I sometimes compose for my own amusement but I have no delusions of creating anything that anyone else would like to hear.

In one of my ideas, I want a long sustained flute note to bridge two movements. The other instruments will stop on a chord but the flute will continue. The next movement will begin on another chord in which the flute's note serves a different role.

So, the note might be too long to play comfortably or at all. I was wondering whether I could give the illusion of this impossibly long note by requesting two players to collaborate. One will begin and fade out when necessary and the other would come in. A couple of such handovers should be sufficient.

Is the idea feasible?

  • 2
    Strings can do this effortlessly...
    – Remy
    Feb 20, 2018 at 19:49
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    "I have no delusions of creating anything that anyone else would like to hear." Don't sell yourself short. If you write music, you have a rare gift that many other people would love to hear for themselves. You certainly don't have to share your music if you don't want to, but if you do want to, you should go for it! :)
    – Kevin
    Feb 20, 2018 at 21:03
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    IIRC, this very trick is used to play Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It's not notated, but he simply wrote a note too long to actually be played, and that's how folks accomplish the phrase IRL. (Someone can jump in and correct me if I'm pointing to the wrong piece. I'm 90% sure it was this piece, but if it wasn't, then it could have been Debussy or Faure)
    – Ben I.
    Feb 21, 2018 at 2:18
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    Wonder if you're aiming for something like this: In the Mendelssohn violin concerto, the bassoon holds one of the notes over from the last chord of the first movement to bridge to the second movement. I am not a wind player so I can't say whether it's more reasonable for bassoon to sustain than flute; but in this case, the one note is not held by itself that long before other instruments start coming back in bit by bit. Feb 21, 2018 at 3:10
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    @wrschneider Yes, I am aware that the idea is not completely original.
    – badjohn
    Feb 21, 2018 at 7:57

6 Answers 6


The handover is feasible. The circular breathing thing would be classed as a #special skill' I think!

But how long do you need? A good flautist might give you 30 seconds without special technique.

  • ^ Can confirm -- just saw Rach 2 and Rite of Spring this weekend, and there was an incredible amount of coughing, especially given how small the audience was. Feb 20, 2018 at 16:25
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    It may be infectious. I don't mean literally though that could be so. I mean after one person coughs, others who have been holding back their coughs may feel that they may now let go.
    – badjohn
    Feb 20, 2018 at 17:20
  • @KyleStrand Rach 2 and Rite of Spring in the same concert? Where? I go to see the CBSO (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) often. I love them but there is one aspect that I don't like: their programmes seem to be constructed by pulling names of pieces from a hat.
    – badjohn
    Feb 20, 2018 at 17:21
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    @badjohn Colorado Symphony Orchestra. After intermission and before starting the Rite, the conductor took the opportunity to tell the audience that the two pieces were composed barely more than a decade apart and explain some of the rhythmic and harmonic elements that made the Rite so groundbreaking and different. Feb 20, 2018 at 17:55
  • @LaurencePayne With the CBSO, we don't even get that much connection. We went last Saturday and got: an overture by Bax, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Orff's Carmina Burana.
    – badjohn
    Feb 20, 2018 at 17:56

Find a flutist who can do circular breathing. They are rarer than oboists with that skill, but it is getting increasingly demanded these days.

As long as you are composing only for your amusement, the capabilities of MIDI expanders will be more important than that of actual flutists anyway.

  • For reference: circular breathing is used by Australian Aborigines when playing the Didgeridoo. Feb 21, 2018 at 10:41

It seems simple enough to write two parts for two different flute chairs. Simply add breath marks in alternating places. Then you can carry the note potentially for the entire piece.

I don't think a flute is loud enough that you need to worry about one part fading in while another is fading out (if, as you describe, there are other instruments accompanying).


It might be an idea to keep in mind that the composer (especially one just starting out in the world) should write as practically for the chosen instruments as possible. The flute would not be my first choice of woodwind for holding a long and exposed note. The reed instruments are better at this for obvious reasons. Your long flute note might have to be so soft that it might not achieve your desired effect of maintaining audience attention. The dovetailing of two flutes would work but an oboe would be more noticeable and would achieve it effortlessly. If it's flute that you really want, then go for the two flutes.


I agree with the other user that if this is just for fun and it's all going to stay in software, there's no reason to worry about this kind of practicality.

If you are really interested in playability, then what you suggested is completely reasonable. Flutes in particular can sneak in and out very subtly. It might help to have at least two people playing at all times, since the difference between one and two players is noticeable.

In the event that you do manage to get a reading of your piece, it will likely be through a college or community band/orchestra, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect players at that level to circular breathe or be able to sustain a note for that long.


My preferred notation method would simply be a small text note, perhaps as a symbol and footnote, indicating that the held note may be staggered if necessary. Specifically spelling out how to stagger it seems unnecessary, especially since simply holding out the note is also acceptable if possible.

An example note: "May be staggered among two or more flautists."

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