Tuning the flute isn’t an easy topic to cover.
I’ve seen students of all levels struggle with this a lot.
In my summer ensembles, my wife and I co-direct, our flute players are fantastic, but they have to keep tuning the whole time we play.
It’s the nature of the beast, so I thought we’d dive into some tips and methods for tuning your flute in this article.
When you tune a flute, you’re making the instrument’s pitch match either a specific frequency or the other members of your band. Significant adjustments are made by moving the head joint in and out. Minor adjustments are made by changing your embouchure shape and the angle of your air column across the embouchure hole.
Tuning an instrument is a developed skill, and on the flute, it needs a well-trained ear and coordinated embouchure skills.
Let’s dig into some different methods and other tips on tuning your flute.
Basic Flute Tuning Process
Regardless of the tools you use, you’ll need to know the basic flute tuning process.
First, you need to put your flute together. Read this guide for more details.
When your flute is put together, leave about a quarter to half an inch of room for your head joint going into the middle joint before it’s in all the way.
This will give you some room to adjust.
Now, play your C or Bb in the middle of the range of your concert flute.
Playing in the middle gives you an excellent all-around tuning baseline.
Use your tuning tool (see next section). For this section, we’ll assume you’re using a chromatic tuner.
Play the note for at least 3 seconds. After half of a second, take a look at the tuner (or use your ear if you’re using one of the listening methods).
Notice if your flute is sharp or flat.
Adjust your flute’s headjoint one way or the other.
If you need to raise the pitch (when it’s too flat), move the head joint in a bit.
If it’s too high and you need to lower the pitch, pull it out slightly.
Repeat by tuning the note until you’re spot on in the middle of the tuner three times in a row.
Now, your flute is in tune for the most part.
Minor Adjustments To Flute Tuning
Each note on the flute has its own tendencies. Some notes will be right on, some will be sharp, and some will be flat.
These are called pitch tendencies.
It’s the nature of how tuning works. No instrument can be in tune from top to bottom perfectly.
Plus, even when it’s perfectly in tune, you’ll want to adjust depending on how your note fits into the chord if you’re playing in a group.
(This is quite advanced stuff to consider and not the purpose of today’s topic.)
For minor adjustments, you don’t want to keep pulling the flute head joint in and out.
This isn’t practical or really possible.
Instead, you’ll need to make minor adjustments to your lips and the tilting of the flute itself as you play.
Yes, this is quite complicated, but good tuning is the sign of a great musician.
It separates even the advanced players from the pros.
There are no hard and fast rules for specific minor adjustments, but here are a few tips and guidelines you may want to follow:
To lower the pitch
- Lower the corners of your lips
- Lower your tongue
- Tilt the flute toward you
- Aim lower at the lip plate across the embouchure hole
- Think wider air stream
- A combination of all of the above
To raise the pitch
- Tighten your embouchure
- Raise your tongue
- Tilt the flute away
- Aim higher at the lip plate across the embouchure hole
- Focus your air stream more
- A combination of all of the above
This video may also be helpful for those who want a visual explanation:
Different Tools/Methods For Tuning Your Flute
The easiest and most accurate method is to use a tuner (which we’ll talk about), but it’s not the only one.
I’ve used all of these, and I encourage my students to check them all out and find which one works the best for them.
If all else fails, use a chromatic for quick tuning, but use your ear to tune with others for the most accurate in-the-moment tuning.
Chromatic Digital Tuner
The first, best, and most common option is to use a digital tuner.
The KORG OT-120 is the one I recommend the most for anyone to get.
It’s accurate, easy-to-use, and affordable.
Disclaimer: Affiliate link to Amazon (but it’s seriously really good).
You’ll get to pick what frequency you want to base your pitch around. The standard is A = 440 Hz (more on this later).
The readouts are easy to understand, so you’ll always know whether you’re sharp or flat in flute pitch.
Its microphone pickup and analysis are highly accurate, unlike many cheaper options out there.
For sure, this is a must for any musician to have.
Tuning With A Drone
Tuning with a drone is a brilliant way to develop your ears better.
No, I’m not talking about a drone like the one flying around with cameras on them (all my middle schoolers always think this!).
You play your note and listen to how the two compare.
This is great for helping really hear when notes match in pitch (called intonation).
When two notes are close but not quite there, the frequency sound wave will begin to collide with the other, and you’ll hear a warble in the sound.
The farther away the two pitches get, the faster the warble gets. The closer to in-tune notes, the slower the warble gets.
Once the two notes are precisely at the same frequency, the warble disappears completely.
Play your musical instrument with a drone note of your choice (again, C, Bb, or A are best). Listen for the warble.
Adjust your head joint or make some of the minor adjustments from our list above.
Does the warble get faster? Slower?
When you know it’s slower, you know you need to keep going in that direction, whether it’s a sharper sound or flatter sound.
Repeat until the warble is wholly gone.
Drones can be found from a digital electronic tuner and on YouTube videos.
There are many tuning apps cropping up either in browser form or in app form.
These are all OK and often free!
But they are limited in two significant ways:
- The microphone on your phone or computer isn’t designed to pick up the sound as accurately.
- The coding of the program isn’t as detailed and accurate as a dedicated tuner.
Use this if you have to (I have, and it’s just fine), but consider saving some money until you get the digital tuner.
Tuning To Others
Along the same lines as a drone, tune to another player. Again, listen for the warble to slow down and disappear as you adjust.
This is how you should tune with a band. The person giving the main note may not be precisely with the digital tuner, and this is OK!
Some groups prefer to use a different standard pitch.
Even if you’re right on with your tuner, you’ll sound wrong if you don’t match the rest of the group.
What Should I Tune To On My Flute?
If you stay in music long enough, you’ll hear people talk about standard pitch, frequency, and other such things.
You may notice your tuner says “A=440 Hz.”
What does this all mean?
For most people, don’t worry about it. Just make sure your tuner says A=440 and tune away.
For the more curious or advanced, let’s dig in a little.
Pitches are sound waves, and pitch refers to the frequency of the wave (from the start of one wave to the next).
Hz measures how often the wave happens per minute. A higher number means a higher pitch.
Hundreds of years ago, there was no standard for the notes, so when people got together or built instruments, they often sounded quite bad.
It’s not because they were bad players or were a bad flute maker, but they weren’t all based on the same idea.
Enter A=440 Hz.
Now, we tune to a core frequency. Every note is based around the A as 440 Hz.
Fun fact: For every octave you go up, you double the frequency. For every octave you lower, you cut it in half.
So an octave A above A=440 is A=880. An octave lower is A=220.
Even now, this is the basis for most tuning. However, advanced ensembles may go for slight variations.
Slight, meaning 2 Hz one way or the other. Nothing like the huge difference of old.
Bands, marching bands, and concert bands may tune to A = 438. This helps keep the group sounding darker and in tune as the wind instruments warm up during play.
Orchestras will often tune to A = 442. This gives the ensemble a brighter and lighter sound.
It’s largely a matter of preference you may never really need to think about again.
As I said before:
When in doubt, go for A = 440.
Why is my flute so out of tune?
You probably put your flute together and pressed the head joint all the way in. Pull it out a bit and start your tuning process over.
If you can’t get it to match at all, check inside your head joint and look for signs of damage or wear on the inside headjoint cork placement.
Sometimes if it gets wet or damaged, this cork will shrink or move somehow. Then, the space in the flute will be different, throwing off its tuning.
What key is a flute tuned in?
The western concert flute (also called the German flute, soprano flute, or C flute) is tuned to any note you want.
I recommend using either C, Bb, or A, depending on the group you’re playing with.
Band directors usually use Bb, orchestras use A, and if you’re in a flute group, C is fine.
Other types of flutes use other notes as their fundamental note, but these three options still work just fine for all flutes.
How much does it cost to have my flute tuned?
Don’t pay anything to have your flute tuned. It’s impossible to tune a flute for someone else.
You must adjust it to fit your playing style. It’s so personal it’s impossible to get it right for someone else.
If you mean to get the flute “tuned up” or repaired, it depends on what you need. Common costs are between $35-100.
How do you adjust a flute head joint?
To adjust for tuning, give the head joint a slight twisting motion to prevent scratching or catching as you move the metal in and out.
High-level players may also adjust the screwed-on end of the head joint, but I recommend most players stay away from it completely.
If you mess with it too much, you may end causing an issue that needs professional repair.
How do you improve a flute’s intonation/tuning?
You improve your flute’s bad intonation by training your ear to hear when you’re out of tune. Long tones and slow pieces with a tuner are the best way to go about this.
I also recommend listening to professional flutists a lot to get a better idea of how to tune.