You've probably heard of muted trumpets and trombones. Mutes have been used extensively on brass instruments, not only for rehearsals or for practicing but even during live gigs, and they're very useful when you don't have another way to isolate the sound. But about woodwind instruments like the flute?
Can flutes be muted? Flutes can't be muted in the same manner as valve instruments or even other woodwind instruments. As of this date, no proven method exists to mute the flute, apart from installing acoustic panelling or attempting to play notes quietly, which will not work in every situation.
In this article, we'll elaborate on how flutes work and why they can't be muted in conventional ways.
Why Can't Flutes Be Muted In The Same Way As A Valve Instrument?
As said earlier, while brass instruments usually don't have issues being muted at the bell, flutes won't profit from the same muting mechanisms.
The main reason is that woodwinds don't operate as brass instruments do. Let's go into the difference between the two categories to get a clearer idea.
Traditionally, placing instruments into each category was a straightforward process. The main defining characteristic was the build material, hence the names utilized. Woodwinds were made with wooden tubes, whereas brass instruments were made with metal and metal alloys.
However, other criteria had to be applied once some woodwinds began being crafted with a metal build (such as flutes and saxophones). Important criteria included their sound profile and how air escapes from the instrument.
In the case of brass instruments, air only goes out through one specific spot: The bell. For this reason, it's much easier to adapt a device capable of filtering the sound produced by the horn because there would be no other routes whereby it could resonate.
In the case of woodwinds, their resonance does not concentrate on a single spot, but it's distributed across all the opened holes, including the embouchure hole and the tone holes. Hence, each vent would have to be provided with a filtering mechanism to effectively mute the sound, which is not a very practical solution.
Related article: How Many Holes Does A Flute Have? (Different Flute Types)
It should be noted, moreover, that flutes have a very specific approach to playing that's entirely different from most other instruments of the same category.
Some attempts to produce mutes for certain woodwinds were made, with varying degrees of success.
To illustrate, you may find a variety of saxophone mutes sold on Amazon and other marketplaces, such as this Fafeims dampener (link to check the price on Amazon). However, the reviews for this accessory have been mixed, with some users claiming it doesn't work at all and others noticing negligible results.
To learn more about saxophone mutes, check out my article What Is A Saxophone Mute & How Do Mutes Work?
Other mutes were created to be adapted to the mouthpiece or neck. These would filter the airflow right from its entry point or at a nearby location, which should theoretically help reduce the output volume. Alas, users would claim to meet some resistance and delay when trying to blow on their instrument with these mutes inserted.
Recorders, by contrast, have it much easier because they are known for being some of the most responsive woodwinds. Recorders also sport a small “window” beneath the mouthpiece, wherein a small muting device can be easily inserted to reduce airflow across the bore.
Muteflute (link to check the price on Amazon) is one of these devices, and reviews have been mostly favourable, with some small complaints. One reviewer affirmed that the flute would play a semitone lower when adapting this mute, though it should not be a deal breaker if you don't intend to practice alongside other musicians or over a piece of music.
Are There Any Alternatives For Muting The Flute?
When it comes to transversal flutes, there are virtually no muting accessories on the market for them. This is because it's difficult to devise a muting tool that can blend flawlessly with the flute's peculiar build. Some methods have been proposed to this effect, but they're not devoid of objections.
1. Head Joint Tweaks
I stumbled upon this interesting video of a flutist showing a small accessory (apparently called “didi”) which was then inserted onto the head joint, wrapping the area around the lip plate. It's designed to reduce the area on the embouchure hole, thwarting the airflow as a result.
Other DIY proposals came from the University of South Wales in Australia. The idea was to create a muting mechanism to manage air flow from the entry point. These proposals were:
- Place a small piece of cotton wool inside the head joint, muting the flute at the lower end of the range.
- Put some modeling clay on the side of the embouchure hole opposite where you blow.
However, the intonation and response could be affected negatively by obstructing the air channel from its point of entry, prompting thus the same issues found with any saxophone's mouthpiece/neck mute. This is doable in the recorder's case because it has, by default, extremely low resistance and requires much less lung power to deliver audible sounds.
2. Quiet Playing
Another workaround is to perform “quiet playing” by blowing softly on the embouchure hole while covering more of it with the lower lip, absorbing much of the sound energy. This, in itself, requires practice and is not an easy feat to achieve for amateur students.
Furthermore, controlling airflow is only useful if you wish to practice fingerings. Still, you will struggle to deliver stronger notes later, as your embouchure is progressively adjusting to playing silently. Lastly, you will not be able to practice jet whistles on the flute while you engage in quiet playing.
The best alternative is soundproofing a room by installing acoustic panels. You may use this room for your practicing sessions to avoid annoying your neighbours. The obvious downside of this solution is that:
- It's far more expensive.
- It's not a viable solution for renters and people living in shared apartments.