• Patrick Olwell

I have long been intrigued by my own experience and other flute players’ reports that different types of wood have different sound qualities or feel different to play—an idea that seems to contradict things I have read about the physics of flute acoustics. Some acousticians have claimed that the type of wood the flute is made of is irrelevant to the sound that is created and that only the empty space inside the bore is actually creating sound. Why then do flutes made of different woods feel so different to play, even when the difference is less pronounced or indiscernible to someone listening?

I had the beginning of an idea while staring at a diagram of the inner ear on the wall at the doctor’s office, and thought that the place where the flute rests against the chin of the player is only a few inches from the components of the middle and inner ear. Sometime later, I read an article in National Geographic about the evolution of whales ears and the way that their hearing organs support their use of echolocation. The article included the following diagram. I was struck by the line “Sounds were transmitted to the middle ears of the Basilosurus as vibrations from the lower jaw (71).

The idea need not be confined to whales alone. Steven Connor writes, “Teeth seem to be involved in the transition from the touched sound of a pre-recording era and the untouched sound of a post-recording era. This is because teeth represent an alternative route into the ear, or even a way of short-circuiting the ear. It is said that the deaf Beethoven gripped between his teeth to convey the sounds of the piano to him. Similarly, Thomas Edison would champ on the wood of a gramophone in order to hear faint overtones that, as he claimed in a 1913 interview, were normally lost before they reached the inner ear…”

What if part of the “sound” that the player experiences is in fact created by the vibration of the flute against the jaw and teeth, which might transmit this vibration to the middle and inner ear as a proprioceptive experience of sound? If we assume that different kinds of wood vibrate differently, the idea of the jaw transmitting sound might help to explain the experience of the player—that somethings sounds or feels different, even when to the listener, these differences are slight or even imperceptible.

Regardless of whether these acoustic properties are measurable with the tools available to us today, it is interesting to suppose that the experience of the player is not necessarily purely subjective or imaginary, and that how a flute feels might be just as important as how it sounds.

-Patrick Olwell, Ed. Matthew Olwell

(Editor's note: we have read some claims that the wood of a flute does not actually vibrate, and that the vibration is present only in the air moving inside the instrument. To us, this idea is counterintuitive and at odds with the sensation of vibration we experience in our fingers when playing the flute. We recognize that more research may be needed to clarify this point,

and offer the ideas in this post in the spirit of inquiry.)

Works Cited

Chadwick, Douglas H. “Evolution of Whales,” National Geographic, November, 2001.

Connor, Steven. “Edison’s Teeth: Touching Hearing.” 2001.

Note: special thanks are due to Ivan Goff for introducing us to Steven Connor’s article, cited above.

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  • Patrick Olwell

Many discussions of the different types of simple-system flutes currently played in Irish music mention tone-hole size in comparing flutes, but the usefulness of terms like “small holes” or “medium holes” is limited without actual measurements. Hoping that it might prove useful to players and those interested in the similarities or differences between various flutes, here is some information about our in-house system of classification...

Right-Hand Tone Holes, Blackwod Pratten

We use the measurement of the #4 hole (which corresponds to the right hand index finger for a right-handed player) as the main reference point that describes the “size” of a flute—this corresponds with our Pratten, Nicholson, and Rudall-Rose models. The reason I started using the #4 hole is that I use the G and D scales to lay out the tonal “map” of the flute, and I use these triads in the first round of tuning each instrument as it is being made. (Note that we’re talking here about concert flutes in the key of D, but the same general rules and nomenclature apply to flutes in other keys.) I tend to think of the first octave G (and sometimes also the low D) as “home base” and G is usually the first note that I check using a tuner. Although somewhat a quirk of our making process, this system may also be related to the general layout of a six-holed transverse flute, as small D piccolos are called G flutes in China, and in India this note is also often the tonic. Another factor is the likelihood of a given note playing more true than another: the G-position note on simple-system flutes is often more dependable than the A, which tends to be unpredictable on 19th century London flutes as well as some others.

There is also the question of tone and feel. On simple-system flutes, the size of finger holes on one instrument relative to another affects the “voice” or character of tone that the flute will have. To my ear, a flute with smaller holes feels a bit more veiled, subdued, or not as “open” as one with larger holes (complicated by the fact that the bore and embouchure also have a significant impact on these qualities). This is important in choosing the sound and feel you prefer as a player.

Anyhow, in the interest of reducing the overall confusion regarding what constitutes small, medium, or large holes, here is our yardstick or classification system, which corresponds to our Pratten and Nicholson models etc...

#4 hole:

  • 6.0–6.4mm (Smallest) Baroque and early Classical and Romantic period flutes.

  • 7.0mm (Smaller) Romantic period flutes, smallest holes on Rudall-Rose.

  • 8.0mm (Small) London-based flutemakers manufactured many of their flutes like this, even after Nicholson’s revolution.

  • 9.0mm (Medium) Nicholson Flute. The third photo below shows a Rudall-Rose flute and a T. Prowse flute that have almost identically-sized holes. Prowse was authorized to stamp his “C. Nicholson’s Improved” and it’s my understanding these measurements represent the large-holed version of his flutes that other maker’s copied.

  • 9.6-10mm (Large) Pratten Flutes.

There are of course exceptions to the above specs if we are talking about antique flutes, and the water is muddied by the fact that many English flutes fall somewhere between the above delineations (what do we call a flute with a #4 hole of 7.5mm or 8.5?), but at least this is a standardized nomenclature that we can employ to compare one flute to another with some level of precision.

We use this system to describe our own flutes, and on our price list the 8.0 is referred to as Small, the 9.0 mm is Medium, and the 9.6 is Large (we realize that a Baroque musician might call the 6.0mm “normal’ and the 9.0mm “gigantic.”) We don’t currently make a flute with anything smaller than the 8.0 above, as most of our customers are playing traditional music and want the more “open” sound. I do own many antique flutes (including two by Rudall-Rose) with smaller holes that I think have a beautiful tone.

If you want to know the specific measurements of your own flute, you can buy a plastic vernier caliper (plastic is good because you won’t risk scratching the flute) for about $20. This comes in handy if you want to make precise measurements.

I hope that this system of sizing will aid anyone who wants to compare flutes and gain some insight into the way that hole-size effects tone.



(Pictured above: French, 6.5mm, American, 7.0mm, and Rudall-Rose and T. Prowse, 9.0mm)

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  • Patrick Olwell

Updated: Mar 5, 2019

Those new to the wooden flute often have to navigate some confusing territory, as the design of the instruments is generally less standardized between makers than that of silver flutes or violins. This is particularly true when it comes to the specifications of the headjoint, and there are many choices and differing opinions as to what is best. Some players prefer a headjoint as much like those of the original 19th century Nicholson flutes as possible, which were fully-lined with brass tubing and featured a thinner wood head tube than the earlier London-made flutes. This thinner tube dimension means that the embouchure “chimney”—the measurement from the inside to the outside of the flute—is not as tall as on earlier flutes. While this makes for an amazing tone in the hands of a skilled player (part of the revolution Charles Nicholson helped to bring about), these flutes are not always as easy to play for someone with less experience, and a taller chimney seems to provide a consistent sound more easily. Also, the mouth-hole size (embouchure) changed during Nicholson’s time. In the 1820's they were usually smaller, measuring about 9×11mm but by the 1850's had grown to a size of approximately 10×12mm, which is closer to both the Boehm flute and the wooden flutes of today. While a millimeter may not sound like much change, it has a significant effect on the way it feels to play the flute.

Even more confusing is the discussion of fully-lined versus half-lined headjoints. All of the flutes crafted by English flute makers during the period from 1820-1880 (with the exception of Monzani) featured fully-lined heads, as part of the new flute sound that was becoming popular at this time was a more “metallic” or powerful projection. Everyone who heard Charles Nicholson play was astonished by the sound, and most players joined this new school—in addition to playing very loudly, Nicholson was able to produce a wide palette of tones and play expressively at quieter volume. In France meanwhile, the fully-lined headjoint did not become popular, and all headjoints were half-lined, with a two-piece metal tuning slide that did not extend up to the embouchure and left the upper part of the headjoint unlined. (Johann Joachim Quantz had said in his 1750 treatise on the flute that a lined head had been tried, but “rendered the sound harsh and disagreeable.”) French flutes also featured the earlier smaller fingerholes and consequently played with a lighter, less forceful tone. As a result of these variations in design, there were two different schools of playing during this period, and they were grounded in different aesthetics (American flutes, principally made in New York City, fell somewhere between the French and English designs).

Currently, we make both half-lined and fully-lined headjoints and find that the differences between them are slight but noticeable to some. Patrick prefers a fully-lined head for session playing, as he feels he gets more projection with less effort, but Aaron prefers his half-lined head and finds it is as loud or louder with less effort and with a lighter weight. Ultimately, the difference between the two flutes is small and difficult to quantify. (We are planning a test with a group of blindfolded players and a number of lined and unlined headjoints to see if it is really consistently possible to tell the difference... we'll let you know the results.)

Also confusing is the assertion made by some that a lined head will always crack, or crack more often as the wood will continue to shrink. In our experience this is not the case—a piece of blackwood is not like a black hole, continuing to shrink forever, but will only do so while losing moisture, and once fully-dried, becomes quite stable. It is true that gluing a metal tube into a cylinder of wood is a cockamamie design from an engineering standpoint (as the wood does expand and contract somewhat with changes in humidity, whereas the metal does not) but with reasonable care, problems can be minimized. You have to be careful traveling from wet to dry climates or vice versa (say, from Ireland to your home in the desert near Phoenix) but an all-wood flute with no metal tubing can also crack under these conditions. Please see our “Care and Feeding” post for more information about humidity and its effect on wooden flutes. The early advertisements from the 19th century for the then-new lined heads maintained they wouldn't crack, as the lining made it more difficult for moisture to be absorbed into the wood of the headjoint, so it’s easy to see why there is so much confusion on this point.

Ultimately, choosing a headjoint comes down to the inclination of the player, and your best bet is to try as many as possible and decide what you prefer.

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