Flute Harmonics

Please note: the most interesting parts of this article are found at the bottom of the page, and to get the fullest out of them you'll have to go through the whole explanation. But believe us: your efforts at understanding will be amply rewarded.

Harmonics… what are we talking about?

Let's put it this way. How many different notes can you play with a given fingering? If your answer is one, or two, well, you're on the wrong track. What if I told you that some of the most basic fingerings can produce six, seven, or even eight different pitches — without ever moving your fingers?

Believe it or not, all the notes in the following recording have been played without moving a finger:

If you are wondering how this can be possible, you can get to the answer by simple deduction. With your fingers stuck in a single position, all you can do to alter the sound is modifying the embouchure and the way you blow. Indeed, once you know that producing these “extra notes” is possible, you may be able to figure out how to do it all by yourself, by a simple process of trial and error. However, we believe that reading this flute harmonics how-to will save you much time and frustration, and, most of all, we hope that it will arouse your interest in one of the most useful extended techniques available to flutists.

As an extended technique, harmonics are known under many different names: natural harmonics, overtones, partial tones. Practically speaking, all these terms refer to the same concept.

Why should I bother?

On the one hand, harmonics are sometimes used as alternate fingerings, and are sometimes called for in literature because of their unusual sound quality. On the other hand, harmonics also prove to be an invaluable source of effective exercises.

For instance, the A in the second register can be played with a bottom D fingering, but it simply won't appear unless your embouchure is just right. If you think about it, standard fingerings are designed to be fairly tolerant, so that even an approximate style of blowing will generally yield some sort of noise at the right pitch. Harmonic fingerings being much less tolerant, they constitute a wonderful guide: if you can play a note as a harmonic so that it sounds reasonably secure and strong, then you can be sure that you have come very close to finding the best way of producing the same note with its standard fingering.

To sum it up in a few points, the practice of harmonics is important:

  • to develop a flexible embouchure;
  • to gain a better control over the air stream;
  • to stabilize and strengthen your tone, particularly in the high registers;
  • because of their usefulness as alternate fingerings;
  • because they are fun to play;
  • last but not least, because they are actually used in contemporary music to create a special “color”.

How to play harmonics on the flute?

As you already know, the bottom-register fingerings will each give you two notes, depending on the way you blow them. In fact, they will give you more. A low D fingering, for instance, will yield not only a low D, but also the D which you (should) normally play with your first finger raised, the A which is written above the staff, another D above that, then an F# and an even higher A.

You are actually already playing the notes E5 to C#6 in the second register as harmonics, as they share the same fingering of their first-octave equivalents. Now, think about what changes are needed to pass from the first to the second register when using these fingerings.

  • You speed up the air-jet, chiefly by reducing the size of the lip opening.
  • You shorten the gap between the lip opening and the blow-hole edge.
  • You draw the bottom jaw in a fraction to correct the angle of the air-jet.

Throughout the entire range of the flute, if all the notes are to sound in the right octave with the best possible tone, all of these transitions need to be made smoothly. Working on the same principles, with practice you will eventually be able to produce higher-order harmonics.

To start out, choose one of the lowest notes, like a low D or a low C. In principle, the lower the note the easier its harmonics, as long as you can play that note strongly and clearly. Now, without changing the fingering, apply your usual procedure to jump up an octave, the one we've just described. When you've got to the new note, keep the motion going and, with a little searching and experimentation perhaps, you should find yourself playing an even higher note: an A, if you are fingering low D; or a G, if you are fingering low C. You might find yourself playing higher notes. Don't fight them, but search out this next lowest note (compare it to its normally fingered equivalent to be sure). Some hints:

  • Don't move the flute, don't move your head, don't change the fingering.
  • Don't press your flute too hard against your chin.
  • Don't force the keys down while playing higher and higher.
  • Don't blow harder (a little extra pressure is alright).

This last point is particularly important. Even if the term “overblowing” is often employed when talking about harmonics, it's not really blowing harder that you will get the upper notes, but using the lips to go from note to note. It's a very small movement, but still there.

When the new note sounds bright and secure, switch smartly to its standard fingering without altering the way that you are blowing at all. You may find yourself playing with a surprisingly better tone.

If all this doesn't work, do try again. If it does, make a mental note of your embouchure, if and how it differs from your normal one. This will do wonders for your embouchure.

Waves

Acoustics 101

Any natural sound can be described as a combination of sine waves. These pure tones never naturally show up by themselves; instead, they are always combined in a more or less well defined way to form even the simplest sound. It's the manner of their distribution in the sound that forms the color of that sound, the so-called timbre. This is the single feature that makes a note played on a violin different from the exact same note played on a flute.

Some terminology you should know:

  • A partial is any of the sine waves by which a complex tone is described.
  • A harmonic (or a harmonic partial) is any of a set of partials that are whole number multiples of a common fundamental frequency. This set includes the fundamental, which is a whole number multiple of itself (1 times itself).
  • An overtone is any partial except the lowest. This concept has no special meaning other than to exclude the fundamental, and can unfortunately lead to numbering confusion when comparing overtones to partials. Remember: the first overtone is the second partial.

Electronic synthesizers are capable of playing pure frequencies with no overtones (example: ), although they usually combine frequencies into more complex tones to simulate other instruments.

The timbre of the flute is actually very poor in overtones, and that's why it is often regarded as the instrument with the purest sound. In fact, it has just enough overtones to make it sound infinitely nicer than a pure sine wave, which as you might have noticed gives a rather dull feeling.

For those among you who know interval theory, it's very useful to know that the distribution of harmonics is always mathematically determined as follows: (scroll down to the next section for a graphical representation)

  • 1st harmonic (fundamental): the ground tone.
  • 2nd harmonic (1st overtone): sounds an octave higher.
  • 3rd harmonic (2nd overtone): a perfect fifth above the 2nd harmonic.
  • 4th harmonic (3rd overtone): two octaves above the fundamental.
  • 5th harmonic (4th overtone): a major third above the 4th harmonic.
  • 6th harmonic (5th overtone): a perfect fifth above the 4th harmonic.
  • 7th harmonic (6th overtone): somewhere between a major sixth and a minor seventh above the 4th harmonic.
  • 8th harmonic (7th overtone): three octaves above the fundamental.
  • 9th harmonic (8th overtone): a major second above the 8th harmonic.

And so forth. One essential principle you should keep in mind is: doubling the harmonic number means doubling the frequency, with the effect of sounding an octave higher. Example: the eighth harmonic sounds one octave higher than the fourth harmonic.

Given these background notions, we are now finally able to explain what harmonics on the flute are all about.

When “playing harmonics” on the flute, what we are actually doing is
“excluding” the fundamental tone and some of the lower overtones, thus
emphasizing the first of the “surviving” harmonics, which will sound
as if it were a fundamental in its own right.

How far can you go?

To play the most harmonics on your flute start with the lowest note, C4 (or, if you have a B footjoint, B3). Here is a table of the lowest harmonics available on the modern flute. Those harmonics which are too difficult to be reasonably considered as humanly playable have been grayed out.

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th
B3 B4 F#5 B5 D#6 F#6 A6 B6 C#7
C4 C5 G5 C6 E6 G6 Bb6 C7 D7
C#4 C#5 G#5 C#6 E#6 G#6 B6 C#7 D#7
D4 D5 A5 D6 F#6 A6 C7 D7 E7
Eb4 Eb5 Bb5 Eb6 G6 Bb6 Db6 Eb7 F7

Please notice that as you go higher, there will be fewer notes to get. Here are the same harmonics series in musical notation.

Harmonics series for B
Harmonics series for C
Harmonics series for C#
Harmonics series for D
Harmonics series for Eb

As you will soon notice during your practice, it's not always straightforward to predict how difficult a given harmonic will be. In fact, this ultimately depends on the characteristics of your flute. However, in most cases the following list should reflect quite accurately the actual order of the most difficult harmonics. From the easier to the harder:

FundamentalHarmonicSound
B37A6
D46A6
C47Bb6
B38B6
Eb46Bb6
C#47B6
C48C7
B39C#7

If you can get beyond that, you should definitely let us know!

Practicing Harmonics

Harmonics are best practiced at the beginning of your practice sessions, even before tone exercises. That's because they remain first and foremost an exercise in lip flexibility, and getting your lips into shape is something you really want to do before everything else.

As with most exercises, even five minutes of practice a day will make a big difference on the long run.

For your first attempts, you may simply pick a very low note and experiment various ways of overblowing into the flute. When you can get the note to crack in a controlled way you'll know you're on the right path.

Keep in mind that when you are in your initial stages speed is not important at all. Play very slowly, to get the fullest, richest sound on each harmonic. At that point, and at that point only, you can attempt to speed things up gradually, and start to work on going from one note to the next. This often proves to be the hardest part of the job, as you will soon notice that playing harmonics staccato is much easier than playing them legato. The final step will be to work on slurred leaps between distant harmonics, which is a very tricky exercise.

Look Mom, One Hand!

One nice, relatively simple exercise you can try is to play a G major scale — using your left hand only! Start on a regular second-octave G, and go on to play A, B, C as you normally would; at this point, finger G again but overblow it to get a third-register D; finally, raise the remaining fingers like you did before to get the rest of the scale: E, F#, G. You should find yourself playing this last G with the fingering you would normally use for C.

Can you figure out how to play “Oh! Susanna” this way? What other tunes can you play with just one hand?

Bugle Calls

Harmonics are produced on the flute in a similar way as on brass instruments: by fingering one note and manipulating the embouchure to produce higher pitches corresponding to the harmonic series.

Consider the bugle, the simplest of all brass instruments. It's like a trumpet, but with no valves or other pitch-altering devices. All pitch control is done by varying the player's embouchure, since the bugle has no other mechanism for controlling pitch. Consequently, the bugle is limited to notes within a single harmonic series.

A Bugle

The bugle is used mainly in the military to play bugle calls, short tunes that indicate the daily routines of camp.

So why did we bring up bugles? Because bugle calls are simply the ultimate fun exercise in flute harmonics! After choosing which key you want to play in, you can play the full tunes without ever moving a finger.

Bugle calls only make use of five notes: the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th harmonics. However, contrary to what you might think, there's quite a lot of them to choose from.

We've prepared a compilation of the most popular bugle calls still in use today, trying to put the easiest ones first. Here it is:

Please note that to make the score more readable the notes were written one octave below their actual sound.

Although the calls are by common practice always scored in C, you can play them in whatever key you find easier: B, C, C#, D or (more difficult) Eb. (The key of E is also possible, if you know a little trick: in this key, the sixth harmonic comes out much more easily if you raise your right little finger.)

Further Studies

If you like playing harmonics, you should definitely get a copy of Robert Dick's Tone Development Through Extended Techniques. Among many other very interesting topics, it features a full chapter dedicated to natural harmonics, with many exercises that will help you to develop embouchure strength and sensitivity.