Open G#: To open, or not to open?

If you look at your flute, you will find that all the keys are sprung open except for D#, G# and the trill keys. The reason for this is that Theobald Boehm, the inventor of the mechanism on the modern flute, designed the keywork on the principle that all the keys should be open, and that the keys should only be closed to shorten the effective length of the flute to change the pitch.

His reasoning was broadly based on two counts.

1. The more keys open (and the larger the holes) on the instrument, the louder it will be.
2. By having all keys below the first hole open (as far as possible), this will reduce the ‘veiling effect’ produced by closed sections of tube.

In Boehm’s original design he had the D# key sprung closed, but held open at all times by the little finger (except when playing D). This was to give a physical support in the right hand, thus making the instrument more stable when it is being played. The G# key he had open which fitted in with his ideas perfectly.

As the Boehm system flute became more popular and larger numbers of players transferred from simple eight-keyed flutes to the Boehm system, they had to learn a number of new fingerings. The key that they seemed to have had the most difficulty transferring to was the G# key, which had always been sprung closed on the eight-keyed flute.

After a number of experiments by different makers, a closed G# version of the flute was produced. This involved duplicating the G# hole on the rear of the instrument, and it is this design that is used almost universally today.

There are three main problems with the closed G# system:

1. The system spoils top E, because the G# hole on the top of the flute is open when playing high E. A split E mechanism is required to correct this.
2. The closed G# mechanism is unnecessarily complicated – there is more mechanically to go wrong.
3. The closed G# is illogical. When going from G to G# you put another key down to go up the scale.

Why then is the open G# flute not the standard flute?

The open G# system is used by a growing number of players, especially in Britain. However, due to the huge number of players on closed G# instruments and the lack of open G# flutes – particularly at the student end of the market – I don’t see the current situation changing. Perhaps one day a quality, open G# student flute will be made available, and this could produce a new and well-deserved interest in this superior system.

This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for the Flutewise magazine.

Open G# flutes are available by special order from Just Flutes, on most brands in the intermediate bracket upwards.

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  • rick

    Dear Ian,

    I just discovered your open G# article here – a whole year after you posted it! This is one of my favorite topics, so I’m glad to see you’re giving it some attention.

    I wonder if you agree with me that the term “open (or closed) G# key” is a misnomer (even though Boehm used it himself)? Shouldn’t it be called the “open (or closed) G NATURAL key” because the key in question produces G natural when closed, and all the other keys are named for the note produced when they are closed? I can see calling it closed G# on the eight-keyed flute as you did, but not on the modern flute. Maybe the terms “single” or “double” G key system would be best?

    Anyway, thanks for your time, and please keep the open (single) G key system alive!

    Regards,
    Richard Dalton
    MD, USA