A quick history of flute scales, Part 1

Posted by
Erin Nichols
 February 12, 2019

Okay, the title of this post sounds kind of boring, right? Stay with me–I’m not talking about scales in the etude/exercise sense! This week I’m delving into a history of how flutes are built to be in tune with themselves, or its scale. With the help of the justflutes.com blog, I’m going to attempt to break down the different methods and theories of how flutes have evolved in the quest for better intonation throughout history.

Let’s first define what exactly we mean by the “scale” of a flute. In its simplest terms, a scale is a set of proportions which, in the instrument world, can be seen in the different placement of frets on a guitar fingerboard and the curve of a rank of organ pipes or piano strings. In equal temperament, these follow a simple mathematical formula. Multiplying by 1.06 (or 1.0594630948 or 12,-2.) increases the overall length proportionately to eventually reach the octave — exactly. Stringed instruments are well behaved and follow this rule closely. Sadly, flutes are not well behaved. Because we move our lips, intonation is a moving target.

Before Theobald Böehm, who is largely responsible for our modern flute construction, the concept of “scale” was lost on flutists. When constructing pre-Boehm flutes, the finger hole position was basically standardized over the years. With the finger position decided on, tuning could be dealt with by changing the size of the holes. A larger hole raises the pitch and a smaller hole lowers it. Makers sometimes also undercut the tonehole, making it larger and raising the pitch without changing what you see on the outside. Boehm flutes, on the other hand, were very strictly regulated and built; the early ones look a bit more like a clarinet in the ring key and hole contstruction, and the placement and size of the holes was very exact so as to make the instrument more in tune with itself.

Whew…are you still with me? Unfortunately, when Boehm passed away, his extensive knowledge of building a flute “to scale” passed along with him, and flute makers were left to try and replicate his work. Fast forward to the early 1900s and travel to America, where Louis Lot’s French style flute, very close in construction to our modern instrument, was becoming overwhelmingly popular. These flutes were constructed to be played at A=435, so when intonation evolved to A=440, these instruments were fundamentally (no pun intended) flawed. This quandry was the start of an evolution by several different flute makers and performers, which we will tackle next week!

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