In writing for the flute when the composer does not play the instrument himself, how does he know where to put the slurs?

To my understanding slur markings for woodwind indicate to play with a certain tonguing.

Does a composer merely leave them out, and let the flautist decide where there are, or is he expected to know where to put them? If the latter, how?

5 Answers 5


In concert band, we were all taught to tongue all notes not connected by slurs and play all notes under the same slur between two tonguings. This tip applied regardless of wind instrument - including flute.

The composer is therefore expected to know where to put the slurs.

My personal rule of thumb, as someone who played clarinet but never flute, is to put the slurs so they reflect how I sing the (melody, countermelody, or accompaniment) line. I connect with slurs all notes I sing smoothly into each other and do not break apart (whether by breath control or with my tongue/other mouth parts).


Playing a group of notes with or without a slur will sound different.

Hopefully, the composer should know how he/she wants the flute part to sound like and put the slurs accordingly.


I suggest you consider articulation in general. How do you want your piece to sound? To give you an idea, I also suggest you look at some examples with score. Poulenc's Sonata for flute and piano (example with score) lets you see tonguing, slurring and also double tonguing. You can see that, in this piece, slurred passages are melancholic, calming, smooth. Tongued passages are more playful. Different articulation gives a different feel and I suggest you also look at different instruments and different scores to see how it’s done in general (pick pieces you know).

Some things worth knowing, though:

  • Baroque music often leaves articulation up to the player. I’ve played a few Bach pieces where my opinion on articulation differed from my teacher’s. Not a big difference, but the book contained no articulation as published, so I pencilled in my own as I worked it out. It was a nice way to "personalise" the piece and also hear how professional flautists interpreted it differently.
  • People need to breathe. Slurs over everything make this difficult (check out "L'Apres midi de un faun" by Faure for flute players with great breath control). If you don’t give a soloist a place to breathe, there’s a fair chance they’ll have to pick their own place.

The beginning of a slur will have a different 'attack' from a note anywhere else in that slur. It's, as you say, the tonguing of that note. The others are simply blown, in the same breath, so there's no attack apeart from the start note.

Often, the music itself will tell the player how to slur, but that's maybe a different interpretation from that of the composer. So, that composer needs to envisage how phrases are played, and phrase, or slur, accordingly.

What better reason to at least have a foray into flute playing? It's the same for any instrument that's being composed for - each has its own foibles - subtle ways to produce sounds - and without knowledge of those, the composer is the poorer for it.

Leaving out slurs will mean the flautist will inevitably find where to put their own in, which may, or may not align with the composer's ideas.

  • 3
    Leaving no slurs may, and arguably should, communicate to the flautist to articulate every note. Jan 3, 2022 at 14:58

In writing for the flute when the composer does not play the instrument himself, how does he know where to put the slurs?

To my understanding slur markings for woodwind indicate to play with a certain tonguing.

But using the tongue is largely orthogonal to other aspects of flute play, so the composer does not really need to know flute technique for writing slurs but can place them as the music rather than the instrument calls for (naturally limited by the amount of breath expected to be available for one phrase, with lower notes consuming more breath).

That's different from placing trills or fast runs in various keys where the resulting difficulty depends a lot on the details of the flute. However, modern flutes (and to some degree other woodwinds) tend to defuse the worst problems with special trill and octavation keys, so a non-playing composer is less likely to create awful difficulties by accident than in times where flutes mainly had holes instead of more sophisticated mechanics.

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