Tuning of historical instruments

When a typical half 19th century Rudall & Rose flute is played with a contemporay standard embouchure and simple fingering without opening keys, the tuning differs from the equal temperament (your electronic tuner) in the following way:

  • The low D is flat, this ranges from about -5 cent to as much as -30 cent, -10-15 being a good mean. The rest of the foot joint, C and C# are generally equally flat.
  • The E tends to be a little sharp
  • The F# is flat, by about -15 cent (but sometimes up to 25 cent)
  • I take the G as a reference note
  • The A is a little sharp compared to the G, by about +10 cent (but up to +25 cent)
  • The B is often sharp, but can vary
  • The C# is in line with the G or a little flat

The G is used as a reference note, since this is the most stable note on the flute. There is no flawless explication for this way of tuning, but part of the clarification is that compromises had to be made since the flute had to play over three octaves. Every hole had to serve several notes, especially if fork fingerings had to work too. It can be explained further with the observation that the tuning found on these flutes is quite close to the correct (untempered) interval tuning in D. If we take the G as the reference note, the theoretically correct tuning would be:

D + 2 cent
E + 4 cent
F# - 12 cent
G is the reference
A + 4 cent
B - 14 cent
C# - 10 cent

On old flutes the A, the B and the D deviate more from this theoretical tuning. The A and the B are very much susceptible to changes in embouchure and it is generally believed that Rudall & Rose flutes were played with a covered embouchure, which lowered the left hand notes. The explanation for the bottom D is probably too that this was done to compensate for the way of blowing that was en vogue amongst 19th century players. When blowing vigorously in order to produce volume, the lower notes become higher, so the bottom D was presumably lowered to compensate this.

For the keys in which most irish music is played, the internal tuning of a traditional well made flute is in fact more “correct” than on modern (equal tempered) instruments, but you must blow up the bottom D. This tuning is part of the tradition and sound, so I tune my instruments according to the original models. If a special (for example equal tempered) tuning is wanted, please contact me in advance.