I understand that say, for the clarinet, tin whistle, or flute, there are several different fingerings for the same note. These can still produce marginally different tones, which are more or less in tune depending on how it is played ( brought slightly more sharp with a stronger attack, etc ) .

[1] Are theses really more or less just discovered and used due to them potentially being more convenient for the specific tune, fingering sequence, or preference of the performer? I know for example, when I played the Clarinet, I found it easier to play an upper register note with several lever depresses than with all fingers down, but I always felt this was 'cheating'. If my assumption that they are used just depending on convenience, than that would not be true.

To maybe complete this thought, [2] is there always ( possibly multiple ) a 'right way' and a 'wrong' way to play notes?

Thank you for any discussion about this matter,

Tim S.

2 Answers 2


Historically the basic idea of using "forked" fingerings to play more notes than the number of finger holes dates back long before there was any accurate theory of acoustics. The design of instruments was gradually worked out over time. For example, look at the different diameters of the finger holes on recorders.

For the lower registers, the mathematical theory of acoustics gives pretty good predictions of what you will get from any "random" fingering. With computer modelling, you can just create a database of every possible fingering. AFAIK this was first done systematically for the flute, and the database contains more than 40,000 fingerings - you don't need to guess what will be "useful" to somebody in some strange musical context, so just include everything! See http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/music/flute/.

Note, in this context the "theory of acoustics" contains much more than the simple stuff you learn in high school science about the harmonics of open and stopped pipes, which isn't accurate enough to be of much practical use, and doesn't tell you anything useful about a pipe with finger holes.

Reed instruments harder to model because of the variability of the reeds, but the same basic idea can be used.

For the highest register, every individual instrument is different (even if they are the same model from the same manufacturer) - fingering charts can make useful suggestions, but in the end you have to find out for yourself what works for you.


There are two classes of alternate fingerings. Clarinets, for example, have alternate fingerings for some notes by design: a key for each little finger can set a particular note because the keys are linked. Or the keys high on the right-hand side allow you to play a couple notes above the octave break that are also played with the octave key open but most everything else closed. Over in the string world, of course, you can play low on one string or high on the next string to get the same pitch.

The other class, involving unusual finger-hole combinations or partially covered holes, is largely due to discovery rather than design.

  • Isn't it a register key on clarinet, as it raises a twelfth rather than an octave, as in sax?
    – Tim
    May 27, 2017 at 12:04
  • @Tim That's correct - the clarinet has (approximately) a cylindrical bore closed at one end by the reed and overblows at the 12th, while almost all other reed instruments have (approximately) a conical bore which overblows at the octave.
    – user19146
    May 27, 2017 at 15:07
  • @Tim yep, it's just called the "octave key" for simplicity. May 27, 2017 at 17:28

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