John Gunn, on tone and holding the flute




John Gunn published his "Art of Playing the German Flute" around 1793.  I've pulled out the section on how to hold the flute and how to blow it, as it has a lot to tell us about the approach players were taking as the golden age of the flute was beginning.

We have to be aware that Gunn's explanations of matters acoustic cannot be taken too literally - the science having come on a long way since then - but we can be equally confident that he knew what worked and what didn't in terms of playing the flute. 

To put the period in context, "the flute" would have included the baroque or 1-key flute, or the new keyed flute - the kind of instrument Richard Potter was making - typically 6 keys, but still relatively small holes.  Nicholson wouldn't be born for another year or two!

In what follows, I've added subject headings to make it easier to find your way about, I've replaced all the old-fashioned "long-s" f's with s (my favourite was "foftnefs" - "softness") to make it readable, and broken up a few impossibly long sentences and paragraphs. 

Even so, it is not easy going, but full of good points, so the reader would be well advised to take it line by line, pausing after each to contemplate every nuance of meaning.  Whatever you do, do try out the instructions in "Forming the Embouchure".

Any comments of mine will be in [square brackets].

Holding the Flute

PREVIOUS to the learner's making the experiments recommended in this chapter, it will be proper to give him directions for holding his flute in a proper manner, a circumstance of more consequence than could be imagined; for the worst habits in fingering I have ever met with have proceeded from not properly understanding how this is done.

The flute is to be taken in the left hand in such a manner that the thumb may be opposite to the fore-finger when it is applied to the first hole; the second joint of this finger, when on its hole, should be raised very little higher than the plane of the flute, which will then rest upon the lower part of the third joint or division of the fore-finger; the second finger, when on its hole, ought to be raised somewhat higher than the first, in the form of an arch; the third finger, considerably lower than the other two, will come on the third hole; in an oblique direction; and the little finger of that hand ought not to be allowed to rest on the flute.

The thumb of the right hand should be placed under the fourth hole; and whether the three fingers of that hand be on their holes, or raised above them at their proper distance, the little finger, even when not applied to any key, ought on no account to rest on or touch the flute, but should support itself and be kept over the D sharp key.

The learner is then to place the flute in such a manner betwixt his under lip and chin, so that the embouchure, or plug of the flute, may touch the middle of the under lip, which is not to advance on, or cover any considerable part of that hole; the flute must then be pressed pretty strongly against that part of the face, by the action of the lower part of the third joint of the first finger; and now he should try to keep it steadily in that place, whilst all his fingers are lifted up, the lower end of the flute being only supported by the thumb of the right hand, and the little finger lifting up the key: this is a case that will frequently occur.

The end to be answered by this method of holding the flute is this, that at the same time it is kept as firm and steady as possible, the fingers shall be at perfect liberty, and in the best situation for their motions; and it will also prevent a very bad habit from forming of leaning the little finger, and sometimes also the first finger of the right hand on the flute, with a view of supporting it, when, in fact it requires no other support than what is mentioned above.

[Pause here, dear reader, take up thy flute and try it (no point in just reading this stuff)!

It seems impossible to me as described above - the firm push of the left index finger simply sweeps the flute across the right thumb.  But move the right thumb up the inside wall of the flute so you can oppose the force coming from the left index finger, and you now have the flute firmly wedged in place.  Your left thumb is now free to operate the Bb key, the right 4th finger free to operate (or not operate) the Eb, and the fingers of both hands are free to cover or not cover their holes without stress.  So when Gunn says "under the fourth hole", I don't think he meant "under the flute" but probably meant  "under the near edge of the fourth hole".  (I'll be interested if anyone has an alternative explanation.)

I also prefer to rotate the right hand section forward, so that my fingers can be less curved when covering the holes, and my right thumb opposes the fingers more.  But it appears that Gunn doesn't, so try both!] 

Forming the Embouchure

It will then be proper to acquire a just idea of the position the lips must be put into, in order to form a proper aperture or embouchure; on the management of which every thing will ultimately depend. The lips, in their natural form, pout or project in the middle, which determines the breath into an horizontal direction; but as it is necessary that the breath should pass as nearly into the centre of the tube as possible, in order to determine it in a proper direction for that purpose it will be necessary to draw the under-lip backwards, much in the same manner as is done in laughing, which tension will stretch it along the under fore-teeth, and will render its surface smoother than in its natural position. 

The upper lip will naturally follow it in this direction, and, by resting on it at the sides, will leave a small opening in the centre, through which the breath will now pass, not in a horizontal direction, which could never enter the flute properly, but very nearly perpendicularly down, from the mouth to the chin, as may be evinced by placing the flattened inside of the hand and fingers before the mouth; the farther back the lips are drawn, the greater way down the hand the breath will reach, and consequently cannot fail, after a few trials, of getting into the centre of the flute. If the flute once found, the continuance of it will depend on the firmness with which the lips are kept in their place; for it is evident that is they are not kept back, the breath will in consequence be in a more horizontal direction, and cannot enter into the flute.

[Now this is intriguing stuff.  Gunn is telling us to avoid blowing at the "edge" and blow downward into the flute.  We all know that won't work, don't we - it's the jet trembling back and forth across the "edge" that makes the flute work!  OK, but don't take my word for it, take up thy flute again and give it a try! 

Indeed try it both ways.  Blow a G note first across at the edge, now down into the centre of the hole.  Don't move the flute, just push your top lip out or pull your bottom lip back and blow downwards as if trying to dislodge a fly on your chin.

Nice hard dark tone, eh?  Now try it on all the notes of the lower octave, and second octave.  Yep, works all over the flute.  So I think we can assume fairly safely that this was the flute tone desired at the end of the 18th century in London, as we approached the heady days of Nicholson.  None of the soft, pathetic, languid sounds desired on the Continent, but the same firm, hard, reedy sound desired by today's Irish flute players.

So, why does it work to give us a harder tone; indeed why does the flute continue to work at all if we direct the jet away from the edge.  It's all about "offset".

Even though you are directing the jet downwards, remember that the edge is only a few mm away from your lips.  So, while the jet misses the edge, it only does so by a few mm, no matter how downward we blow.  We call this distance "offset".  Remarkably, the flute can continue to operate with an offset of several mm.  What is important to us is the effect of introducing offset.  With zero offset (jet hits edge exactly), the note produced is very pure - i.e. it contains no harmonics.  As we increase the offset, the harmonic structure becomes quite complex, making the notes more interesting, "harder" and focussed.  The greatest benefits appear to the low notes, and can overcome their tendency to be weak and fluffy.]

Adding fingers

These trials ought at first to be made with all the holes of the flute open, excepting those which have keys; and when this succeeds the learner may then try to sound the flute with the first finger of the left hand on its hole, then adding the second, and by degrees the others; here observing that he will probably fail in the tone for some time, merely because some of the fingers may not exactly cover their holes, and that as he proceeds to the lower tones of the flute, he must draw his lips back more and more, which will greatly facilitate the entrance of the breath.

[That bit in bold is important if we are to get the full "hardness" out of the flute for the bottom D and notes around it.]

Improving the tone

When by frequent trials the flute is made to sound with some degree of certainty, the learner ought next to try to make improvements on his tone by making it fuller; and exercise the firmness and steadiness of the lips, and the strength of the muscles, in keeping them at this tension, by holding one note a long time.  If the air passes almost perpendicularly into the flute, it will produce a tone more resonant and mellow than if, by its inclining more horizontally, it should be directed against that side of the tube that is opposite to the mouth, which can never produce the resonance from all parts of the tube - that will be done by always aiming at the centre.

[There he goes again - telling us to blow into the centre of the flute.  As we know, the tone is produced where it meets the edge, so on the face of it this doesn't make sense.  But from the player's perspective (as opposed to the scientist's) who cares whether it makes sense - the important thing is what works.  So if we can imagine blowing for the centre of the flute, we get the results Gunn is looking for, and that's what matters.  Scientists can console themselves by muttering "offset" whenever Gunn mentions "into the flute".]

Holes in line

Another very essential point will be gained by thus endeavouring to blow perpendicularly into the flute; namely laying a proper foundation for playing accurately in tune, by having the lower notes not too sharp for their octaves; for the more the air is directed to the farthest or opposite side of the flute, the sharper will be the pitch; and, on the contrary, directed towards the centre and nearest side, it will be flatter; but this direction of the breath to the centre must on no account be accomplished by turning the flute inwards or by advancing the lips, or inclining the head over the flute: all bad expedients, leading to an excess of flatness, and enfeebling the lips. On the contrary, the head must be always kept perfectly upright, and the lips at right angles with, and never hanging over, the embouchure of the flute; the lips will be always gaining strength by this exercise and, by attending to the directions here given, the breath may be conducted as nearly perpendicular as can be wanted. The surest way of indulging no improper habit in this respect will be to be careful that while the head is always kept erect, the embouchure of the flute be on a line with the other holes, which ought never to incline inwards, towards the mouth or body.

[Other writers advise the player to turn the head of the flute in, usually so that the far edge of the embouchure hole is in line with the centre of the fingerholes.  This is probably largely a personal thing, and whatever works best for you is correct.  I think Gunn is trying to avoid the problem of choking the flute by covering too much embouchure.

This probably makes sense when we remember that the flutes of his era - the "German flute" - had small holes and was easily stifled by covering the embouchure hole too much.  Once Nicholson had substantially increased the size of the fingerholes about 20 years later, it was possible, and possibly desirable, to cover more of the embouchure hole.]

[My interest in Gunn's instructions lies mostly in the "blowing to the centre" approach he espouses above.  But I'll include the rest of his instructions on tone below in case they are of value to you.]

Octave exercise

The learner's attention ought next to be directed to the manner of producing the octaves; beginning with E, which will be accomplished by sending the breath with a very brisk motion through the aperture of the lips, an increased compression of which will also facilitate this operation, which, as we have mentioned above, consists in giving double the velocity to the air.  The lips, unaccustomed to resist this greatly increased pressure upon them, will probably for some time give way to it, and, by their relaxation, prevent the column of air going into the tube with the necessary velocity; but this observation will be sufficient to point out the proper remedy, which consists in the firmness and tension of the lips.

[Again, a long, long way from the relaxed embouchure approach taught in the 20th century by the French school!]

The learner will then proceed to the more acute [sharper] octaves of F, G, A, B, C and D, which, in this stage of his practice, will require of him greater and greater tension of the lips, as he continues ascending. When he has so far attained the power of forming these octaves, as not to mistake the velocity and tension necessary to produce them, in order to diminish the noise occasioned by the too great quantity of breath he will probably employ to produce these octaves, he ought to apply himself to practice sending smaller and smaller quantities of air with the same velocities, which will produce softer tones;  and a greater compression of the lips will also facilitate this, by diminishing the size of the column of air and making it acquire a greater velocity.  He will acquire a still greater facility and certainty in making octaves and distinguish the velocity that produces them, from that of the lower notes, by taking every lower note and its octave in succession, as E-e, F-f, &c.

In this operation of forming the octaves, the learner is entreated to be scrupulously attentive to the following precautions:

  1. That the lower octave be well formed, by preventing the under-lip from advancing on the embouchure of the flute, and to avoid taking the pitch too sharp, by keeping the column of air, as much as possible, from getting to the opposite side of the flute; and let the lower sound thus formed be dwelt upon some time, that it may make a sufficient impression on the ear, as it is to be the regulating pitch of the octave that is to follow.  

  2. That previous to impelling the air, which is to be increased with a velocity no less than double that of the former, the lips be prepared, by a firmness of tension, to resist this increase of force. The learner will however find that the shock of this increased velocity will force them forward on the hole; but let this advance be the least possible, by a resistance made to it.

  3. Before proceeding to the next lower tone, let the lips be drawn back a little to their former place, otherwise the sound, by the lips being advanced, will be rather too sharp, which will render its octave more difficult, or perhaps impossible to be taken in exact tune.

  4. The general defect of flute-players consisting in not forming the upper octaves sufficiently sharp, that care be taken, by comparing these with the lower note, to supply any deficiency in this respect, by blowing acuter octaves always up to their pitch, and dwelling on them for some time to accustom the lips to the resistance, and to make the proper velocity, in which exactness of tune alone consists, become familiar and easy.

  5. Taking care not to form the lower tones too sharp, and keeping the lips as much as possible in the same place, will be the surest means of attaining all these purposes.

  6. In order to give sufficient power of tension and resistance to the lips, the third octaves, which require a quadruplicate velocity, may be sometimes practiced with this view: these are E, F, G and A, of the last octave; and this power will be greatly strengthened if care be taken to keep the lips from advancing far on the hole, and to produce the tones by a strong compression of the lips, with the necessary resistance, which will diminish the loudness or volume of these sounds, which otherwise would be too great.

  7. That the learner may acquire every idea concerning the nature and difference of these velocities, and distinguish them from increased volume and loudness of sound, with which they have hitherto been confounded, let him produce the different harmonic sounds that proceed from one generating note; the lower note D of the flute, for instance, and keeping the six holes always closed; after producing the first octave D, he will be apt to pass over the next harmonic A, and sound the upper D, not being accustomed to that intermediate force or velocity that is betwixt one note and its octave. The velocities in this case being only as 3 to 2, the learner will probably take the velocity 4; but after the second octave the velocities 5 and 6, necessary to produce F#, and the upper A, are so much beyond what is usually employed, that there will be little danger of his passing over the first of them, although their proportions are so near; and in this experiment the learner may observe by the way, that the harmonics are rather flat in respect to their generating sound, which will give him another hint for the proper management of his octaves.


With respect to smoothness or evenness of tone, the powers necessary to effect these will be prepared by the above-mentioned exercise of the tension and steadiness of the lips; for, as no change can possibly take place in the primary and efficient cause of sound without producing corresponding changes in such sound, even multiples of it; so the power of steadiness in the lips, which form the aperture whereby the column of air, the primary cause, has its size, velocity, and internal tremors determined, must be more immediately the cause of these effects; for by their moving or relaxing, the figure of the column will not only be changed, but its direction also; and so will its velocity, unless supplied by the force of the lungs, or muscles that impel it. It will follow that for any tone to continue smooth and uniform, neither the impelling power, nor the tension of the lips must vary in any degree; and that a motion of whatever kind, whether from the shaking of the flute, or movement of the fingers with such violence as to cause it greatly to shake, or generate or destroy motion in any of the muscles employed in impelling and forming the column of wind, must produce considerable inequalities; the inference from which is, that nothing is more deserving the attention of the learner throughout his whole practice, than keeping his body as steady and motionless as possible; his flute above all things must be kept in the greatest steadiness by the means already mentioned; and all necessary movements of lifting up and putting down the fingers should be done without generating any shock or jerk in any other part of the body, and with the minimum of motion, or least possible.

Tonal Variation

But in the tremulous agitations which the column of air suffers in passing through the aperture of the lips, very considerable alterations will arise from the degree of the collision with which these particles will agitate and act upon each other, independent of the general velocity with which the whole column is propelled, and which determines its pitch. Thus, sounds which are forced through the reed of a hautboy, clarinet, or mouth-piece of a French horn or trumpet acquire a particular and very distinguishing character from the tremors they receive in passing through these different apertures, according as they are acted upon by the different elasticity of the minute parts of these substances. Different agitations in the particles of which the column consists, will therefore arise from their being more or lees compressed, compacted, or squeezed together, and will produce corresponding effects. If the aperture be made very small, by a strong compression of the lips, and the column of air be impelled through this very great resistance, the sound produced in the flute will have a considerable resemblance to that of the hautboy; and as the aperture is more and more compressed, the sound will become more and more stifled, and less resonant.  This experiment will be best made by closing the lips, and forcing a passage for the column of air, which if impelled with an uniform force, will be polished and compacted, but not resonant like a voice; enlarge the aperture by small degrees, and you will, by such experiments, attain to the necessary volume of air that will not only make the tone full, clear, and compacted, but resonant, and like a voice; and this seems to be that quality of tone that most are in quest of, and attain in degrees corresponding to the dimensions of the aperture, to the uniformity of the impelling force, and exactness of the tension of the lips they respectively employ.

By these means seems to be attained the greatest quantity of good tone the instrument will admit of, but it must be observed:

  1. That when we are accustomed uniformly to expel a considerable quantity of air with a force sufficient to overcome the resistance of so great a compression of the lips, we have no other method of lessening the quantity or volume of the sound, or of diminishing its loudness, than by diminishing the aperture, which continuing to compress the diminished column of air with great force, deprives it of resonance, and gives to it the effect of a smothered or stifled, rather than of a softened sound; and

  2. That the upper octaves more especially, from the same cause of too great a compression, are, in every state of loudness, void of resonance, and although smooth and polished, are smothered and stifled, and cannot acquire that volume that a fine voice displays in the messa di voce (It. "placing the voice"), or swell; nor have any effect of that nature, from the too small size of the aperture and when diminished, instead of a softened resonant sound, it will be smothered, pent up, and stifled. In short, it is on account of this great compression, that the tone, rendered so uniform in its quality, with all its finished smoothness, possesses an inflexible sameness or monotony, and want of expression.

Now to give to the least sound possible that softness which musical expression requires, and that ringing or resonance which will add to it the harmonics of nature, it will be necessary to impel the least quantity of air that can constitute a sound, through an aperture of such a diameter as will not compress the particles too closely; and being conveyed into the centre of the flute, where the greatest resonances will be produced, the sound of the uncompressed particles will convey the idea of softness, and the resonance will add to it that beautiful finish or echo, in which sweetness consists.

By gradually adding to this quantity of air, which the aperture will receive to a considerable degree without too much compressing it, (and on come occasions also the aperture may be increased) the effect of that gradual increase of sound, called a swell, will be given to it; which again ought to be as gradually diminished until it terminate in the least audible degree of sound and expire upon the ear. The chief difficulty here will be to preserve the same degree of tune from beginning to end; but some practice, and a strict attention to the proper velocity and exact direction of the column of air on which accuracy in tune depends will enable the learner to accomplish this master-piece of art, on which so much depends, being applicable to many cases of exquisite expression, besides the swelling of one note.

But although the increased loudness of the sound is here accounted for partly by the quantity of air being increased in the same aperture, and partly by the increase of the aperture itself, which will form a larger column or volume of air; there is certainly a distinction to be made between there two modes of increasing the loudness of sound. which produce very different effects on the ear. Nor will loudness of sound in every sense, perhaps, admit of being measured as to its effects, although the causes of it may, as in the weights of various strokes given to a bell or drum. The effects however admit of comparison; as we say such a sound is not so strong as another, or that it overpowers or drowns it.

There is a loudness or intensity of sound. which depends solely on the density or compression of the air and is always in proportion to it, which accounts for the different effects of sound in different states of the atmosphere; and consequently the compressed tone of a flute that is not smothered must be louder, (cęteris paribus) [Lat. "other things being equal"], than that which is not compressed; but loudness from this cause has a sort of hardness in it, whilst that caused by an increase of volume, and less compressed, is more soft and mellow.


Hope you found that interesting, and even useful.  There is a lot more to Gunn than the excerpt above, and fortunately he is back in print, from Amazon at

More on tone and holding the flute:

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