Woodwind techniques

During my listening research for Part 2 of this course, I have noticed some interesting instrumental effects being used and so decided to do a little fact finding.  I chose to concentrate on two instruments I am particularly interested in writing for, flute and clarinet (although some of the techniques extend to other woodwind instruments).  Here is a brief summary.

Flutter tonguing

Created with a rapid rolling of the tongue (different techniques have been developed for both flute and clarinet), and usually indicated with a tremolo mark.  This effect has sometimes been used to mimic bird sounds.


Can be created either by the lips or the tongue.  Both techniques create a short percussive effect which can’t be repeated too quickly.  On the flute this sounds a little like a dart being thrown.

White noise

Created by breathing through the flute, can’t be sustained for too long.

Key pressing

As the name suggests, the performer makes an intentionally audible sound when pressing down the keys.  If an ascending passage is required, since this involves removing rather than placing fingers the player has to ‘fake’ the sound with another finger.

Tongue ram / stop

The flute embouchure is covered with the lips and the exhaled air stopped with the tongue.  The sounded pitch is usually a major 7th below the keyed pitch.

Lip glissando

A flautist can slide the pitch of a note up/down to the next finger position, creating a smooth glissando effect.   This is not so easy in the higher register and works best in slow music.


As the name suggests – singing whilst playing the instrument!  I have seen this demonstrated for clarinet, a very odd effect.


Creating two pitches simultaneously, based on harmonics of the fundamental note.

Microtonal sounds

Playing quarter-tones is possible on both flute and clarinet, specialist fingering charts have been developed.

Woodwind repertoire

Here are a few brief notes from some of the pieces that drew my attention at the woodwind final in the BBC’s ‘Young Musician of the Year’.

Godard – Suite de Trois Morceaux (flute)

The first movement is a very fast moving melody, soaring up and down the range of flute. There is a lot of symmetry in the ascending and descending arpeggios which appealed to me, it is a very elegant style of music which suits the flute well.

Pequena Czarda – Iturralde (saxophone)

The introduction to this piece is a sad, slow melody, from which a fast gypsy style dance emerges, occasionally interrupted by the original theme.  In the dance itself the melody is formed primarily by the top notes which sing out over the busy arpeggios happening underneath.  I enjoyed the energy in the dance, which contrasted nicely with the opening.

Sancan – Sonatine (flute)

A musing sort of melody which frequently rests on long notes and then moves on again, with the harmonies from the piano underneath changing quickly.  I like the passages which start slowly, accelerate and then slow down again, conveying a kind of uncertainty.

Ziegenmeyer – Na Zdrowie from ‘The delayed flute’ (recorder)

An unusual and very clever piece by a contemporary composer which uses electronics to repeat back each phrase with a delay so that it sounds like an echo.  There are also some interesting effects on the recorder such as glissandos and sliding off the pitch at the end of the note.  It’s in a minor key with lots of emphasis on the 7th, and the melody alternates between staccato and legato passages which gives it lots of character.

Schumann – Romance Op. 94 no. 2 (flute)

A very lyrical piece which seamlessly changes between major and minor keys, exploiting different colours from the same musical idea.

L’Isle Joyeuse

As part of my research for Part 2, I thought I would take a closer look at a composer who is well known for using untraditional scales – Claude Debussy.  His piece ‘L’Isle Joyeuse’ for solo piano is one of my particular favourites, there is a recording where you can follow along with the sheet music here.

The first two bars seem decidedly chromatic with the the bottom note sliding down in semitones from a C# to a G, but looking more closely at the chords made up from the other notes you can see already it is based around a whole tone scale.  After a few bars it appears to resolve into A major – but not quite; it retains the D# and G natural, so it is really a kind of hybrid of A major and a whole tone scale.  The clashes between the D# and the E are very characteristic, and give the piece a playful and mysterious quality.

You can hear the hybrid major / whole tone scale throughout the piece, later on transposed into C major and the alternative form of the whole tone scale.  Debussy uses the tonal ambiguity of the scale to good effect.  Sometimes it sounds joyful (like the title of the piece) and other times more mysterious, depending on which intervals are predominantly used.  For example in the pianissimo section marked ‘en peu en dehors’, the right hand is playing a dissonant augmented fifth which sounds a little unsettling, other times the music is focused around the major thirds of the scale which sound much more resolved and content.

Some more flute pieces

Elaine Goodall – Oriental Butterfly

This piece is written in a pentatonic scale and I think does a beautiful job of conveying the image of an oriental butterfly.  I love the way the melody glides up and down, and the trills are also particularly effective.  Most of the melody is legato which suits the flute really well, but there is also a staccato section in the middle which makes a nice contrast.

David Bennett Thomas – Steeples in my Soul

This is an atonal piece which changes time signature frequently, including the use of very uncommon signatures such as 15/16.  The overall effect is unusual and in places quite eerie.  There are several interesting effects which I think work well on the flute, including a gradually faster and louder trill in bar 43, and a decrescendo followed by a crescendo through the same note at the very end.

Arthur Honegger – Danse de la Chevre

This is a piece of two characters – one a slightly cheeky dance with plenty of chromatic passages, and the second a peaceful pastorale in a more traditional major key.  The dance is introduced first quite slowly and tentatively in the lower register, and returns in this way towards the end of the piece too giving it a sense of completion.

Mozart – Concerto for Flute and Harp, K.299

I went to a live performance of this concerto a few years ago by the European Medical Students’ Orchestra (EMSO), and was blown away by the flautist whose whole body seemed to move along in complete synchronisation with the beautiful melody.  It’s a very traditionally Classical piece of music, full of elegance and symmetry.  The second movement in particular has such a clear sense of direction in each of the melodic phrases, you almost feel yourself waiting to breathe with the flautist.  I think this is achieved through a very clever combination of the dynamics and melodic shapes.


Gregorian chant

The extracts of Gregorian chant music I have listened to are characterised by:

  • A single line of music sung by one or more people
  • Simple rhythms; usually each phrase consists of notes of the same approximate duration followed by longer ones at the end
  • Predominantly step-wise melodies
  • A slowing down at the end of each phrase
  • Phrases which sound unfinished, e.g. by ending on the second or fifth note of the scale
  • ‘Call and answer’ style, where a single singer’s phrase is echoed or modified by a group of people
  • Modest dynamic changes, no extremes

This style of music has always sounded very ‘serious’ to me, and of course it’s difficult to separate my observations of the music itself from the strong associations of the church it evokes in me (especially when it is sung in Latin).  I do think though that the simplicity of the music is what gives it its reverent feel.  Particularly when sung by a group of people, as Gregorian chant often is, the joining of multiple voices on a single, simple line feels somehow divine.

Woodwind – listening notes

Jean Francaix – Suite for Flute Seule

This is quite a playful piece; several of the movements contain lots of very fast jumps between high and low notes as well as rapid scale passages and ornaments.  This style seems to work really well on the flute and sounds effortless.  The melodic climaxes occur at the top end of the flute’s register, where it sounds very clear and piercing.  Some of the movements don’t have a strong sense of tonality and it’s not easy to predict where the melody is going to go next, especially in the allemande for example.

Igor Stravinsky – Three Pieces for Clarinet

These pieces show off the range of the clarinet quite well.  The first movement is centred very much in the lower end of its register; I think I would describe the melody as ‘wandering’, there are some strange sounding intervals and no clear key – it has a serious, unsettling mood.  This movement is also very slow, which I think goes hand in hand with the low pitch as you can hear that notes take longer to sound in that register.  The third movement is faster, higher in pitch and with a lot more rhythmic interest.  The melody is fairly continuous which makes me feel quite exhausted just listening to it – you have to wonder where the player gets a chance to breathe!

Willson Osborne – Rhapsody for Solo Bassoon

This piece produced quite a depressive effect on me.  As in the Stravinsky there is a distinct lack of tonality and some uneasy intervals, but in this piece I also got a sense of desperation.  I think this was produced by the melody moving around quite quickly in places, and then sometimes resting on a long note in a kind of a lament.  Not pleasant to listen to but very well suited to the dark, low timbre of the bassoon.

Benjamin Britten – Six Metamorphoses after Ovid (for oboe)

The reedy sound of the oboe is quite distinctive in these pieces.  They necessitate a variety of techniques, from long slow melodies to very articulated passages with short staccato notes, almost like a bark.  These latter seem much better suited to the oboe than to the flute or clarinet.  I quite like the second movement which has a catchy rhythm and a melody which sounds like it is almost tripping over itself (going over the same notes with different emphasis each time).

Paul Creston – Sonata Op 19 for Alto Saxophone

The first movement is quite fast paced with plenty of syncopation, and even in the parts of the melody which rest on longer notes there is often a crescendo through the note which keeps the sense of movement.  I like the beginning section which uses a series of ascending melodic passages to modulate it into a new key at the same time as taking us to the higher register of the saxophone.  Rather than being a climax however, there is a gradual ritardando as well as a diminuendo which changes the sound colour of the saxophone quite effectively.

Mervyn Burtch – Phantasy (recorder and string quartet)

The recorder has a piercing sound and its combination with string quartet sounds very unusual to me.  There is quite a bit of imitation between the strings and the recorder, both in longer phrases and shorter ‘conversations’ between the instruments.  The opening melody of the recorder sounds rather medieval (I think this is because it uses a natural minor scale), but it quickly turns more chromatic.  Some of it sounds intentionally out of tune which isn’t an effect I particularly like, though I can see it conveys a sense of urgency.