I have noticed something when I hear 2 flutes in octaves or a flute and piccolo playing the same notated notes, sounding an octave apart. It starts to not sound like a flute. In particular it sounds like a pipe organ. This "organ effect" gets amplified by having more flutes in octaves. So just 2 flutes in octaves will have a slight "organ effect" but mostly sound like the combination of 2 flutes. Same for flute and piccolo. However, if I have a piccolo, 2 flutes, and a bass flute all in octaves, there is significantly more of that "organ effect".

Why though? Why is it that when I keep doubling flutes at the octave with more flutes, it sounds like an organ rather than just a bunch of flutes in different octaves? I mean, if each flute in each register has that flute timbre but extended to different octaves, shouldn't a bunch of flutes in octaves sound just like that, a bunch of flutes, and not like an organ?

And yet I do get this "organ effect" and the intensity of the "organ effect" seems to increase exponentially with the number of octaves the flutes are playing in. 2 flutes will mostly sound like 2 flutes with just a slight hint of an "organ effect". 4 flutes will sound much more like an organ. And there seems to be an upper limit as to where the organ effect happens. Past C6 or so, the highest flute becomes so breathy and piercing that it doesn't contribute to the "organ effect" and just sounds like a solo flute. The same thing happens if I have the piccolo at C5 or higher. But at Bb5 and below, this "organ effect" definitely happens.

But why? Even the hyperbass flute, sounding if I am correct, 3 octaves down from the notation, only barely reaches the size of your average organ pipe. And even if you are talking about a chamber organ, where the pipes are enclosed within the organ and the organ itself is about the size of an upright piano, the bass flute still doesn't come close to the size of the smallest organ pipe in terms of diameter and only barely comes close in terms of length.

I suspect that both the "organ effect" and the upper limit of around C6 are related to the overtone spectra of the different flutes and the way those overtones resonate amongst the flutes. However, I don't know for sure.

So why is it that the more flutes I add in lower and lower octaves, the more the combination sounds like an organ and less like a bunch of flutes?

  • Speculation (hence comment rather than answer) but maybe it’s the ‘beats’ of the individual flautists’ breath pressures that creates the effect you’re hearing? Even the best player produces minute variations in pitch on long notes as part of the playing style, and maybe that’s creating the effect. It’s an interesting question which, I hope, survives the SE subjectivity police – Steve Mansfield Mar 2 at 6:51
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    Your assumptions are way off. Organ pipes vary in size from "taller than you" down to "smaller than your pinky", so it's no wonder that orchestral flutes playing together can resemble pipe organ sounds. – Kilian Foth Mar 2 at 8:18
  • How do you get this impression? By getting two or more people to play flutes for you, or by making audio from synthesised sounds? The latter will be more regular and less like real flutes. – Rosie F Mar 2 at 9:38
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    Aint that because a pipe organ is basically just a bunch of flutes? – Olli Mar 2 at 10:42
  • I suspect you're hearing this when the computer plays back your score using sampled or synthesized flute sounds. I've played in orchestras for years and I've never, ever heard what you describe. You don't get this with actual instruments being played by people… The other thing that contributes to what you're hearing is that the parts you write are idiomatic of keyboard parts rather than being flute writing. Start writing for flutes and they'll start sounding like flutes. e.g. stop writing up-and-down arpeggios and start thinking in terms of melodies and counterpoint. – Brian THOMAS Mar 2 at 12:43

A pipe organ can sound very similar to a flute.

  • in addition to metal pipes of various types, a pipe organ usually contains ranks of wooden pipes. Instead of one flute with finger holes, you get a rank of pipes with varying lengths, but the mechanism by which they generate sound is the same.

enter image description here - an organ has a massive range, which encompasses all types of flutes. So any pitch you can produce on a flute, can also be produced on an organ.

Octave pitch lengths used in actual organs include 64′, 32′, 16′, 8′, 4′, 2′, 1′, ​1⁄2′, and 1⁄4′.

(The lengths, listed in ft, refer to the approximate length of the longest pipe in a rank of open pipes)

  • an organ contains stops, i.e. sets of pipes which you can combine at will. Depending on this selection, you can link one key on the keyboard to e.g. an 8' and a 16' stop, which has the same effect as two flautists playing these notes together.
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  • Indeed, the music director at my church described the organ as a bunch of flutes. I believe the characteristic flute tone is caused by the relative strength of the first two overtones to the base frequency. – phv3773 Mar 3 at 12:42

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