Flute and Piccolo Harmonic Comparison
MIT, Fall 2007

Class: Measurement and Instrumentation
Team Size: Individual
Duration: 1.5 months
Project: Design a measurement/analysis project.

Though the piccolo and flute are from the same instrument family, the piccolo has a reputation of sounding harsher, shriller, and out of tune. I enjoy playing both instruments, so I wanted to analyze the harmonic profile of the two to see if there was a scientific basis to the difference in reputation.

To do so, I recorded flute and piccolo notes and conducted Fourier analysis on the sound waves. I compared the number and amplitude of harmonic frequencies in each note and contrasted the locations of harmonic frequencies with their expected theoretical locations.

For the most part, flute notes yielded more harmonics than piccolo notes. On the piccolo, harmonic amplitudes also dropped sharply after the fundamental frequency. Both instruments’ harmonics were very close to theoretical values, suggesting that the piccolo’s reputation for playing out of tune is not due to an imperfect harmonic profile. Overall, the harmonic profiles seem to imply that many of the differences in tone between the instruments are simply due to the piccolo playing higher notes than the flute.

Harmonic peaks produced by playing the note E5 on the flute (left) and piccolo (right). Notes played on the piccolo tended to have fewer harmonic peaks than those played on the flute, and those harmonics tended to drop off sharply in amplitude.