Tough Love an Key clicks

Tough love and key clicks

When I was about 16 years old, my flute tutor had me play Edgar Varèse’s Density 21.5 for flute solo. It wasn’t an easy feat at the time. Not only was it one of my first scores in which I repeatedly encountered a D4, it contained something else that was new to me as well. Halfway into the score there are notes with a little plus over it. The composer instructs: ‘Notes marked + to be played softly, hitting the keys at the same time to produce a percussive effect’. Density 21.5 was composed in 1936 and was one of the first scores in which the composer dictates the use of key clicks.

Whilst playing key clicks I tend to think fondly of my flute tutors who drilled it into us to make a little finger movement to avoid hearing the keys. Succeeding in this took a lot of time. Now, playing key clicks, you’re actually supposed to hear the keys.


Key clicks exist in two forms: with and without flute sound. Key clicks without flute sound are generally notated with a little cross in the place of the note head. Key clicks with flute sound are mostly notated with a plus above the note.

Key clicks without flute sound Key click with  flute sound

Key clicks are strict teachers

Not only are key clicks useful to add a percussive effect to the composition. I often practice them to improve my technique. Key clicks are merciless when it comes to pointing out those areas where the coordination between finger movement and breathing support is not quite optimal. Practising key clicks to optimise your technique is especially useful if you’ve noticed that a certain passage doesn’t flow quite right. Let’s experiment with one of Reichert’s scale studies (Op. 7 -1).


  1. First play a scale once completely as notated by the letter C.
  2. Play the scale very slowly and play each note with a key click whilst lifting each finger off the fingering to play the key click (letter A).
  3. Wait 3 seconds to give your brain time to process the new information.
  4. Now play the scale again as notated by the letter C.
  5. Compare step 1 and 4. Do you notice a difference?

You’ll notice immediately if the coordination between the finger movement and blowing isn’t optimal. Extra notes will sound.

Key clicks clearly apply the tough love principle. Eventally it will only help us improve.

Translation: Elise Bikker


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