Percussive Sounds

I sat down with composer/bassist Chris Van Voorst Van Beest recently to go over some of the extended techniques for the flute. Chris asked me a lot about the percussive sounds available to flutist, and in the spirit of sharing, here some of the things we talked about.

Most percussive sounds will only sound in the low register, and some sound below the range of the flute. This is mostly because of the way the flute is designed. Our entire range is based off the overtones of the first octave, and many fingerings are the same in at least 2 octaves. Percussive sounds use the base resonance of the flute, (since there’s no air to activate the higher overtones). Even the high octave fingerings that are only used in that octave all have a low fundamental that the fingering is based on, which is the sound you’ll hear if you try to use it for a percussive sonority.

Key clicks in particular are limited in this way. Key clicks are a bit special, they can be very fast, you can get the specific contour and intervals you want, but not in every key. For key clicks to be fast, they have to fall in the fingers in a way that the flutist can strike a key loudly on each note, and not all notes (or phrases) lend themselves to that. Descending passages are usually fine; arpeggios or ascending passages can get… complicated.

Here’s a demo of key clicks, the ways I’ve used them myself, and the ways I’ve seen them used in pieces I’ve played.

Tongue rams (or tongue stops) also only work in the lowest register of the flute. These are a bit more flexible, as it’s more like regular playing with single tonguing. Tongue rams sound a major 7th below the fingered note.

Pizzicato (or tongue pizzicato) is a very soft articulation that doesn’t have a lot of air behind it. It also generally only works in the lowest register of the flute, (up to an E flat on the top space of the treble clef), and it makes a sound very similar to a string pizzicato, only without the resonance after the attack.

Faux Beatbox” is a term I use for when a flutist says a hard consonant into their flute, usually a ‘t’ or ‘ch’ without a focused embouchure. It can be very loud, and is pretty much the only percussive sounding technique that will sound at higher pitches, beyond the first octave of the flute. Actual beatboxing with the flute is pretty cool, and this guy, Greg Patillo, is really good at it. The best I can do is imitate some of the sounds.

For all of these percussive sounds, the pitch is audible, and you can hear melodic contours. Just something to keep in mind when using these techniques in your composing or playing. Happy Musicking!!