
See article:

Best, Jen

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 11:58:00 PM

Blogger Simon Clark said...

Hello Jen,
the article and your comments have made me stay giving my flute the snip. But I think that as I can just slide the head out the 5mm Im thinking of cutting off I can restore the tone hole to key holes lengths after surgery.
I'll ask Trevor Wye and get back to you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 11:13:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Simon,
You can also get a rather fantastic flute for $1800 that has the most recent scale spacing (Bennett scale) and is pitched to A-442. It's called an Azumi 3000, and plays as well as a $5000 instrument. In my estimation it will solve your problem AND solve about 20 other problems you didn't even know you had.... try one, maybe? Best, Jen

Thursday, August 25, 2011 8:23:00 AM

Anonymous Flute Begginer said...

hey i have been playing the flute for 2 years and my teacher noticed my flute was flat so i am going to get it checked right now because i dont know a lot about tuning and stuff im playing for my junior band but your blog really helped. THANKS

Friday, November 04, 2011 4:06:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

all very interesting and true however I would like to point out if you own a 440 pitch flute in England you will not be in tune in a 442 environment .yes you might be able to tune up on the note A but the scale will never be true and Intune you cannot play a scale continually by altering the tuning also and very important the holes and spacing on a 440 flute body are in different positions to that of a 442 flute.
many thanks ...ken

Saturday, April 04, 2015 6:39:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks Ken. Of course I should have mentioned that: "Are you playing an A-440 flute and expecting to blow it up to A-442 because you're in Europe, but your flute was made in North America?"
But that would have been rare, I thought, for a person to change countries, and not realize it....
Thanks though.

Saturday, April 04, 2015 9:52:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jen - I've been working with an amateur flutist for six months and his flute continuously rolls in, especially for the high notes, covering too much of the hole. He ends up to be a quarter step flat. I try to get him to support, blow faster air, keep the flute rolled out, all with minimal results. Do you have any other ideas?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016 9:10:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Anon,

Have you tried re-aligning the headjoint so that it's not center-to-center, but far-edge of blow hole lined up with center of keys?

Let me know.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016 2:48:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jen,

I'm following up with you regarding my student who is continually rolling in and going flat. I adjusted the headjoint position a few weeks ago and it seems to be working. It's odd though. I actually do the opposite with my own headjoint and other students seem to feel more comfortable with their hands rolled out. If they do, I'll just align the headjoint in. I used to align the headjoint out for students years ago until most (maybe all) just kept rolling in so they didn't have to blow or support. Roll and rolling in until their wrist is cramped all the way back. I just haven't had the success with this positioning, so I haven't been using that technique. So here I am and so far he hasn't been resorting to rolling it in and his pitch is much more stable. Thank you!

Monday, October 31, 2016 6:23:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Hi there, and thanks so much for following up. I'm so glad that that worked.
There are several factors that lead to the variety of set-ups:

1. The concave-ness of the person's chin
2. The thickness of the lower lip
3. The length and flexibility of the upper lip: the amount of downward reach of the upper lip (short front teeth/long front teeth etc.)

and lastly:
4. The weight of the rods that hold the flute's keys on. (are they pulling the flute to roll inward during play?)

Everyone differs in the first three, and it is also developmentally related (how great a tone they are trying to have.)

So if the weight of the rods rolling inward is combined with a flattish chin (not very concave) then you have the student you are speaking of.
So lots of variations.

Thanks for thinking about this on my behalf. So many variables.

Monday, October 31, 2016 7:41:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

p.s. Forgot to add:

5. The preferred wrist and hand position of that particular student at that particular point in their development.
It's funny how unconscious we all are about the many choices of hand position (and elbows, and shoulders, and head-turn) that we all go through as we develop.

Best, Jen

Monday, October 31, 2016 10:00:00 PM

Anonymous Flutist in Distress said...

Thanks for the lesson, but there is one problem. My flute is still half a note flat and my flute is tuned to the max. Please help me solve this problem.

Monday, November 21, 2016 1:10:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Flutist in Distress,

Have you taken the flute to a flute teacher?
They can likely figure this out for you.
Also: The phrase "tuned to the max" doesn't make sense to me.
Can you re-phrase that please?
Does that mean that the headjoint is all the way in?
Did you check that the cork is in the right place at the other end of the headjoint?

Monday, November 21, 2016 1:44:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

More for Flutist in distress:

Are you sure you're tuning it to a reliable electronic tuner set to A-440?
Or are you trying to tune it to a sharp piano; a recording that is A-442 in pitch? A clarinetist who's calling the note names differently than you do?

Are you sure you're letting the metal become warm before tuning it? (cold metal equals flat in pitch). Are you blowing forte and mezzo forte? (soft, slow air can make the flute sound flat).

Are you sure your lower lip is not covering over half the blow hole? (crowding the blow hole and blowing softly are the number one reason for playing flat, especially when flute is cold, and piano you're playing with is sharp. etc. etc.)

Check all these and write back.

Monday, November 21, 2016 2:06:00 PM

Anonymous Flutist in Distress said...

Dear Jen

No, I have not taken it to a flute teacher yet, and the phrase tuned to the maxed means the head joint is all the way in and the tuning cork is in the middle.

For second post:
When my band teacher uses his tuner he plays a random note for me to play. Every time he does this, I'm always flat. I always make sure my flute is warm before tuning. When I tune, I play in all dynamic ranges(piano-forte), and I reposition my lower lip every time I tune in an attempt to make my flute sharper.

Flutist in Distress

Monday, November 21, 2016 6:21:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Flutist in Distress,

If the flute teacher also finds that the flute has some kind of flatness problem, then it will turn out that it's the flute, not you. So do that first.

On the other hand, if the flute teacher finds that they can play the flute in tune, then you'll want to pay $10 for "The Tuning CD" on iTunes, or amazon, and learn to match the tuning of the drones for each basic key (you play a slow scale of whole notes, carefully tuning each one in each key.)
Then you'll be prepared for your bandmaster's (slightly bizarre) way of tuning you in class.
It's really hard to just suddenly blow and play perfectly in tune with a random note if you're not doing it all the time at home when you practice.
Also, if you take lessons you will develop a really reliable way of consistently playing in tune over three years or so.
Also, if you've only been playing a few months, what you're going through is pretty normal. You'll get it.

Monday, November 21, 2016 7:18:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

I'd like to add to this thread that sometimes it really IS the flute. I've been struggling with the tuning on my flute for the past few months - I've really had to battle against it, even moving the headcork down. It was driving me bananas and was starting to have a sinking feeling that somehow my embouchure was deteriorating (been playing for 23 years).

Anyway, I recently took my flute to a local service man - turns out there was a very slight leak around one of the trill keys. I've not seen this mentioned anywhere as a potential culprit for tuning issues - but if you think where the pads are for these keys, it's easy to see how a slight leak would completely alter the tuning.

So might be something to try if you're struggling yourself - check the pads for the trill keys, and even if they're visible ok, make sure there is a perfect seal (get a friend to hold them down while you try the tuning?) and try tuning.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016 7:01:00 AM

Blogger Paul said...

I’m a flute teacher of Korea. I’m very surprised because of your drawing(lips’ shape of high-mid-low tone).

I definitely agree with u. Thank you for your post.

Take care!

Thursday, December 26, 2019 7:41:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Paul,
Why are you surprised by the drawings for high, medium and low?

Friday, December 27, 2019 12:02:00 AM

Blogger Paul said...

Dear Jen , I'm sorry I'm late for your comments . I'm very surprised by your drawings because of your ideas . When Many student struggles to get very high and low tone , they just think about 'pressure ' , not 'shape ' of lips . But I think 'shape ' is more important (than pressure) . Espeacilly shape of low tones , i totally agree with you . I think less region of lip plate, horizontally wider is key of low tones. I agree with your High tones idea also.

Thank you for your comment. Take care.

From Paul.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020 5:38:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Paul,
Lip shapes work as long as they're not too extreme. By the end of adjusting the embouchure, the final motions are so small as to be barely visible; and they take place right at the center of the lips. The embouchure changes are all listed and shown on tables (low, med. high, loud mf soft) on charts in the Roger Mather "Art of Playing the Flute" in volume 2.
So it's all there in theory and practice. :>)

Wednesday, March 04, 2020 5:56:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello! I just found this page and loved it so much I made a little donation. I'll be reading through the rest of your blog.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020 1:28:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Glad to help, and thankyou for the donation!
Every little bit helps! Thanks again,

Tuesday, October 27, 2020 4:45:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some 13 years after this was posted, I read it while trying to figure out why my high register is so flat, and why I can't really play above a B6. The flute was recently serviced, which included a head cork replacement, and it never occurred to me that the tech might have mis-aligned the cork. But he did, and a simple adjustment, and my flute is good as new. THANK YOU!

Monday, April 08, 2024 7:01:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Anon,
Oh my goodness how lucky you found it out!! You could be blaming your embouchure or what-have-you. Good oh! Glad to help. Thanks for the thankyou! All best, Jen

Monday, April 08, 2024 8:39:00 AM


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