I don't play any of these instruments, but have at least tried them enough to play a scale.

My impression is the basic holes down the pipe are tuned to a diatonic scale. The more holes covered, the lower the tones. You must keep holes covered as you go down the scale.

It seems to me chromatic tones come from fingering "gaps" or on the record from the small double holes at the end of the body, but I don't really know how it works.

  • 2
    don't forget what we have learned at Sunday school:youtube.com/watch?v=Tn5O3_C1sqw Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 20:50
  • 1
    Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/33791/… Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 6:44
  • Why don't you just compare the fingering charts? "Chromatics" have no influence here, seeing as half-steps and whole-steps just require different delta bore lengths Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 14:15
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    @CarlWitthoft, because I want to hear from people who actually play and understand these instruments. What's the point of a Q&A forum otherwise? Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 15:41
  • Michael, understanding fingerings and notes is a question for instrument designers and acoustic engineers. It's got next to nothing to do with learning how to play these instruments. Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 15:45

4 Answers 4


Out of the entire extended flute family, you've managed to name three that are about as far apart as they get! However, I'd still say that all woodwind fingerings are more similar than not.

The fife is among the oldest flutes that still get some use, and the fingerings are identical to the tin whistle (a.k.a. pennywhistle, Irish whistle). It has six holes operated by three fingers of each hand. All closed plays a low D, and picking one up at a time from the bottom results in a D major scale. The tone holes are mostly very large, meaning cross fingerings don't work very well in most cases, so most of the "in between" notes have to be done with half-holing, which is sloppy and awkward.

It's a little strange for an instrument to play in D major most naturally, so the history of woodwind fingering evolution can be thought of as a series of improvements to twist that fingering pattern into C major. In order to do that, we need to make F-natural and C-natural easy.

The recorder is the first step in that evolution, and it takes steps towards normalizing C major by extending the instrument to low C (operated by the pinky of the bottom hand--we now always play with the left hand on top, but originally either way was common), and by shrinking the tone holes so that cross fingerings work. But you still get a D major scale with the six main fingers, it's just that F and C are much easier to play. Oboe fingerings evolved alongside the recorder, and so that's the instrument with the most similar fingerings.

The thing that sets the modern flute apart is the Boehm system, which improved on many aspects, but relevant to this discussion, it introduced the automatic F# pad. It's an extra tone hole between the two hands, which plays F# and is automatically closed when any right hand key is pressed, so the old F# fingering becomes an F fingering (and F# is played by leaving the F key open, but closing a lower finger so that the F# hole closes, which is easy). The saxophone and modern clarinet have also adopted this. These instruments, plus the oboe, have also eliminated all cross fingerings and half-holing by giving each chromatic note its own tone hole, operated either by pinky keys or other automatic mechanisms.

So in all, you have (for the instruments you asked about):

C:  1 2 3 | 4 5 6 (pinky) - except fife
C#: 1 2 3 | 4 5 6 (pinky) - except fife
D:  1 2 3 | 4 5 6
D#: 1 2 3 | 4 5 6 (pinky) - flute only
E:  1 2 3 | 4 5
F:  1 2 3 | 4 - on flute
F#: 1 2 3 | 4 - on recorder, fife
G:  1 2 3
G#: 1 2 3 (pinky) - flute only
A:  1 2
B:  1

Bb is a whole 'nother can of worms, as is what happens above B.

  • For recorder: F: 1 2 3 | 4 - 6 7, and F#: 1 2 3 | - 5 6 - Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 2:09

The fingerings for almost all woodwind instruments are 'similar' in the sense that covering successive holes gives you a diatonic scale. For the chromatic notes in between, every woodwind instrument is different.

  • Modern orchestral instruments have keys for the chromatic notes. The basic scales are simlilar, but there are many differences in detail.
  • Unkeyed instruments use so-called cross fingerings (what you call 'gaps'). These are different from instrument to instrument. Some keyed instruments use cross-fingerings for certain notes.
  • Some instruments can't be played chromatically (or at least not completely) using cross-fingerings and techniques like half covering holes are used.
  • There are several different ways of of 'overblowing' to get higher notes. Sometimes this is done by lip adjustments, Sometimes a hole has to be vented either by a key or by partially opening a hole.
  • Some instruments use a combination of cross fingering and partial occlusion. At least that is true of the baroque recorder fingering chart I had as a kid. (Or maybe I'm confusing it with the fife I had as a kid?)
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 21:44
  • @phoog Some older recorders don't have the double holes for the lowest two holes, and half-holing has to be used, but that's an exception.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 21:52
  • Well my understanding is that "baroque" was used at least in that book (which must have been from the 60s or early 70s) specifically to indicate instruments with the double holes. The fife had no double holes, of course, but I don't remember whether I had a fingering chart for it. I remember now that the hole that was sometimes half covered in the recorder chart was the register hole on the back.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 22:04
  • @phoog I added register holes to my answer
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 22:06
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    @CarlWitthoft I never said other pitches were 'contrived', simply that they are obtained by other means, which I've described. Note I include octave keys as an overblowing method.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 14:21

Fairly. I have played them all a bit except fife. (There are also many types of traditional flutes that have slightly different fingerings.) There is also tin whistle which is similar again.

You always basically shorten the tube to raise pitch and they all overblow an octave so most stuff works the same. But there are differences in getting some chromatic notes (of course on orchestral flute you have many extra keys that you don't have on the others so there are a lot of extras).

On recorder you have some oddities like right hand 1/3 to get F natural (I think it is just first finger on tin whistle) but they are largely the same. Of course there are so many varieties that it is a bit harder to answer this any more precisely than that.


This is a supplement to the previous answers.

It's relatively easy to design an instrument so that in the first octave, you just open up an additional hole for each note in order to play the main scale of the instrument. This doesn't mean that this will work in the second octave. The way that the air flow and vibrations create the notes in these instruments is pretty complicated, and various changes have to be made in the fingering for the second octave. A modern flute can make this easier with keys and so on, but on a recorder, you have to do things like cover holes below an open hole, or half-cover holes.

Most recorders are designed to use the English fingering system, and you have to do the same trick in one place in the first octave. Roll your mouse over the notes on the staff on this page to see this. The reason for this is that otherwise, it's too difficult to play some of the other notes in tune. Also, to play recorder well there is a little bit of control you have to exert over your breath and the initial attack of a note in order to get some of the notes precisely in tune. (The initial attack is also important to prevent the recorder from "squeaking". If you listen carefully to someone who picks up a recorder and plays without training, you'll hear a high-pitched little sound at the beginning of the note before it settles into the right pitch.)

Earlier flutes or "traversos" from the period of Baroque and early Classical music usually have only one or two keys at most. In addition to opening and closing non-obvious combinations of holes to get all of the notes in a chromatic scale and to get the upper octave, for some notes one has to do particular things with one's lips and sometimes rotate the flute so that the air hits the mouthpiece at a different angle. This seems like it would be more difficult than playing a modern flute (although a modern flute has a greater range), but when played well, the result is very beautiful, in my opinion.

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