Composing for Flutes

How to Compose for Flutes in the 21st Century by Carla Rees

The 20th century was a ‘golden age’ for the flute, with composers rediscovering the wide range of capabilities of the instrument after the implementation of the Boehm system in the mid 1800s and the acceptance of the new system by the flute-playing community as a whole. New repertoire thrived, with composers such as Prokofiev, Messiaen, Berio, Boulez, Ferneyhough and numerous others writing solos for the instrument. Contemporary techniques also came into their own, largely due to the pioneering work of Robert Dick, and new innovations in instrument design have resulted in a fully quarter-tone version of the flute being invented and adopted by a number of leading contemporary music performers. This is an exciting time for the flute. Stereotypes are long gone (even the age-old cliché of the flute representing a bird was dispatched to perfection by Prokofiev in Peter and the Wolf, not to mention by Messiaen in Le Merle Noir) and the instrument has much to offer composers.

The flute’s family has also expanded in recent years. Solo repertoire for piccolo has expanded dramatically, and the alto and bass flute, once only played as borrowed instruments on rare occasions, have come into their own with a fast-growing repertoire.

Contemporary techniques for the flute have been well documented, especially through the works of Robert Dick, Pierre-Yves Artaud and more recently, Carin Levine (see resources, below). Sounds such as multiphonics, tongue rams, whistle tones, key clicks and air sounds have entered the common vocabulary of most advanced players, and their use in a wide-ranging repertoire has developed their acceptance in the flute-playing community as a whole. Despite this, however, it is important that they are handled carefully; well-written music using these techniques can be mesmerising, but it becomes instantly apparent if a composer has not researched the instrument properly. Practical considerations are an important aspect of composing for the flute family, and the suggestions below cover some of the most common techniques and their problems.

Key Clicks

Key clicks can be used with pitched sound and without, and it is important to specify which in a score. Generally speaking, a cross note head indicates a purely percussive sound, without any sounding note. The clicks will follow written pitches, but bear in mind that they only apply to the low register, as the flute’s higher notes are produced through over-blowing, and are therefore largely controlled by the airstream rather than fingerings. The lower the pitch, (ie. the more closed keys on the tube), the louder the sound will be. A player will generally use the G key as a striker for best effect, where possible. If the embouchure hole in the flute’s head joint is covered during the execution of a key click, the resulting pitch is approximately a 7th lower than the written pitch. Remember that a sound can only be produced by the action of pushing a key down, so the finger position must be reset in order to create a new sound, and this can slow down the maximum speed of the key clicks. For example, a downwards scale will sound clicks as each of the fingers goes down in turn, but an upwards one will not, as the keys are being lifted to change pitch, so an additional striker is required. Key clicks are particularly effective on the alto and bass flute due to the increased size of the instrument.

Video example: Key clicks drumming on alto flute

Tongue Rams

Tongue rams are popping sounds created by pushing the tongue fast into the flute’s embouchure hole. The pitch is approximately a seventh lower than the written fingering. As the flute has to be rolled inwards for this effect, time must be given both before and afterwards for the player to move the instrument to the required position and back. As with key clicks, the tongue position has to be reset before a new sound can be made, so speed is limited.

Audio example: Tongue rams

Tongue rams by soundandmusic

Air Sounds

A multitude of air sounds are possible on the flute, from a slightly airy tone to full air sounds, jet whistles and breathing effects. Air sounds can be articulated with consonants (se, sss, ch, ke, te, pe etc.) and can be used in a variety of combinations. Be aware that sustained air sounds use up a lot of air, especially on alto and bass flute, and may require frequent breaths. The sound of breathing in has sometimes been used, but with limited effect; to create a noisy in-breath, the player has to involve the throat in the breathing process, thereby creating an in-breath which is much shallower than would ordinarily be used. On low flutes, this does not allow for enough air to play effectively. Beware also of hyperventilation!

Audio example: Air sounds articulated with ‘shhh’

Air sounds articulated with 'sssh' by soundandmusic


There is a wide range of available multiphonics on the flute, and the advent of the Kingma system flute, with its greater venting, has increased the possibilities exponentially, especially for alto and bass. Standard alto and bass flutes have close-holed key-work, so the multiphonic possibilities are greatly reduced in comparison with an open-holed C flute. The important thing to bear in mind when writing multiphonics is that they will generally only work within a small dynamic range. As a general rule, the closer together the two notes are in pitch, the quieter they will be, and conversely, the wider the intervallic range, the louder the dynamic. Some more stable multiphonics might work over a range of dynamics, but this very rarely covers the whole dynamic range of the instrument. A list of multiphonics can be found in the resources mentioned below. It should be noted that due to the increase in tube size, alto and bass flutes respond differently to certain fingerings than C flutes, and pitches may be altered or non-existent. This is particularly true of notes in the high register, since the bigger instruments have fewer high harmonics in the sound.

Audio example: Multiphonics on the Alto-Flute

Alto flute multiphonic example by soundandmusic

Whistle Tones

Whistle tones are very quiet sounds created through a very slow stream of air breaking across the embouchure hole. These are hard to produce and even more difficult to stabilise. Sustained pitches are easiest to produce in the instrument’s top register; low register pitches are very difficult. Composers should notate whether they want a stable or fluctuating pitch (fluctuations will be caused by movements in the air stream and will go through the higher partials of the harmonic series). This technique requires a change of embouchure position and air stream speed, so is most reliable when there is a suitable amount of time given for preparation. The precise beginning of the sound is also not always within the player’s control, and a sound coming from nothing is often the most effective method of production.

Audio example: Whistle tones

Whistle tones by soundandmusic


The standard flute has a limited number of reliable quarter-tone fingerings, and approximate fingerings for the remaining pitches. These alternative fingerings can sometimes cause changes in timbre, and depend on the ear of the player for precise intonation. On alto and bass flutes, the close-holed key-work means that there are no precise microtones and any microtonal alterations in pitch have to be carefully controlled by the player. Kingma system instruments are still rare but becoming gradually more prevalent and allow for full quarter-tone scales with no change to tone quality.

Video example: Quarter-tone scale on Kingma system alto flute

Singing and Playing

This is a technique which has to be written with care. The pitch range of players’ voices can vary dramatically, so it is worth keeping vocal lines simple and with a choice of octave to suit the player. Also bear in mind that in order to produce a good sound on the flute, the vocal cords and inside of the mouth change shape according to the pitch of the note played. These are connected with the method of vocal sound production, so care must be made not to cause conflict (for example, by writing a note low in the range of a bass flute and requiring a sung note high in the range of the voice).

Further  Resources

Artaud, Pierre-Yves, Flûtes au Présent (Paris: Billaudot, 1995); La Flûte Multiphonique (Paris: Billaudot, 1995)
Dick, Robert, The Other Flute (2nd Edition, New York: Multiple Breath Music, 1989);Tone Development through Extended Techniques (New York: Multiple Breath Music, 1986)
Levine, Carin and Mitropoulos-Bott, Christina, The Techniques of Flute Playing Volume I: Flute (Kassel: Bärenreiter 2002); The Techniques of Flute Playing Volume II: Piccolo, Alto and Bass Flute (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2004)
Rees, Carla and Burnand, David, Composing for Quarter Tone Alto Flute, (London: Royal College of Music, 2003) CD ROM (available on request from

About the Author

Carla Rees is an alto and bass flute specialist and Artistic Director of the ensemble rarescale. She currently holds a DMus studentship in the Centre for Music and Multimedia at the Royal College of Music, where she is researching and documenting contemporary techniques for the Kingma system alto and bass flute.
Audio and video examples come from the CD ROM Composing for the Kingma system Alto Flute (2009) © Carla Rees 2009 with permission from the Royal College of Music.

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