Headjoints 101

Greetings and welcome to another Flute Friday.

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I am in the process of purchasing a new flute. Part of this process is selecting the best headjoint for my own playing style and everything that goes with that (the good, the bad, the ugly, and the not-yet-discovered). We sometimes underestimate the power that a headjoint has to transform our sound in new and exciting ways. The type of metal used can brighten or darken the sound and even the cut of the embouchure hole can modify the projection of certain registers. In today’s blog, we will look at some of the basics of headjoints. Bottom line: a headjoint will sound different for different players. The best approach is to gather your list of sound wants/needs and try everything. The perfect headjoint may not look the way you expect.

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HEADJOINTS 101

Density vs. Stiffness – The material of a headjoint is based on two elements: Density and stiffness. Density refers to the amount of matter in a given space. For example, if an element has a large amount of matter, it will have a high density. Stiffness refers to the tendency of a material to resist being compressed. Different metals will have different degrees of density and stiffness. These differences result in different types of sounds on each type of headjoint. The sound of the flute, after all, originates in the headjoint.

Embouchure Components – Headjoints have two embrochure components: A lip plate and a riser. A riser is the piece of metal that holds the lip plate to the flute. These can be the same material as the headjoint itself or a combination of materials.

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Material – There are five primary types of metals that headjoints are made out of:

  1. Nickel – Nickel is most commonly used on student model headjoints. Although some describe the sound as fuzzier and less clear than sterling silver headjoints, others characterize the sound as crisp and bright. This metal has a low density and is very resistant. The downside is that it often causes allergic reactions.
  2. Sterling Silver – Sterling Silver typically contains 92.5% pure silver combined with other metals for structure. As described on the Burkhart website, silver creates a “sound with classic brilliance. Silver has the ability to produce a balanced sound with projection and shimmer.” Silver headjoints are known best for their pure tone, and light, fluid sound that offers more sparkle than their gold and nickel counterparts.
  3. Gold – Gold darkens the sound and is often described as having a “warm” tone. A gold headjoint can add new dimensions of colors at an affordable price. Denser than silver, the combination of a gold lip plate and a gold riser puts the gold at the exact tip of the blowing edge, producing a richer sound. Even just a gold riser can add a degree of color to a silver headjoint.
  4. Platinum – The Burkhart website describes platinum as delivering “stunning richness and depth.” Known for free-blowing fortes and subtlety of color, platinum headjoints add projection and help facilitate softer dynamics in the high register. Perfect for the orchestral player for blending with other instruments.
  5. Wood – Although less common, wood headjoints are used primarily for baroque music. Although some players criticize wood headjoints as being difficult to produce a clear tone on, they are great to use in chamber music settings to blend with other period instruments.

Embouchure Hole Size and Shape – The size and shape of the tone hole can also effect sound, even within different registers. A larger tone tole will produce a bigger sound while a smaller tone hall will result in a sweet sound. An oval shape is better for high register sensitivity while a rectangular shape produces strong middle and low registers.

Blowing Edge – The cut of the blowing edge will also impact sound depending on how much resistance is given to the airstream. This also effects the ease of articulation. Players that use a lot of air tend to prefer a headjoint offering less resistance while players who struggle with articulation in the middle register gravitate towards a blowing edge with more resistance.

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Crowns – Crowns are often made from the same material as the headjoint, effecting sound in the same way. Some players use crowns with various stones for decoration. Regardless of material used in the crown, the material of the cork generally remains the same.

Tips for Selecting a Headjoint:

  1. Identify your flute playing strengths and weakness with your teacher. What are you looking for in a headjoint? How do you want to change your sound? Write out some of the things you’d like to address and consult with a specialist at an instrument retailer. They will help you identify certain headjoints with materials and cuts that address your specific needs.
  2. Try out a variety of headjoints using different materials with and without risers. Explore the range of your options.
  3. Consider where you perform the most. A headjoint can help you produce a sound that best fits your chosen performance scenario. For example, soloists need a headjoint to help them project while orchestral players gravitate towards a headjoint that helps them blend with other instruments.
  4. Write down 1-word adjectives when trying out different headjoints to help quickly compare the pro and cons of each. This is also a great task for your teacher for a second opinion. What headjoint sounds best to you? Which one sounds best to your teacher? Which sounds best on a recording? A handy list will help make your final decision a lot easier.
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Again, bottom line: Try everything. Finding a headjoint is like finding a perfect haircut. It has to work for your unique playing style and no two players are exactly alike.

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What type of headjoint do you prefer and why? How do you select your perfect headjoint? Any noteworthy headjoint selection experiences? Please comment below.

Happy fluting!

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