The term “intonation” is used to describe the accuracy of a pitch when played on a musical instrument. One of the biggest challenges when learning to play a wind instrument is learning to play with proper intonation, and being able to recognize when the intonation is off. On the flute, there are many different factors that can affect intonation, such as posture, breathing and fingerings. However, there are a few basic mechanical factors that can easily be monitored to ensure that the instrument is at least setup to play in tune.
The first of these is the headjoint cork, which is located at the end of the headjoint, underneath the screw cap. The headjoint cork should always be in the correct position when playing. How can you tell if the cork is adjusted to the right place? If you insert any standard flute cleaning rod into the headjoint, the line marked on the rod should be exactly in the center of the opening in the lip plate. The headjoint cork can easily be reset by a trained repair technician, but is not designed to be moved in and out as a tuning mechanism.
The overall position of the headjoint itself also contributes towards the intonation. Tuning adjustments can be made by sliding the headjoint towards or away from the body. The most common position for a flute to play in tune with itself is for the headjoint to be pulled out approximately 1/4″ from the body.
The last mechanical factor of note for intonation is the condition of the pads and keys. This element is perhaps the most important, since not only does it affect intonation but also the overall performance and useful life of the instrument. Leaking pads or keys that are bent/out of alignment will cause the intonation to suffer as a result. For this reason, it is essential to follow basic maintenance steps for your flute, such as cleaning the inside after each use to remove moisture that can cause pads to deteriorate. The easiest way to do this is to attach an appropriately sized soft cloth to a flute cleaning rod and run the cloth through the inside of the flute (all pieces). It is also important to make sure that the flute is assembled properly, without grabbing or clenching the keys. Even the slightest bent key can cause the instrument to play incorrectly or out of tune.