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Flexatone 2005.jpg
Classification Percussion
Hornbostel–Sachs classification112.12
(Frame rattles)
Timbrebright, metallic
Playing range
E4–G5 / E5–E6[1] E2–G#4 / D#3–D#5[2]
E4–G5 / E5–E6[1] E2–G#4 / D#3–D#5[2]
Related instruments
musical saw, ondes Martenot, slide whistle, vibraphone, water gong
Playatone, Kolberg Percussion[2] Steve Weiss Music
Suggested notation of music for flexatone, using roll symbols for the tremolo and approximate pitch[3]
Rhythmic pattern easily playable on the flexatone[4]

The flexatone or fleximetal is a modern percussion instrument (an indirectly struck idiophone) consisting of a small flexible metal sheet suspended in a wire frame ending in a handle.[5] Used in classic cartoons for its glissando effect, its sound is comparable to the musical saw.[4]

History, construction and technique[edit]

[The] flexatone [is a] percussion instrument; shaking it causes two wooden balls, one on either side, to strike a metal blade subject to thumb pressure, which thereby can produce spooky glissando effects.[6]

An invention for a flexatone occurs in the British Patent Records of 1922 and 1923. In 1924 the 'Flex-a-tone' was patented in the USA by the Playatone Company of New York. "An instrument called the 'Flex-a-tone' was patented in the U.S.A. in 1924 by the Playertone Company of New York. It was introduced as a new instrument, making 'jazz jazzier' and announced as combining the tone effect of musical saw, orchestra bells, and song whistle."[7] "Small sheet of spring steel in a frame with wooden strikers mounted on either side. The player shakes the beater while bending the steel in order to change the pitch."[8]

The instrument was first used in 1920s jazz bands as an effect but is now mainly and rarely used in orchestral music.[9]

The flexatone is a small, thin, flexible metal plate fastened to its frame at one end. The plate is hit alternatively on each side by rubber or wooden beaters mounted on a clock spring. A tremolo is the normal effect, and thumb pressure on the free end of the plate alone changes the pitch, resulting in a glissando from note to note...It is usually employed as an abstract effect, since it is notoriously difficult to play specified pitches with any accuracy—the thumb pressure to sharpen or flatten is extremely subtle and difficult to gauge...The sound is quite clangy, a cross between the smoothness of a musical saw and a poor glockenspiel.[9]

Wooden knobs mounted on strips of spring steel lie on each side of the metal sheet. The player holds the flexatone in one hand with the palm around the wire frame and the thumb on the free end of the spring steel. The player then shakes the instrument with a trembling movement which causes the beaters to strike the sides of the metal sheet. While shaking the handle, the musician makes a high- or low-pitched sound depending on the curve given to the blade by the pressure from his or her thumb: "As the thumb depresses the vibrating metal sheet, the relative pitch of the instrument ascends; as the thumb pressure is released, the relative pitch of the instrument descends."[3] A vibrato is thus produced. While the instrument has a very limited dynamic range, volume can be controlled by how vigorously or delicately the player shakes the Flexatone.[10]

It cannot be pretended that its scope or range are wide, but such as it is, it is quite irreplaceable. Its curious penetrating whine is created by rapid oscillation of the little wooden knob at the end of the thin flexible strips against the broad curving metal plate, whose curvature—and hence pitch—is controlled by the thumb. This effect cannot be emulated by any other means except possibly the Ondes Martenot...or perhaps the musical saw.[11]

"Vibes generally make a perfectly acceptable alternative, especially when the music is somewhat indeterminate anyway."[12]

An alternate technique involves removing the two wooden knobs and their mounting springs, and then using a small metal rod (e.g., a triangle beater) held in the free hand striking the strip of spring steel. The pitch is altered in the same manner as the previous technique. "This method give the player greater control of the sound of the flexatone as it eliminates the need to shake the instrument."[3] This method of playing results in a different, more constrained sound. The flexatone may also be bowed along its edge with an orchestral string instrument bow.

The flexatone is notated using tremolo lines (rolls) to indicate shaking the instrument and lines to indicate the desired direction of the glissando or a wavy line (chevron) to indicate alternating thumb pressure. If using the instrument with the balls removed, indicate strikes with single notes followed by arrows indicating the direction of the glissando (similar to a guitar tab pitch bend). It is recommended that pitch designation should only be approximate,[3] as, "specific pitches are difficult but possible; glissandi without specific pitch are easily executed."[1]

Double meaning of the term "Flexatone"[edit]

In contemporary music of the 20th century between around 1920 and 1970 the term "Flexatone" has been used on one hand for the instrument flexatone, on the other hand for the musical saw. Composers who used it for the musical saw were: Arthur Honegger (Short opera Antigone, 1924/1927),[13][14][15] Ernst Krenek (opera Jonny spielt auf, 1927),[16][citation needed] Dmitri Shostakovich (The Nose (1929),[17][18][19] Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934), and film music for The New Babylon (1929)), Aram Khachaturian (Piano Concerto 1936),[17][20][21] and Hans Werner Henze (opera Elegy for young lovers, 1961).[22]


The flexatone is sometimes heard in funk music, and occasionally in pop music for special effect. It is occasionally used in the soundtracks of films or cartoons to represent "ghosts" or other paranormal phenomena.

The instrument is not often used in classical music, but it appears in the work of Arnold Schoenberg, Hans Werner Henze, Sofia Gubaidulina, György Ligeti and others.[23] Schoenberg employed it, "unrealistically...accurate bursts of widely spaced sounds being hardly obtainable with such abruptness,"[11] in his Variations for Orchestra Op.31 (1928) and his unfinished opera Moses und Aron (1932).[23] The cellist in Sofia Gubaidulina's The Canticle of the Sun (1998) plays a bowed flexatone before the final section.[24] Alfred Schnittke used it in his Faust Cantata (1983), in the Tuba Mirum movement of his Requiem (1975), in his Viola Concerto (1985),[25] and in his score for the ballet Peer Gynt (1987), the flexatone represents the sound of the moaning wind. György Ligeti used it in many of his works, such as his 1988 concerto for piano[26][27][28][29] second movement and his opera Le Grand Macabre (1977).[29] Peter Maxwell Davies uses it in the third movement of his Symphony No. 1 (1976),[citation needed] as well as three of them at the climax of his opera The Lighthouse (1980).[30] Vivian Fine owned a flexatone,[31] and used flexatone music in compositions such as The Race of Life (1937).[32] Some other classical pieces featuring the flexatone include:


Flexatone Apr2005.jpg


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Solomon, Samuel Z. (2016). How to Write for Percussion: A Comprehensive Guide to Percussion Composition, p.170. Oxford University. ISBN 9780199920365.
  2. ^ a b "Flexatones", Kolberg.com.
  3. ^ a b c d Miller, R.J. (2014). Contemporary Orchestration: A Practical Guide to Instruments, Ensembles, and Musicians, p.34. "The instrument has traditionally been used to create a comic glissando effect." Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-74190-3.
  4. ^ a b Kalani (2008). All About Hand Percussion: Everything You Need to Know to Start Playing Now!, p.27. "The flexatone is primarily use as a sound effect, often heard in classic cartoon sound tracks. The sound of this instrument can be compared to that of the musical saw, a 'flexible' tone that changes smoothly in pitch." ISBN 9780739049648.
  5. ^ "Flexatone Sound Samples", CompositionToday.com.
  6. ^ Griffiths, Paul (2004). The Penguin Companion to Classical Music, unpaginated. Penguin UK. ISBN 9780141909769.
  7. ^ Blades, James (1992). Percussion Instruments and Their History, p.393. Connecticut: The Bold Strummer, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-933224-71-1. Quoted in Keller, Renee E. (June 2013). "Compositional and Orchestrational Trends in the Orchestral Percussion Section Between the Years of 1960-2009", p.102, n.166, Pas.org.
  8. ^ Beck, John H. (2013). Encyclopedia of Percussion, p.29. Routledge. ISBN 9781317747680.
  9. ^ a b Holland, James (2005). Practical Percussion: A Guide to the Instruments and Their Sources, p.23-4. ISBN 9781461670636. "Perhaps the most famous example is probably still Khachaturian's Piano Concerto (1946)...However, when Khachaturyan came to the London Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s he immediately ruled out the flexatone on sight, before a note had been played, and wanted a musical saw or nothing! Just how the flexatone came to appear in the score in the first place remains a complete mystery."
  10. ^ Peinkofer, Karl and Tannigel, Fritz (1976). "Handbook of Percussion Instruments", p.75. Mainz, Germany: Schott.
  11. ^ a b c Del Mar, Norman (1983). Anatomy of the Orchestra, p. 427-8. University of California. ISBN 9780520050624. Right after mentioning that, "the latter [the musical saw] is orchestrally wholly unknown," he mentions Khachaturian's use of the flexatone in his Piano Concerto.
  12. ^ Spiegl, Fritz (1984). Music Through the Looking Glass: A Very Personal Kind of Dictionary of Musicians' Jargon, Shop-talk and Nicknames, and a Mine of Information about Musical Curiosities, Strange Instruments, Word Origins, Odd Facts, Orchestral Players' Lore, and Wicked Stories about the Music Profession, p.123. Routledge. ISBN 9780710204011.
  13. ^ Musical saw in Honegger's opera "Antigone" starting from minute 27'23 on YouTube
  14. ^ Spratt, Geoffrey K. (1987). The Music of Arthur Honegger, p.124. Cork University. ISBN 9780902561342. Act 2, Scene VIII, "opens with a long treble melismatic line of quite astounding expression and profundity—qualities in no small way attributable to its scoring for saxophone and musical saw."
  15. ^ Halbreich, Harry (1999). Arthur Honegger, p.464. Hal Leonard. ISBN 9781574670417.
  16. ^ Excerpt of a recording of "Jonny spielt auf" with musical saw playing from 2'30, from 2'54 and from 3'48 on YouTube
  17. ^ a b Nardolillo, Jo (2014). All Things Strings, p.90. Scarecrow. ISBN 9780810884441. "Khachaturian included a musical saw in the score for his first piano concerto, a part now usually played by a violin."
  18. ^ Conway, David (2004). "Gogol in St. Petersburg", SocialAffairsUnit.org.uk. Report of a performance of "The Nose" in St. Petersburg 2004: "intriguing duet for balalaika and musical saw".
  19. ^ Micada, Katharina. "The flexaton (Musical saw) part in Shostakovich's opera 'The nose'", Singende-Saege.com.
  20. ^ Micada, Katharina. "The flexaton (Musical saw) part in Khachaturian's piano concerto", Singende-Saege.com.
  21. ^ Clements, Andrew (2014). "LPO/Vänskä – review", TheGuardian.com. "The piece is memorable for including a musical saw in the slow movement..."
  22. ^ Bachmann, Claus-Henning (1961). "Henze: "Elegie für Junge Liebende” Uraufführung bei den Schwetzinger Festspielen", DeGruyter.com (in German). Report of the premiere of "Elegy for young lovers" with mention of the musical saw.
  23. ^ a b c d Holland (2005), p.169.
  24. ^ von Rhein, John (2002). "Gubaidulina: The Canticle of the Sun" review, ChicagoTribune.com.
  25. ^ "Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1985)", MusicSalesClassical.com.
  26. ^ Steinberg, Michael (2000). The Concerto: A Listener's Guide, unpaginated. Oxford University. ISBN 9780190286071.
  27. ^ Lochhead, Judy and Auner, Joseph; eds. (2013). Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, p.134. Routledge. ISBN 9781135717780.
  28. ^ Joseph Henry Auner, Judith Irene Lochhead (2002). Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, p.134. Psychology. ISBN 9780815338192.
  29. ^ a b Holland (2005), p.145.
  30. ^ "The Lighthouse (1979)", MusicSalesClassical.com.
  31. ^ Cody, Judith (2002). Vivian Fine: A Bio-bibliography, p.168. Greenwood. ISBN 9780313254741.
  32. ^ The Race of Life: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  33. ^ Holland (2005), p.103.
  34. ^ Lee, Douglas (2013). Masterworks of 20th-Century Music: The Modern Repertory of the Symphony Orchestra, p.131. Routledge. ISBN 9781136066900.
  35. ^ Holland (2005), p.118.
  36. ^ "Works: Metropolis Symphony (1988-1993)", MichaelDaugherty.net.
  37. ^ "Druckman, Jacob: Aureole (1979) 12'", Boosey.com.
  38. ^ Meeting for Equal Rights: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  39. ^ Ma's in Orbit: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  40. ^ Holland (2005), p.125.
  41. ^ a b c "Sofia Gubaidulina", BellPerc.com.
  42. ^ "Figures of Time", Boosey.com.
  43. ^ "Meanwhile", StephenHartke.com. "In the coda [of the final movement], the Flutist and Clarinetist take up Flexatones to play the closing melody."
  44. ^ Holland (2005), p.134.
  45. ^ Daniels, David (2005). Orchestral Music: A Handbook, p.227. ISBN 9781461664253.
  46. ^ "Mackey: Eating Greens", SFSymphony.org.
  47. ^ "Steven Mackey: Eating Greens", Boosey.com.
  48. ^ "Steven Mackey: It Is Time", Boosey.com.
  49. ^ Holland (2005), p.151.
  50. ^ "Africa: Ceremony, Song, and Ritual". Alfred Music. 1994. Retrieved 17 August 2020.
  51. ^ a b c d Daniels (2005), p.240-2.
  52. ^ "Caroline Mathilde, MaxOpus.com". Archived from the original on 31 January 2007. Retrieved 25 April 2017.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  53. ^ "Caroline Mathilde", MaxOpus.com.
  54. ^ "Cross Lane Fair", MaxOpus.com.
  55. ^ "Peter Maxwell Davies: Stone Litany", Boosey.com.
  56. ^ "Stone Litany", MaxOpus.com.
  57. ^ "Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 5", Boosey.com.
  58. ^ "Time and the Raven", MusicSalesClassical.com. "Very brief flourish from the flamboyant flexatone."
  59. ^ a b Holland (2005), p.159.
  60. ^ Daniels (2005), p.286.
  61. ^ "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics", MusicSalesClassical.com.
  62. ^ "Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra (1985)", MusicSalesClassical.com.
  63. ^ Woodstra, Chris; Brennan, Gerald; and Schrott, Allen; eds. (2005). All Music Guide to Classical Music, p.1180. Hal Leonard. ISBN 9780879308650.
  64. ^ Dixon, Gavin (2016). Schnittke Studies, unpaginated. "The flexatone is a percussion instrument, only seldom used in classical music...often in satirical and groteque musical contexts." Routledge. ISBN 9781317059226.
  65. ^ Daniels (2005), p.335.
  66. ^ BBC (1973). The Listener, Vol. 89, p.191. BBC.
  67. ^ Albright, Daniel; ed. (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources, p.194. "Genesis 1:3. In Kol Nidre (1938), Schoenberg set the words 'Let there be light' to an amazing sound flash from a flexatone." University of Chicago. ISBN 9780226012674.
  68. ^ Holland (2005), p.171.
  69. ^ "The New Babylon", MusicSalesClassical.com.
  70. ^ "The Bedbug", MusicSalesClassical.com.
  71. ^ Daniels (2005), p.399.
  72. ^ "The Consolations of Scholarship", MusicSalesClassical.com.
  73. ^ "Weather Report (1971) | The Weather Report Annotated Discography". www.weatherreportdiscography.org. Retrieved 1 June 2018.
  74. ^ "Sweetnighter | The Weather Report Annotated Discography". www.weatherreportdiscography.org. Retrieved 1 June 2018.
  75. ^ "Mysterious Traveller | The Weather Report Annotated Discography". www.weatherreportdiscography.org. Retrieved 1 June 2018.
  76. ^ "Tale Spinnin' | The Weather Report Annotated Discography". www.weatherreportdiscography.org. Retrieved 1 June 2018.
  77. ^ (1989). Jazz Journal International, p.32. Billboard.
  78. ^ Girsberger, Russ (2004). Percussion Assignments for Band & Wind Ensemble: A - K, p.88. ISBN 9781574630305.
  79. ^ Thorn, Jesse (14 October 2014). "DJ Quik". Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (Podcast). Maximum Fun. Event occurs at 47:01. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  80. ^ Moehn, Frederick (2012). Contemporary Carioca: Technologies of Mixing in a Brazilian Music Scene, p.160. Duke University. ISBN 9780822351559.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rossing, Thomas D. (2000). Science of Percussion Instruments, p. 105. ISBN 9789810241582.