SCALE, PITCH, & YOU
Have you ever gone shopping for flutes and seen the terms “Burkart Scale”, “Cooper Scale” or “Bennett Scale” only to be confused on why the scale matters? After all, every flute plays an A when you finger an A, right? While that may be true, the scale of a flute is a part of what sets flute makers apart and we’re here to talk about why that is, and what it means for you as a flute player.
The word “scale” can be confusing. We often know it as a series of notes that make a pattern. However when it comes to flute making this terms refers to the length of the tube and the placement of the tone holes on the flute. Without getting too mathematical, the “Scale” of a flute is part of what makes the flute sound in tune or not.
Before Theobald Boehm came around in the mid-19th century, the idea of “scale” was lost on flutists. First of all, there was no international pitch standard like there is today so many regions settled on their own pitches (most common was A=435, though in England it was A=452). Secondly, the flutes of the time period had identical hole placement regardless of what the flute was pitched at.
Makers of the time did know, however, that the hole size had an effect on intonation. They knew that larger holes could raise the pitch of certain notes whereas smaller holes could lower the pitch. They also knew that undercutting tone holes (shaping the tone holes on the inside of the flute) could produce the same effect as different hole size without players actually seeing the size difference. The concept of the modern-day scale started with Theobald Boehm in the mid-19th century with his “Schema” or his basic guide to calculate the placement of tone holes. Scale was not the only thing we learned from Boehm – he also figured out our fingering system and key mechanisms!
“By using keys it is possible to place the holes where they are acoustically needed and to make them as large as necessary for proper intonation, without regard to the size of the hand.” (1) After his death in 1881, the knowledge of scales essentially died with him and makers had to copy his system. It was after his death that Elmer Cole, the principal flutist with the English National Opera Orchestra, set the record straight in the 1960’s by insisting there be a mathematical calculation for the scale of the flute. He came up with the term “octave length” which describes the overall pitch of a scale (A=440, A=442, etc). (2) He worked closely with flute maker Albert Cooper to make a flute with this mathematical calculation.
Cooper figured a “displacement graph” that enabled other makers to use this calculation. Through his studies, he also improved upon the Boehm system of tuning so that the scale was more reliable. All of this work resulted in what we know today as the “Cooper Scale”. While he could have kept all of this information a secret, he shared it with his good friend flute maker William Bennett, who later changed the equation a bit to make the “Bennett Scale”. While these scales are not perfect and many flutists still complain of their C# being much too sharp while other notes are too flat, this is the basis of what our modern day scale is. Many flute makers still use these scales, while others, like Burkart, have made improvements and changes to these scales giving their flutes a slightly different sound from other makers. The Burkart scale, used on all of our Burkart and Resona flutes and piccolos, was designed by James Phelan and was mathematically derived to eliminate many of the flaws and compromises found in the 20th Century flute (like pitch variances) to provide evenness and stability of the pitch.
As times have changed, so have pitch standards. As I mentioned above, pre-Boehm, there was really no pitch standard. Orchestras tuned based on whatever their organ played at which could range anywhere from A=435 Hz to A=452 Hz. With such a wide range, it’s amazing that anyone played in tune! (Though Mozart may disagree that flutists ever played in tune… see end note (3)) Thankfully in May of 1938 the International Standard for pitch was decided to be A=440 Hz, which is the pitch of A above middle C on a frequency chart. Most orchestras in America tune to this standard, however there are many orchestras in Europe that tune more around A=442 Hz or A=444 Hz. As a result, many flutes are pitched at specific frequencies ranging between A=440 Hz to A=446 Hz. This pitch is the pitch at which an instrument is designed to play best in tune. You may be wondering why, if the International Standard of tuning is at A=440 Hz, makers make flutes that are tuned higher. The reasoning is simple – the problem of tuning comes when we try to play a flute at a higher pitch than what it was scaled for. For example, a flute pitched at A=442 Hz will have an easier time tuning to either A=440 Hz or A=444 Hz since they are only 2 Hz away from the original pitch but a flute pitched at A=440 Hz will have a much more difficult time performing in tune with an orchestra playing at A=444 or higher. Of course you can practice playing in tune with either instrument, but the flute pitched at A=442 will be much easier for the flutist to play in tune with and the flutist can use less effort.
What does this mean for you? Thankfully, it means that you don’t have to work quite as hard to play your flute in tune! Makers have made it far more reliable for the flutist to play in tune, though some adjustments may still need to be made when playing. It is still important for you to know the pitch of your instrument as well as the characteristics of the notes and how that can affect your playing. The leaps and bounds makers have made when it comes to pitches and scales of the instruments has propelled the flute forward into a much more diverse world allowing the flute to take on the soloistic and beautiful quality it has now! For our Burkart and Resona players, it means that we have taken every care here at the factory to make sure the scale of our flutes and piccolos is reliable, easy to play, and is designed to produce that unique “Burkart Sound” that is rich, warm, and powerful while also giving you flexibility to be sweet, flowing, and quick. We are constantly evolving and researching to bring you the best products the market can offer. Don’t believe us? Try it for yourself!
TRY IT FOR YOURSELF:
To see what the length of the tube does for tuning, Trevor Wye suggests the following exercise:
Take your flute out of the case and put your flute together. Pull your head joint out as far as it can go without the headjoint falling off! Play a scale, any scale, and notice how strange the notes sound.
- It was after his death that Elmer Cole, the principal flutist with the English National Opera Orchestra, set the record straight by insisting there be a mathematical calculation for the scale of the flute. He came up with the term “octave length” which describes the overall pitch of the flute (A=440, A=442, etc). https://www.justflutes.com/blog/scales-an-incomplete-look-at-what-every-flutist-should-know-2/
- When talking about Johann Wendling, the flutist, who’s tuning he admired over other players: “It’s another thing with your brother, you know. In the first place he’s not just a tootler, and then you don’t have to worry in his case when you know there’s such and such a note coming up that he’ll be much too flat or too sharp–see, it’s always right and he has his heart and ears and the tip of his tongue in the right place and doesn’t think his job is done just by blowing and fingering, and then he also knows what Adagio” http://www.flutehistory.com/Resources/Documents/MozartTromlitzFlute.php3
- Picture is taken from http://www.mcgee-flutes.com/Boehm’s%20Schema.htm
- Picture is taken from a memorial article by Flute Network found at http://www.flutenet.com/AlbertObit.htm