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Open-Hole Flutes vs Closed-Hole Flutes – How are they different?

Of all the instruments we see today, the flute in its various forms goes back further than most. Ten thousand years ago, it was made of bone, and there was no need for an Open-Hole Flutes vs Closed-Hole Flutes discussion.

It was during the Renaissance that we started to see the semblance of what we know today as the flute. But, even then, the term flute covered instruments that were played sideways or vertically, like a recorder.

The Keys

In the 17th century, we started to see instruments made with keys. It was all very crude when compared to what we have today. But gradually, the sideways flute began to differ from the vertically played flute.

A ‘New’ Flute

Theobald Boehm, a German manufacturer, and flutist himself, exhibited a new flute he had designed at a Paris exhibition in 1847. It had a metal tube and some extra keys. It enhanced and simplified the playing experience, and the popularity of the flute as an instrument was assured.

The Closed-Hole Flute

This design of the closed-hole instrument is also sometimes known as the “Plateau flute.” The keys do not have holes which makes playing easier, especially for the beginner. Playing it only requires you to press the keys down and not worry about the holes of the keys being open.

It is sometimes referred to as the German model. This design was considered superior and has a better sound quality by Theobald Boehm, who I have just mentioned.

The Open-Hole Flute

This design can also be traced to the mid-1800s when Louis Lot and Clair Godfroy experimented with the idea. The Open-Hole flute is sometimes referred to as the French model. The original design offers five holes in the middle of different keys. 

These are the keys of A, G, F, E, and D. With this design, the players must not only press the keys down but also cover the holes. This is to prevent any air from escaping, which will affect the sound of the flute.

Many years ago, the French changed the design to include six open keys. That is the standard that is applied today to the open-hole flute.

Why Are There Two Designs?

The reason there are two kinds of flute designs is that each offers an alternative way of playing with different results.

For Those Beginning

Some are new to the instrument or just picking it up for the first time. Most teachers think that a closed-hole flute is better for beginners. There is a simple reason for this line of thought. 

New students have plenty of things to concentrate on. How to hold the flute, their embouchure, reading the music, and finding the right keys to create the notes are just four. They don’t need any unnecessary extra concerns. 

So, worrying about if their fingers are covering the open holes on the flute is, in the beginning, an extra burden. And, of course, a burden they don’t need to have to play the instrument. That concern is exacerbated further if the student is young or has small hands and fingers.

What Advantages Does The Open Hole Flute Have

Open Hole Flute

We have seen that there are a few disadvantages to playing the open-hole flute. But there are some advantages for the more experienced player.

It offers the player variations on the notes and the sounds that the flutist can produce. These include:

  • Multi-phonics.
  • Micro-tones.
  • Slides.

All necessary features of jazz and more contemporary music. These are just three, I will mention others later.

Because the action of closing off keys manually demands a certain action of hands, wrist, and fingers, it encourages good technique.

Do You Ever Move From Closed to Open?

Many teachers will encourage the student to consider moving from closed to open once they have reached grade 6. This, though, will depend on a couple of considerations.

  • Can the student manage the finger and wrist positions required for the open-hole flute?
  • Will it suit the player and their ability or be a negative influence.

If a student moves from closed to open flute, at first, they can use the plastic ‘bungs’ that should have been provided with the flute. This will block off some of the holes. They can be withdrawn one at a time when the student becomes familiar with each level.

There will always be a debate around if there is a difference in sound between closed-hole and open-hole flutes. Some will argue that the open flute has a better, purer sound. But, these are just opinions, and there are adherents to both systems.

A Closer Look at The Open Hole Flute

As we said earlier, six of the keys are ‘open-holed.’ They are exactly that, keys with open holes. 

When you buy a new open-hole flute, you will be provided with small corks or bungs made from rubber. They can be used to close off the holes until the student or player is ready to take them off. 

They can be removed all at once, or more commonly, one at a time. The student need only remove another bung when they are comfortable with the open holes created thus far.

Some Initial Adjustments

Like any new technique on an instrument, some technical adjustments will have to be made to how you play. The tips of the fingers need to be used, not any other area. 

And they need to be in a position to seal the hole completely. If the hole is not fully sealed, then it will affect the sound, making it rather squeaky.

But as I say, any new technique needs to be mastered. The majority of people can learn to play an open-hole flute with the correct instruction and good practice.

So Let’s Return To Open-Hole Flutes vs Closed-Hole Flutes

Let’s Return

Does an open-hole flute have a better sound than a closed-hole flute? If you want a quick answer, then no, not really. Although, there is an element for discussion about that point which I shall come back to later.

The sounds will be virtually identical. However, it isn’t quite as simple as that in a decision between the two designs. There are some things to consider, not just how they sound.

Open-Hole Flutes Tend To Promote Good Technique

That is rather a blanket statement and maybe unfair. There are plenty of closed-hole flute players with excellent technique. 

What I mean by that is that your hand position for playing the open-hole flute is vital. You can get away with a bit more with a closed-hole design. With the open-hole, you won’t.

Fingers Must Be Centered

I mentioned earlier about the open-hole flute promoting good technique and hand position. When playing either design of flute, open or closed, good hand technique and posture are important. 

The open-hole design encourages you to be very precise with this aspect of the technique of flute-playing. The tops of your fingers must be centered on the hole if you are to prevent any air leakages. As I already mentioned, air leakage around the holes could cause a poor tone.

Technique matters…

Having good technical posture and hand position will improve some of the aspects of how you play. One important area is the correct positioning of hands and fingers. These improve the natural movement of your fingers on the flute. 

This, in turn, will help you play in a relaxed way giving you a finger action that is both fluid and fast.

Returning To The Quality Of The Sound

Let me just return to what we were talking about when considering the quality of the sound. I said that I think that there is no “real” difference in sound between open and closed flutes.

That may be the case when comparing like-for-like. However, most of the higher-quality flutes are an open-hole design. By their nature, they are a higher quality instrument that is going to sound better. This is, of course, reflected in the price tag. I have attached some examples at the end to demonstrate.

The Volume

There is a difference in the volume of some flutes. With a higher quality flute, you will not only get a better quality of tone, but there will also be more volume. 

That is not an open or closed comparison. That is just a better quality flute performing at a higher level. And, as I have said, as most better quality flutes are open-holed, you will see and hear the difference. However, it is not just a case of one flute being louder or sounding better than another. Much of what is heard and the volume the flute generates will have much to do with the ability of who is playing it.

Why Would Anyone Choose an Open Hole Over a Closed Hole Flute?

Closed Hole Flute

I have discussed there being very little in terms of sound between like-for-like options. We have also seen that the closed flute might, for some, be easier to play. So, why choose an open-hole flute at all?

For The Standard Repertoire

When playing certain pieces that might be termed “standard,” the closed-hole flute will deliver very well. It is when you step outside of such pieces that you will need what is often called “extended technique.”

The open-hole flute now comes into its own little bit more. We have already discussed some of the extra techniques that are possible, but there are more. The open hole flute gives you the possibility of:

  • Flexibility in pitch changes.
  • Bending notes.
  • Quarter tones.
  • Glissandos.

All are required, especially for Jazz and non-standard improvisation pieces. There will, of course, only be a relatively small percentage of flute players who may ever require such techniques. And, even if you do, some of those techniques can still be mastered with a lot of work playing a closed-hole flute.

The Open Is Not Just For The Pros

Likewise, the closed-hole is not just for beginners. Many high-level players around the world prefer the closed-hole flute. As I mentioned earlier, most manufacturers will build their higher-quality instruments with open-hole designs. 

This affects the quality of the available flutes if you prefer a closed-hole design. Most manufacturers will accept orders to put closed-hole keys on their higher-level instruments, but it will cost you in waiting time and probably money.

Here are some examples of both designs:

Want to Play the Flute or Get Better At It?

We can help. Take a look at our articles on How to Learn Flute Notes for BeginnersHow to Improve The Note E on The FluteHow Many Notes Can You Play On A FluteHow to Choose a Flute – B foot or C footIs Flute Easy To Learn, and How Much Does a Good Flute Cost for more information.

Also, make sure you check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Flute, the Best Student Flute, the Best Tin Whistles, the Best Ocarinas, the Best Blues Harmonicas, and the Best Bagpipes you can buy in 2023.

Open-Hole Flutes vs Closed-Hole Flutes – Conclusion

The simple answer is, in a like-for-like situation, I would say no. One does not have a better sound than the other. There are some other things to consider, as I have discussed. 

Ease of playing for the closed-hole flute, and the extended techniques which are easier on the open flute. But in terms of sound, in my opinion, there is nothing that shows one is better than the other.

Until next time, let your music play.

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