Changes in Flute Scaling in the 18th & 19th centuries




We know that musical pitch varied a lot in 19th century England, and indeed, that several different pitches could be in use at the same time.  Flutes can be adjusted by use of the tuning slide to cover a small range of pitch, but, if a wide range is needed, adjustments are also needed to the scaling of the body.  It thus follows that, if pitch changed during the period, so should body scaling.  Can we see this, and can we learn anything useful from it?  And what might we learn by backtracking into the 18th century?

Flute scale

In this article, we'll rely on my C#-D# measurement scheme as our indicator of flute scale.  I don't argue that it's a perfect measure, but so far we have nothing better.  This image will remind you where the measurement is to be taken:

Year data

We'll also rely on earlier work to estimate the year of flutes in our data set:

Because we need to locate the flute in time, we are effectively limited to including only those flutes we can estimate a date for.  This usually means that the maker used serial numbers, or changed names or addresses often, ideally both!  Again, our year data is probably far from perfect, but is currently all we have.

Flute scale data

The graph below illustrates the 19th century flute data gathered so far.  Time, from 1810 to 1910, is displayed horizontally from left to right.  The c#-d# length is shown vertically.  The lengths used by some of the most influential makers is shown in differing colours to assist grouping, and these are explained in the Legend at the right of graph.  Notes below expand on the flutes by each maker.


William Henry Potter continued the work of his father Richard well into the 19th century.  Shown at top left in orange, his very long flute scale (263-264mm) was also common to makers like Bilton and Clementi.  Indeed, the green square data point on the orange line belongs to a Clementi "Nicholson's Improved" in my Research Collection.  With small holes and very long scaling, it's clearly a Nicholson's Unimproved!

Nicholson's Improved

The real Nicholson's Improved had much shorter scales (as well as much bigger holes), as shown here in bright yellow.  The two data points we have so far suggest the scale length didn't wander far from 255mm, which seems to be the defacto Improved Era standard.

Rudall & Rose to Rudall Carte

I've divided data from Rudall & Rose into small and large hole flutes, as there seems to be a systemic difference.  Whether that is because the c#-d# indicator is not an accurate-enough indicator of pitch, or whether these two bodies of flutes were aimed at or resulted in different pitches is something we need to determine.

The navy blue line shows scale lengths for small hole Rudall & Rose flutes.  The first two data points are for flutes made separately by Rose and by Willis for Rudall, before the two of them met.  They seem to fit well here.  The small hole scale length seems pretty stable till about 1835, making a small drop thereafter.

Large holed flutes made by Rudall, Rose and later Carte are shown in hot pink.  They seem stable around the Improved Flute "standard" until 1862, apart from one startling aberration at 1834, where the scale length exceeds that now used for the small hole flutes.  Bad day at t'mill?

Things start to get really interesting after 1872, where the scale lengths start taking a real dive.  This seems reasonable, as High Pitch was well in vogue by then.  The real question is, why did it take so long to show up?  The shortest it got was just under 247mm, right around when High Pitch took its last hurrah in 1895.  But it only increased slightly to 248mm by 1910, when modern pitch was well ensconced.  So it seems that flutes from the house of Carte's always seemed to be somewhat behind the action.

At this point, I'll copy the graph down to save your neck....


The much-maligned Abel Siccama doesn't seem to be missing the plot.  Shown in green above, he is seen to be making a number of flutes at differing scale lengths.  And without any clear trend.  I interpret that to mean that he was sensitive to the needs of professional players needing to do well at high pitch, but at the same time still sensitive to the needs of domestic players with low-pitch-tuned pianos. So you could get a flute with the old scaling, or higher-pitch scaling or various compromises?  We need to study extant Siccamas of various lengths to see if this is the case.


Find Siccama, and Hudson will be lurking in the shadows.  His independent working life is believed to be short, and I don't have enough data on him yet, so I've just shown his range of years and scale lengths as Hudson Long and Hudson Short in the graph above.  The scale length variation is even greater than Siccama's, suggesting he subscribed to the same theory.  Indeed, it may well have been him or Siccama who initiated the scale change, during the period he worked for Siccama.


Pratten followed the two of them, and you can see his work in purple.  But not for him the variable scale lengths - he seems to have made up his mind to go with the new shorter scale length only.  Having said that, we are aware of one flute marked Pratten's Perfected, but with the old Improved era scale length of around 254mm.  Like my small holed Nicholson's Unimproved, this is really a Pratten's Non-Perfected!


Next is John Clinton, who also seemed to be more sensitive than Rudall Carte to the changing times, but not as committed as Siccama, Hudson or Prattens to the new sharper pitch.  Not enough data to take it much further, so I've just shown the range in scale length and years with a singe light yellow line.  It's probably much more complicated than that.


Our last 19th century maker is Hawkes, in aqua.  We don't have much in the way of serial number information (maybe my data is defective, but it doesn't seem Hawkes always used serial numbers).  But fortunately, he changed his name a few times, and his address, so we can assign some flutes to different periods with reasonable surety.  And he didn't change his scaling much, so it doesn't matter if we get the dates a bit wrong. 

So, what did we learn so far?

We can summarise with these points:

  • flute scale length certainly changed dramatically over the 19th century, starting at around 264mm and ending up around 248mm.  That's a reduction of about 6%, equivalent to a semitone rise in pitch. 

  • the final figure of 248mm should be appropriate to A=440Hz, since that was well in place by then.  Some more data of flutes post 1895 would hopefully consolidate that.

  • A scale length of 248mm at A440 would suggest that the pitch at the start of century would be around 413Hz, which seems reasonable, or perhaps a bit low. 

  • It seems clear that Nicholson's dad didn't just increase the size of the holes, he or someone else shortened the scale.  That scale seems to have remained the standard for large hole flutes until Siccama came along.  Calculating back from 248mm for A440 would imply a pitch of 428Hz in the Improved era, close to the 430 Hz used by today's fortepianists.  This pitch at this time is supported by quite a few references in The Rise and Fall of British Pitch.

  • It would seem logical that the shortest scale (Hudson's Short) should be best for High Pitch.  Based on 248mm at 440Hz, the maths puts Hudson's Short at 447Hz, which is well on the way to 453.  But perhaps Hudson wasn't aiming at 453, but opting for a compromise (like the Society of Arts proposed 445Hz) to give the player the option for playing both High and Low pitch with equal inconvenience?

  • that might suggest that Pratten was doing the same.  His flutes seem to me at least to be best either at modern pitch, or a little higher, but certainly nowhere near as high as High Pitch.

  • small hole Rudalls seem to occupy a strangely appropriate place - about halfway between the start-of-century flutes like Potter's and the new Improved flutes by Nicholson.  "Just a bit improved".

  • Siccama and/or Hudson get the kudos for being first to cater to the new High Pitch requirements.

  • Pratten simply grabbed their ball and ran with it.

  • Rudall Carte didn't finally catch up for nearly 40 years, getting there just in time to meet the pitch coming down again.  And yet that does not seem the case with their Boehm flutes.

And what do we need to follow up?

  • We need more data to consolidate the findings.  I'll add it as I get it.

  • We need to confirm how good an indicator c#-d# is, and whether it can support such analyses as these.  Or find a better one!

  • We need to measure some of these flutes to see what we think their best pitch was: 

    • In particular, are Hudson's Short and the Prattens too short for modern pitch? (The low notes in each octave should be sharp if that's the case.)

    • But are they best at High Pitch or a compromise pitch?

    • What about Rudall's end result of 248mm - modern pitch or something higher? 

    • Where does that place the Improved era standard of circa 254mm - if not 430Hz, what?

    • What are the implications of small hole and large hole Rudalls having their largely separate scaling?

    • What scale length works best at Philosophical Pitch (c=256Hz, A=430Hz), used as the modern standard for Fortepianos?

Part 2 - What happened earlier?

I thought at this point, it might be instructive to go forward in time a little and explore the 18th century.  Perhaps we'd see how we got into this mess!  So here's that same graph again, but in context in the bigger picture....

Back in the 18th century I'm forced to make wilder assumptions.  Makers back then didn't use serial numbers, and we have less precise information about them.  So be prepared for doubt, and, if you can sort out any errors, or add useful data, please do!

A lot of my data comes from drawings prepared by another Australian, Ken Williams, supported by an Australia Council grant in 1984....

  • Bizey - a single data point, expressed as a green dot at 273.5mm and circa 1740.

  • Cahusac - ditto, a yellow square at 262mm, circa 1767

  • Schuchart - a green square low down at 251mm, circa 1740.  I have doubts about this flute - I suspect its LH section has been considerably shortened, possibly to make it of some use in the later 19th century.  Not only is its c#-d# length suspiciously low for the period, but so is the length of the LH section.  You can see from the graph that a flute of this scale length would be more at home between 1850 and 1890. 

The Stanesby Jr info comes from yet another Australian, the late lamented Fred Morgan, recorder maker from Victoria.  I first met Fred when I visited his workshop in Melbourne in the seventies.  He later removed to Daylesford, a beautiful area I knew well, having grown up in nearby Ballarat.  About now, you might be processing that well-known mantra: "what is it with Australians and flutes?".  I'll get back to that one day....

We can see the Stanesby is a very long flute, with a c#-d# length of 276mm.

Going way back to circa 1700, we have a flute by the French maker Chevalier, which I saw in the Boston MFA.  Interestingly, much shorter than the flutes we've just been looking at, at around 258mm.

And at about the same time, a German flute, by IA Crone, the drawing for which I had obtained from the legendary Friedrich von Huene, way back in the seventies!  This flute is particularly useful for our studies, as it has three LH sections, or corps-de-rechange, facilitating playing at three different pitches.  These sections lend the flute three different c#-d# lengths, from 259 to 265mm.

If three corps-de-rechange seems nice, luxuriate in 6.  I've played this famous Quantz flute too, in the Dayton C Miller Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  I've only shown the extremes (produced by the longest and shortest corps); the mustard vertical line at circa 1740.  A rich drawing of this flute is available from French-Canadian maker Jean-François Beaudin, who gratefully acknowledges Fred Morgan's influence in his own development as a documenter of flutes.

Thomas Lot made a 4-corps flute of interest to us, once again drawn up by Ken Williams et al.  The four bodies very smoothly cover the region 266-277mm, again very long by later standards.

Finally, we return to a maker we touched on in the earlier, 19th century section, Richard Potter.  Back in 1782, before he introduced the metal tuning slide, he produced a lovely 3-corps flute now in the Bate collection at Oxford.  We can see it here, image courtesy of London maker and researcher, Robert Bigio:

You can see in the image that, although the three corps obviously get shorter, the differences are mostly at the top end, to the extent that we actually only see on the graph a small range in c#-d# lengths, with the two shortest data points overlapping.  A bit odd!

So, what did we learn from all that?

(and let's take one final look at the graph...)

  • we certainly can see how corps-de-rechange (shown here as vertical lines) work their magic.  While a tuning slide in the head can push the overall tuning flatter or sharper, the corps approach does this and more.  It also alters the scale length of the flute, making the intonation better over the entire range.

  • When Richard Potter introduced the tuning slide in 1785, he could have selected either of his three corps-de-rechange lengths as the basis.  The middle or shorter one would (in hindsight) have seemed a more logical starting point, but he chose the longest, as shown on the graph in orange.  This seems to confirm that the pitch in use around 1800 was still best served by the 264mm scale length.

  • We can see that the trend observed in the 19th century extended back to around the 1720's.  The black dashed line summarises that - a steady shortening down to around 248mm around 1895, where it levels off.  We can see that Siccama was first on the scene thirty years earlier.

  • The Schuchart flute lies well outside the trend, but I think this tells us it has been modified during the High Pitch era. 

  • But two other important flutes, I.A. Crone and Chevalier, also lie quite outside that trend.  They were of course made in France and Germany, which might be enough to explain why.  But so was the Quantz, circa 1740, and yet its 6 corps-de-rechange nicely straddle the trend. 

  • It could be that two trends (the one shown and another horizontal around 262mm) coalesce around the end of the 18th century.  I think we need to see a lot more data, and have input from experts in this period to understand better what's going on back then.

  • The ability to discern a clear trend does seem to lend support to our measurement indicator, the c#-d# length, but we have to be careful of circular argument here.  "The indicator works because the data looks credible; the data is to be believed because the indicator is reliable"!  More data will help.

What's that in Hz?

If again we accept a c#-d# length of 248mm to be ideal for A440, where does that place the other lengths we've seen?  Based on the naive assumption that we can just take it and scale it without concern for end effects, bore and hole sizes, etc, we get the following:

Maker Approx year Estimated Hz
Crone (3 corps) 1700 412-421
Chevalier 1700 423
Stanesby 1725 396
Bizey 1734 399
Quantz (6 corps) 1740 393-413
T. Lot (4 corps) 1760 394-410
Cahusac 1768 416
Potter 1782 413-421
Potter after 1785 1785-1837 421
Proser 1785 415
Nicholson & Improved era, approx 1817-1855 428
Rudall Small hole, approx 1820-1848 420
Rudall Large hole early 1826-1872 428
Rudall Large hole late 1892-1910 440
Siccama (range) 1851-1861 431-447
Hudson (choice) 1852-1856 428 or 447
Boosey Prattens 1861-1889 442-445
Clinton 1855-1872 425-435
Hawkes 1875-1900 438-440

Those don't look to be a totally laughable set of numbers.  A few early flutes drop as low as old French pitch, taken generally as around 390Hz.  Quite a few approximate our modern "baroque pitch" assumption of around 415 Hz.  The Improved era London flutes are around 430Hz, the Perfected era flutes nudge above modern pitch, but don't quite make it to High Pitch.  The Crone and the Chevalier still puzzle with pitches above what I would have expected way back then, but I wait on more expert advice on that question.

Future challenges

If we find the c#-d# measurement indicator survives the onslaught of more data, it should encourage us to attempt a conversion chart or formula for converting c#-d# length to Hz.  This should enable us to predict the approximate playing pitch of any flute based on this measurement alone.  Such a chart need not be based on such naive assumptions as I have used above, but could be tweaked to reflect real measured pitch data.

But experience tells us that every player is unique, and so it would be essential to collect a lot of pitch data from a lot of players to come up with an aggregate, and perhaps a range, rather than the rantings of one Irish-Australian madman.  Before we attempt any of that however, we would need to come up with an agreed definition of ideal flute pitch and how to evaluate it.  That's a conversation we can have anytime, hopefully soon.

More data please!

I'm happy to accept c#-d# data on other flutes to enrich our understandings further.  Any information that helps us date the flute is also invaluable. 


I think we've achieved quite a bit here.  We can now see pictorially, for the first time, what was happening to flute design, when, by whom and probably why, during the 19th century heyday of flute development.  And see it set in context with its 18th century forbears.

If these understandings help modern makers to make better-tuned flutes, purchasers to avoid particular old flutes that can't possibly be expected to work well for their application, and all of us to appreciate the issues better, it will have been very worth doing.


Thanks to all who have provided data or made flutes available for analysis over the years.


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  Created: 20 Dec 2011, Updated 12 Jan 2012