Harmonics: the perfect way to work on your sound

Every flutist will have to use harmonics. At times we use them deliberately, though occasionally we don’t even realise we are using them at all. Just what are harmonics exactly? How do you recognise them in a piece and how can they be used in your flute studies? That’s what this blog is about.

The overtones sequence

When we’re playing the flute, what can be heard isn’t merely the tone we intended to play, since every tone consists of a regular sequence of different tones. Every tone consists of a fundamental and its overtones. On the C-note the sequence is as follows:

The intervals from the fundamental are always equal, so it is easy to calculate the overtones on different fundamentals. On the flute it is possible to play the overtones with the same fingering as used for playing the fundamental. Overtones sound different from the same notes being played with the ‘normal’ fingering. Composers have been taking advantage of this different character of sound for a long time; The use of overtones was dictated by Albert Franz Doppler (1821-1883) in his Fantaisie Pastorale Hongroise.

How to know when to play harmonics?

Each harmonic can be recognised by the little circle over the note. The fundamental is marked by a diamond-shaped note, though it is the high overtone that sounds. In this example, while using the fingering of C1 (diamond-shaped note), it is the G2 that sounds.



How to play a harmonic?

There are two ways to play harmonics on the flute:

  • By increasing the air pressure/air speed
  • By vocalising

The higher the harmonic you wish to play, the more you need to increase the air speed by increasing the pressure. You can also use vocal sounds as a starting point. For example, you can use ‘ah’, as in ‘far’ for the low harmonics and ‘e’ as in ‘me’ for the higher harmonics. Be aware of the position of your tongue. How is it shaped when playing ‘ah’ and ‘e’?

Why play harmonics?

First, studying harmonics is useful as these exercises improve breathing support. Improved breathing support almost inevitably improves your sound. Secondly, these exercises improve the embouchure. Thirdly, as if that’s not enough, studying these techniques helps improve your intonation. Let’s experiment with the following exercise:

  1. Play the C-sharp using the normal fingering
  2. Now play the C-sharp as a harmonic of C1
  3. Compare the two tones
  4. Switch between playing the C-sharp using the normal fingering and the harmonic (preferably legato). Try to get the intonation as close as possible.

Are you interested in more useful harmonics exercises? Have a quick look at the Flute Colors book: www.flutecolors.com

Translation: Elise Bikker




Try Flute Colors magazine!

Sheet music

Flute Colors has a huge collection of unique sheet music with extended techniques!