Frequently Asked Flute Questions

I get a lot of correspondence that tends to cover the same issues, so at last I'm getting around to creating an FAQ page.  More issues will be added as time goes by - feel free to contact me with a request for anything you think should be added.

Contents, so far ...

What is an Irish flute?

The Irish flute is actually a modern invention, dating from about the 1970's.  It's based on the old 8-key flute, an instrument that was extremely fashionable from around the turn of the 19th century, but which was totally supplanted by the Boehm flute by around the start of the 20th century.  

For a long time, Irish players were able to find the old 8-key flutes, no longer in use by classical musicians, and procure them cheaply.  This lead to the development of a popular and intricate flute playing style, or more accurately, range of styles, and therefore increased demand.  By about the mid 1970's it became increasingly difficult for new players to find instruments, prompting the development of a new breed of instruments.  

Who invented it?

Probably not possible to say; indeed probably fairer to say that it was invented in a number of places at approximately the same time, by people blissfully unaware of each other.  In other words, it was an idea whose time had come.

I think it's fairly likely that I was close to the start of the action, making my first Irish flute in 1975.  At that time, I was certainly unaware of any other makers anywhere.  At this time, I'm still unaware of any before me.

Whence came the keyless Irish flute?

The keyless Irish flute is completely a modern concept, probably the natural starting point for the modern maker "re-inventing" the wooden conical flute. There is no historical precedent.

Changing from Modern Metal Flute to Irish Flute

Many people learn to play flute on the standard modern metal flute - properly called the Boehm flute after its inventor in 1847, Theobald Boehm - but then develop a love for Irish music and find it very hard to play convincingly on the metal flute.  So the question arises - what are the similarities and differences between the metal flute and the Irish flute?

1. D, not C

The basic scale of the Irish flute is D, while the Boehm flute's is C.  While most notes in the basic scales have exactly the same fingering, the big and important difference is in the fingering xxx xoo.  This is F natural on the Boehm flute and F# on the Irish flute.  This makes playing fast tunes in the usual Irish keys of D, G, Am, Em and Bm so much easier.  It's also the same fingering as used on the tin-whistle, making that an easy alternate instrument.  This table sets out the basic patterns, with the differences in red.

  c# c B A G F# E D
Boehm o ooo ooo o xoo ooo xoo ooo xxo ooo xxx ooo xxx oox xxx xxo xxx xxx
Irish ooo ooo  oxx ooo xoo ooo xxo ooo xxx ooo xxx xoo xxx xxo xxx xxx

2. No thumb key

Boehm added the thumb key as a convenient means of providing a c natural and as a way of improving the tuning of c#.  This is not normally used on the Irish flute, but can be added if required, usually in the form of a thumb hole, whereupon it works in exactly the same way as the thumb key on the Boehm.  

On the Irish flute, "cross-fingerings" are used for c natural, usually one or other of the following: oxx ooo; oxo xxx, oxx xox, whichever gives the best results on the flute in question, or whichever makes the particular passage easiest to play.  Some players also make great use of half-covering the top hole for c-natural.

3.  Look Ma, no keys!

For about 90% of the music, there is no need for any keys on the Irish flute, so the fingers lie directly on finger holes in the wood.  This brings a remarkable raft of advantages:

  • no key clatter.  The speed of Irish music and the richness of the ornaments tends to make a metal flute sound a bit like a typewriter gone mad.

  • greater speed.  With nothing under your fingers other than wood or air, there is nothing to slow you down.

  • total immediacy.  There is no hardware between you and your music - you are intimately in touch with the music, not the mechanism .

  • unmuffled sound.  The sound emanating from un-keyed holes is clearer than that which has to climb out from under a closely suspended pad.  (This is why French Boehm flutes have some "perforated" plates.  Unfortunately, this tends to draw attention to the difference between the perforated and non-perforated keys!)

  • ability to slide notes.  Notes can be flattened by partially covering the holes, often used for accidentals and for special effects.

  • finger vibrato.  The very characteristic form of vibrato used in Irish flute playing and piping is achieved by trilling on or above a hole lower than the first open one.

4. So why have keys at all on an Irish flute?

While 90% of Irish music can be played without additional keys, many players enjoy playing other forms of music on their Irish flutes.  And some keys find good use in that last 10% of Irish music - particularly the c, G# and F keys.

Even when using the keys (eg if playing in A or Dm), only one or two keys are usually involved, so most of the benefits of the keyless flute are retained.

Most keyed Irish flutes do not have the lowest two keys form the old 8-key - C and C#.  These notes do not find much application in Irish music.

5.  Embouchure

Most Irish flutes have the older-style elliptical embouchure, which helps give a great dark tone, but can make the flute seem very unresponsive to the player of a good quality Boehm flute.  There is no reason why the Irish flute cannot be provided with the modern embouchure, giving it every bit the same responsiveness as the metal flute.  This can be important to players who wish to keep up their metal flute for other forms of music and need to be able to change over quickly.

6. Cylindrical versus Conical

A major difference between the two flutes is the shape of the bore.  Boehm's 1847 flute was cylindrical, flutes before this and the Irish flute have conical bores.  The difference manifests in two ways - tone and resistance:

  • Boehm flute - bright tone, low resistance

  • Irish flute - dark tone, higher resistance.

7. Can I play both?

Fortunately, yes.  Indeed, lots of players, including many professionals, play both styles of flute (and maybe whistle and other woodwinds).  And this despite all the differences we looked at above, or perhaps because of them.  We seem to be equipped with a small switch, located somewhere in the brain, which is triggered by simply picking up either type of flute.  By the time the flute is pressed to lip, the correct embouchure, breath pressures, fingering patterns and expectations have all been loaded down into RAM and are ready to go.  It's a wonderful thing!  Thanks, Mum Nature!

Will a wooden head make my metal flute sound like an Irish Flute?

Unfortunately, no, contrary to popular belief and wishful thinking!  I've made heaps of wooden heads for metal flutes, and while a well-made wooden head can do wonderful things for a flute with a less-than inspiring metal head, they won't convert it into a wooden flute.  The main determinants of flute tone are:

  • bore shape (conical versus cylindrical), and

  • hole size (medium compared to really large).


Well, they're our FAQs for now.  But if there's a topic you feel needs attention, let me know!

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