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NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE FORUM
Vol. I, No. 2
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How to Select the Best Flute for You
Part II. A Discussion of Flute Tone.
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by Dennis Sizemore
 
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     Introduction
     The Location of the Flute Sound
     Acoustics of the Flute
     Summary
     Previous Flute Tips
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     Hello to all of our friends in the world of the Native American Flute!
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     For those who are reading the Flute Forum for the first time, this is the educational area of the web page, where we share ideas that will improve your experience with the flute. As always, the Flute Forum is here to serve your needs. If you have questions related to flutes, or about this column, please write. If you have suggestions about how we might better address your specific needs, or the needs of flute players in general, please contact us atwebmaster@loomisflute.com.
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     In the last installment of the Flute Forum, I began to examine the various ways to determine the overall quality of a flute, and whether a flute is a good match for you. The characteristics discussed were the physical dimensions of the flute and the response of the flute to your air.
     At the end of the previous column, I stated that "tone" would be one of the subjects intended for this "issue". Upon deeper exploration, it became clear that the topic of tone is not only very important, but is a vast area that could generate a textbook of information. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I have divided the subject of tone into two sections: Acoustics of the Flute, and the Psycho-biology of Tone. Acoustics of the Flute will be the topic of this Flute Forum, and the Psycho-biology of Tone will appear in the next issue.
     Tone is the heart and soul of our instrument. It is possibly the characteristic that attracts most flute players, but is also the least understood. Because of this lack of knowledge about tone, flute selection based on tonal issues becomes very difficult. It isn"t the purpose of the Forum to become a physics textbook, but if we are to inform, some of the information may be technical in nature. For those who are not interested in the technical information, scan down to theSummary paragraph. So, let"s get started with the fundamental information about the creation of sound in our flutes.
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     The Location of the Flute Sound:
     Tone exists in two locations. The first location is in the air that moves within, and around, the flute. The second location is in the body of the listener, specifically in areas related to the hearing anatomy and the areas of the brain related to hearing. It can be said that this relationship between the sound and the listener is in the form of objective and subjective, stimulus and response, acoustics and psycho-acoustics. Physics, human biology and psychology are the sciences that describe these factors.
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     Acoustics of the Flute
     Events occurring in the flute can be described in terms of velocities, angles, volumes, frequencies of vibration, turbulence, nodal points, etc. Air leaves the players body, moves through the upper chamber (or short chamber or pre-chamber), passes through the channel under the block (or bird), and partially enters the lower chamber (or long chamber or sound chamber). When the air leaves the channel under the block, it strikes the fipple edge. The air column is split, with a portion going into the lower chamber and the remainder of the air exiting the flute. The splitting of the air column by the fipple edge induces an oscillation in the air column. This oscillation is in the form of compression pulses that we label as "sound waves". The compression waves have a speed, or frequency, that is modulated, or controlled, by changing the active volume of the lower chamber.
     From this information, we can ascertain the following: The sound vibration, or tone, begins with the air oscillation which occurs at the fipple edge. Factors which influence the tone include: the angle of incidence of the air column striking the fipple edge, the angle of the fipple edge, velocity of the air column as it strikes the fipple edge, and inhibiting anomalies such as uneven surfaces in the wood.
     Sound radiates from the fipple edge in a 360 degree equal dispersion pattern, emitting from the flute equally in all directions, and in 3 dimensions. The air flow that is escaping from the fipple area has the same type of impact on the sound wave "directionality" that current in a stream would have on the concentric ripple waves that are created from dropping a stone in the stream. In other words, a flute"s sound has a slight "projection direction" that is parallel to the direction of the air flow escaping from the fipple area of the flute. Sound is an odd creature, sharing characteristics that can be described in terms of both wave and particle behavior. This is why a flute will sound slightly louder from one vantage point or direction and, conversely, slightly quieter in other places. Walk in a circle at various distances around a flute player and notice this effect.
     The "projection effect" just described is an important part of the consideration of the tone of a flute. As you move away from a flute, the tone seems to change. Closer to the flute, the sound is not just louder, but the tone is fuller and richer, and has more character. As you move away from the flute, the higher frequencies of the sound predominate, and the illusion of a different tone is created. If your intention is to play a flute in public performance without amplification, then the flute must be heard from a distance. The only way to do this is to hear the flute being played by another person who uses their air in a manner very close to your own. If your intention is to play the flute for personal enjoyment or to play using amplification, then accurate assessment of the tone can be made close to the flute.
     It is also important to understand the composition of the sound that is emitted from a flute. When we hear a note being played on a flute, we are actually hearing the summation of several sounds, not just one pitch. The dominant sound that we hear is called the fundamental, and that is what we refer to as "the note" that is being played. We also simultaneously hear a configuration and combination of other "notes" that are unique to that flute, but at a much lower volume than the fundamental. These notes, which are called partials or overtones, vibrate at whole number multiples of the frequency rate of the fundamental note. Each partial has a volume level, which may be measured in decibels.
     All flutes have a unique "sound fingerprint", called a Fourier spectrum, that is the measurable percentage of volume and actual volume of the fundamental note and all of the partials. If a flute were to be played into an oscilloscope, a pattern would be displayed that describes that flute"s Fourier spectrum This unique spectrum is what we call "tone" or "timbre". When we hear a flute and say that the tone is "rich" or "dark", the Fourier spectrum analysis of that flute"s sound would show that more of the higher partials were present at a higher volume than as compared to the spectrum pattern of other flutes. When we say that the sound of a particular flute is "lifeless" or "dull", then that flute"s sound has a predominance of the fundamental with little presence of upper overtones.
     Generally, the "tone", which we now can call the Fourier spectrum, does not change radically as you change fingerings on a flute. There are many physical factors that influence the "tone" of a flute, but the majority of those factors are located right at the fipple edge. Another interesting quality of our flutes, is that the Fourier spectrum, or tone, can change dramatically if we increase or decrease our air speed. Also, the spectrum, or tone, of the Native American flute is completely unique when compared to any band or orchestra instrument. It is also similar enough among most of our flutes that we can recognize the tone of a Native American flute, and not mistake it for another wind instrument.
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     Summary:
     In the simplest terms, tone is primarily controlled by the design of the fipple and how the air engages the fipple edge. However, from all of the information in the preceding paragraphs, it becomes abundantly clear that the number of physical factors that create and control tone at the fipple area are tremendous. This virtually guarantees that the tone of any two flutes is going to be unique. For some uses, such as recording or performing with certain instrument combinations, the importance of consistency of tone is critical. For other uses that are more private, the individuality and uniqueness of a flute is of greater value. Tone is a product of physics, but is filtered through the subjective evaluation of the player. I hope that this has been an aid to your understanding of how our flutes work..
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If you use these hints, you"re on your way to selecting a great flute! Good Hunting!!!
Copyright 1998 by Dennis Sizemore
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     Do you have questions about caring for or playing your Native American flute? We"d love to hear from you. Email: webmaster@loomisflute.com
 
 
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