Composing for Flute: Tips and Tricks

Composing for flute can be overwhelming, or it may seem super easy. For better or worse, it falls somewhere in the middle.

Composing for Flute: Tips & Tricks | Hannah B Flute

You need to know how the flute works, even if you don’t play it. That way, you will be able to compose music that flutists look forward to playing.

Understand the Flute’s Range

One of the most important steps of composing for flute is to understand the range of the instrument. All modern metal flutes should be able to play from middle C (C4) to the C three octaves higher (C7).

Some flutes can play a half step lower (B3), but not all flutes can. Student flutes almost never have the option to play that low B. On the other end, some flute players may be able to play up to D7 or higher, but they’re usually more advanced.

Knowing the flutes range can help you compose music that makes sense for the flute and the level of music in question. That way, you won’t write music that will be impossible for someone to perform.

Know About Other Flutes

It also helps to understand the other flutes in the flute family. If you want to use more high notes, consider adding a piccolo part. The piccolo plays an octave higher than written, so it can more easily play really high.

On the other end, you may want to use an alto flute or bass flute. The alto flute can play down to G3, and the bass plays down to C3. They sound a fourth lower and an octave lower than written, respectively.

No matter what flute family member you’re writing for, you’ll use the same written range. However, most piccolos can’t play below written D4. There are some exceptions, but it’s better to give those notes to the C flute.

Learn the Differences Between Flutes and Other Woodwinds

When composing for flute, you should consider how it differs from other woodwinds. The fingerings can be very similar, but the small differences may make something much easier to play on one woodwind than another.

For example, the flute and clarinet can both play a written middle C and C#. However, that requires precise movement in the right pinky on the flute. On the clarinet, trilling between those notes is much easier.

So even if you understand how to compose for other woodwinds, the flute is its own thing. You should learn how it compares so that you can write flute parts accordingly.

Give Room to Breathe

The flute is a woodwind, so players can’t breathe at any point without affecting their playing. It can be easy to want to give a flute a part similar to a violin. You may write a long line without many stopping points.

However, that can make it hard on the player. They’ll have to breathe, so they may make musical decisions that change your intention for the piece. It’s better to consider breathing as you compose so that players don’t have to potentially break up the music.

Make sure players have a chance to breathe every few seconds. You can even add breath marks to show players where they should breathe. That way, you can make sure your flute part will stay true to your ideas.

Stick to One Note at a Time

The flute is capable of producing multiphonics, but that’s very rare. It requires specific fingerings that a composer will usually notate above the staff. To avoid all of that, stick to writing one note at a time per flute part.

This can be hard, especially when arranging a piece that has a lot of double stops, for example. As the composer, you should figure out which note is the most important. If there are a lot of places where you want to have multiple notes, consider adding another flute part.

You’ll be able to select multiple notes at a time. And any flute players who perform your music won’t have to try and choose which note matters more.

Don’t Use 8va

If your main instrument isn’t the flute, you may feel tempted to use 8va symbols when writing higher notes. However, most flute players are used to reading a lot of ledger lines. I’ve seen some flutists say that 8va is more confusing.

As you work on a composition, you may use 8va if that’s easier for you to read. But be sure to check it and change it to the notes as written before you publish the music. That way, flute players won’t have to think and transpose octaves as they play.

It may seem hard to believe for other musicians, but flutists practice reading ledger lines a lot. As they learn the high register, they slowly learn what those notes look like.

Avoid Trills in the Extremes

I briefly touched on this, but do your best to avoid trills in the extremes of the flute’s range. If you want to have a trill from B3 to C4 or C4 to C#4, don’t give that to the flute. The clarinet can handle those trills more easily.

And if you want to only write for the flute family, the alto flute is a great choice. On the alto flute, a B3 to C4 trill would be written as E4 to F4, which is much easier. So is a trill from C4 to C#4, which is written as F4 to F#4.

You should also avoid trills in the high register, such as from B6 to C7 or C7 to D7. Use the piccolo to cover those trills since they can play the same pitches but an octave down.

Know When to Switch to Piccolo

Speaking of the piccolo, you should consider when to use the flute and when to use the piccolo. If a flute part is constantly above the staff, the piccolo may be a better option. It will sound that high, but you can write it down the octave to accommodate for the transposition.

This will be easier on you because you don’t have to use a ton of ledger lines. However, it will also be easier for the player. They won’t have to read ledger lines, and they won’t have to use as much tension to get the sound out.

Some flute players don’t like the piccolo. But it’s a good option to have when you want to write a really high part with the flute sound.

Learn About Extended Techniques

Another thing to consider is to learn about extended techniques for the flute. Some modern composers will use techniques such as singing and playing or jet whistles. These techniques offer a different sound from the traditional flute tone.

If you want to use them in your music, you should learn how to notate them. You can make notes with your scores and provide those notes as an extra page. That way, performers will know what the symbols mean.

However, you should take a look at composers such as Nicole Chamberlain. She uses extended techniques, and she has a system that she follows to notate certain techniques. That way, performers don’t have to refer to a notation guide every time they play a piece of hers.

Review Existing Flute Music

You may also want to look at existing flute music, especially pieces by composers who play the flute. This lets you see what other composers do and if their flute parts work or not.

Be sure to look at the scores and to listen to recordings. If possible, ask a flute player you know about their thoughts regarding the notation and range in the piece.

Then, you can use the ideas that work when writing your next flute part. It may seem annoying, but it can help you choose the right octave or key for your chosen melody.

Check out the NFA Grading System

The National Flute Association (NFA) has a grading system to help list out repertoire. It uses letters, with A referring to the easiest group of pieces. Each subsequent letter is a bit more difficult, and it involves more notes or rhythms or other things.

Looking at the NFA grading system can help you figure out how to write music. This is especially crucial if you want to compose music for educational groups. You can make sure the flute part isn’t too difficult for a particular ensemble.

There are other grading systems, but the NFA’s is the most comprehensive. It can give you a good idea of what will or won’t work for beginner, intermediate, and advanced players.

Consult a Flute Player

I already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating. If you aren’t a flute player, you should ask for a flute player’s input before publishing a piece. They can give you feedback on the melody, range, and other factors.

A flute player may tell you that everything looks good and is easy to play. However, they might say that something is a bit harder than you think. The player may even be able to demonstrate how the flute works and why something is difficult.

Plus, they can review the entire piece, not just the flute part. It helps to have a second pair of eyes to help you make your music the best it can be.

What’s the Most Important Thing to Remember When Composing for Flute?

The most important thing to remember is that the flute isn’t the woodwind version of a violin. They may have similar ranges, but flute players need to breathe.

Flute players also can’t play multiple notes at a time. So you have to treat it like its own instrument when composing or arranging flute music.

What Should You Remember When Writing a Flute Part for a Band or Orchestra?

When writing a flute part for band or orchestra, avoid writing parts below G4. The flute sound won’t carry through an ensemble in that register.

One possible exception is if you’re writing a solo or soli part. If the rest of the orchestration is thin, a low flute solo may be able to carry.

Do You Need to Play the Flute to Write Music for It?

You don’t need to play the flute to write music for it. However, it helps to learn how the flute works and to know what is or isn’t hard on it.

That way, you’ll be able to write music at an appropriate level. You won’t have to worry about the flute part being significantly easier or harder than other instrument parts.

Composing for Flute Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

Composing for flute can be an excellent way to write music. If you don’t play the instrument, you should consider a few factors to make the music great.

Be sure you know the flute’s range and how it differs from other instruments. Then, you can make sure the piece is easy and enjoyable to play.

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