History and Types of Flutes: All you need to know

Flutes are one of the earliest known musical instruments. Flutes differ greatly by time period, culture, and geographic region. Some flutes are played while being held horizontally; others are played vertically. Some flutes are shaped like tubes, while others are oval. There are metal flutes, wooden flutes, flutes made from bone or antler, and even ceramic flutes.

The instrument flute is defined as any instrument that has an air column restrained in a hollow body. The body of the instrument may be one single column, several columns tied together, or even shaped like a bowl or ball. Flutes produce sound when airstrikes against the edge of an opening. This generates what music experts refer to as an edge tone.

One of the earliest flutes dates to between 35,000 and 43,000 years ago. It was in Southern Germany by Professor Nicolas Conrad and his team of archaeologists. The flute was about 8 1/2 inches long, less than 1/2 inch wide, and made from the hollow bones of a vulture. Into the bone were carved 5 holes and a V-shaped notch. It’s believed the notch was used to blow into the instrument, and the 5 holes allowed for pitch changes. Scientists named this flute the Hohle Fels Griffon Vulture flute. You can learn more about how this flute was discovered in this YouTube Video, Hohle Fels Cave flute — Music History Crash Course.

Types of Flutes

Each culture seems to have its own type of flute. Some are open on the end, while others use a closed system. Some flutes are held horizontally, others are held vertically. The one thing they all have in common is the manner in which sound is produced.

Flutes produce sound when air is blown against or over a hard edge. There are three main ways to accomplish this.

End Blown Flutes

End-blown flutes are held vertically, at an angle to the body, similar to the way a clarinet is played. To produce sound, the musician directs a stream of air against a sharp edge on the upper end of the instrument. This type of flute is not well known in the United States but is common in other parts of the world.

Ney

The ney is one of the oldest musical instruments still used today. Estimates place the ney in common use up to 5000 years ago. Historically there are many types of neys. Their use is documented all over the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. There are paintings of a ney in Egyptian tombs, as well as in ancient Persian art. The ney is also used in traditional Turkish and Sufi music.

Most neys have six or seven tone holes.

Neys are made of different materials, depending on the culture. Common materials used to make neys include:

  • Wood
  • Reed
  • Eagle bone
  • Cane

The range and pitch of this flute also vary by culture. In many cultures, neys are made in a variety of sizes and musical keys to cover a wide chromatic range. Most professional players own a full set of neys in different keys.

The ney is used in modern music as well. One of the best-known ney players is a Turkish musician named Hakan Menguc. You can hear him play Sufi music on the ney in this YouTube Video.

Svirel

This is an old Russian instrument. The earliest svirel uncovered by archaeologists is dated to the 11th century. It was found in Old Novogorod during an excavation between 1951 and 1962. The flute is about 9 inches (22.5cm) long and has four finger holes. Originally this flute was made from hollow reed or tree branches.

Modern Svirels are made from wood. Typically ash, maple, hazel, bird cherry, or buckthorn is used. Today’s svirels have six holes and come in single or double pipes. Double svirel pipes consist of 2 svirels of different lengths, and bore sizes played together. The big pipe ranges from 29 to 47 centimeters long. The small pipe is between 22 and 25 cm. They use both pipes together so that one musician can play two melodies. The double svirel was introduced to Russian orchestras by Vasily Andreyev in the early 20th century.

Ancient svirel were end-blown flutes. However, some modern instruments are fipple flutes. You can hear a recording of a handmade svirel in this video from Harmony Flute.

Kaval or Caval

The kaval is an end-blown flute from Northern Greece, Turkey, Armenia, and other countries in the Balkan Peninsula. This includes Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Macedonia.

The kaval is open at both ends and has 8 tone holes. Many Kavels include 4 intonation holes at the bottom of the flute, which are not used to change notes.

Modern Kavals are made from wood, water buffalo horns, metal, and plastic. They play two octaves and have a warm sound. The instrument varies widely in length, pitch, and key depending on the country where it’s made and the type of music to be played.

Xiao

The xiao is an ancient Chinese instrument. There are ceramic statues of xiao musicians that date back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (22-220 AD).

It’s made of bamboo, and sound is made by blowing over the blowhole, similar to making a sound with an empty bottle.

The modern xiao is most commonly pitched in the key of G. Although you can also find them in the key of F. Traditional xiao have 6 holes, and modern ones have 8. They range in length from 45 centimeters to over 1 meter.

Fuke Shakuhachi

The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown flute developed in the 16th century. It became popular during Japan’s Edo period, or between 1603 and 1867.

Traditionally the Shakuhachi is made from bamboo, but modern instruments are also made from hardwood and a thermoplastic polymer called ABS. They come in a variety of sizes, the smallest of which is 54.54 centimeters.

In Japan, these instruments are used for Zen, jazz, folk, and ensemble music. The shakuhachi is used in music outside of Japan; as well some notable pieces that include this flute are:

  • Save a Prayer by Duran Duran on the Rio album —1982
  • Ride Across the River, by Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms Album 1985
  • Wake Up, Stop Dreaming on the album To Live and Die In L.A, by Wang Chung 1985
  • Can I Touch You… There? Greatest Hits album, Michael Bolton, 1995

Pan pipes or Pan Flute

This is probably the most widely recognized type of end-blown flute in the United States. In the U.S., pan pipes can be found at fairs, Native American demonstrations, schools, and music stores. They are mostly used to teach simple music to children. However, in other parts of the world, they are used in traditional, meditative, and folk music.

Pan pipes are several closed tubes of different lengths that are tied together. The shorter tubes produce higher notes, while the longer tubes give lower notes. Sound is produced by blowing over the top of the open end of the pipe, just like you blow over a soda bottle to make a sound.

Pan pipes are made of bamboo, cane, or reeds. Modern pan pipes can be made from plastic, wood, metal, or ivory.

Pan pipes are an ancient flute. They are depicted in the Greek statue Pan and Daphnis from the 2nd century BC.

Giorgi Flutes

The Giorgi flute was patented in 1897. The standard version of this flute had no keys. However, the original patent does allow for the addition of keys as an option. The Giorgi flute had precise intonation, allowing the musician to play chromatically, with all notes in tune, just like the Boehm system flute. Unlike the Boehm flute, Giorgi’s flute was an end-blown flute. Today, these flutes are difficult to find outside museums and private collections.

Fipple Flutes

Fipple Flutes

Fipple flutes are end-blown flutes that produce sound by directing airflow through a duct near the mouthpiece. The duct is called a fipple. The oldest fipple flute was found in Slovenia. Archeologists believe it was a Neanderthal instrument, and it dates from 81,000 to 53,000 BC.

You probably have never heard of a flipple flute, but most people throughout the world are familiar with them. Here are some common examples:

Tin Whistle or Penny Whistle

Tin whistles are used in Celtic music. It’s believed that the oldest fipple flutes found are of the tin whistle type. These early whistles were made of bone or clay. Today they are made of wood, tin, plastic, or other metals.

Recorder

Today, recorders are associated with elementary school music classes, but they were prominent instruments during the Middle Ages. Recorders come in a wide variety of sizes that produce sounds from bass to soprano.

Pipe organ

Pipe organs produce sound by pushing air through a fipple. If you look at the pipes closely, you can usually see the fipple.

Ocarina

The earliest ocarina dates back to more than 12,000 years ago. It’s believed these closed flutes were developed in ancient China. They are typically made of clay or ceramic but can be made of other materials. If you play the Legend of Zelda games, then you’re familiar with the ocarina.

Slide whistle

Unlike most instruments in the flute family, the slide whistle changes pitch when the player moves a small plunger down the bore of the instrument. Most people think of slide whistles as a kids’ toy, but they have been used in recorded music. Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, Gavin Gordon, Maurice Ravel, and Paul “Hezzie” Trietsch are all known to use the slide whistle in their music on occasion.

Native American Flute

Native American flutes differ by geographical location and tribe. Traditional Native American flutes are made from wood, clay, bamboo, saw grass, or river cane.

Transverse or Side Blown Flutes

Transverse flutes are held horizontally to the ground instead of vertically, like a clarinet. The most common transverse flute is the modern concert flute.

Meyer flutes

These flutes were popular in the mid 19th century. These flutes were originally built by Heinrich Friedrich Meyer (1814-1897). They were made from wood and had eleven or twelve keys on the standard flute, and 6 keys on a piccolo. The head joint (mouthpiece) was usually made from ivory lined with metal. Some models had wood head joints. One of the standard features on the Meyer flutes was the angled G# key. The Meyer flute included a key on the side for low B, and a second key for Bb, as well as a second key for high e to d trills. Meyer flutes were common at the end of the 19th century, but are not used today.

Western Concert Flutes

The Flute and Flute Playing

Also called Boehm System flutes, these are the flutes most Western music lovers are used to seeing. They are used in school bands, marching bands, orchestras, chamber music, jazz music around the world. Most concert flutes are made from nickel, silver, and silver-plated brass. Professional level Boehm flutes are sometimes made from gold, platinum, or African Blackwood.

The concert flute evolved from a flute used in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine flute was brought to France and Germany. It was used in court and secular music. People started referring to this flute as the German Flute.

The first evidence of the transverse flute being used in serious music was in 1285. Court musician, composer, and the favorite of Henry III, Duke of Brabant, Adenes La Roi, played transverse flute in court performances.

There is little mention of the transverse flute again until the late 1400s.

In the 1470s, the Swiss army is documented as using transverse flutes to signal troops. This led to the wide use of the instrument. By the late 1500s, flutes were commonly used in courts and music for theater. Flute solos became popular with royalty and the common people. After the 1500s, chamber ensembles began, including the transverse flute as a tenor voice. Flutes of this era came in a variety of bore sizes and lengths. They were typically made in one piece and had a cylindrical bore. These instruments had a limited range and a soft sound that did not carry well against other instruments of the time.

During the Baroque Era (roughly 1600-1750), the transverse flute was redesigned. The bore was now conical, and the instrument was now made in 3 or 4 sections, also called joints. The reasons and people behind these changes are largely unknown. The flutes of this era had no keys. Some sources credit Hotteterre for redesigning the transverse flute, but there is no historical evidence. Regardless of who altered the flute, the result was an instrument with a wider range and sound that carried well. The redesigned flute was able to penetrate through other instruments and blended well in ensembles.

Baroque Era flutes became popular in a wide variety of music. Ballet, chamber music, and opera began using the transverse flute regularly. Influential composers of the time included the instrument in their pieces. Examples of early composers and pieces that used the transverse flute include:

  • Frederick The Great (1712-1786) — The King of Prussia played transverse flute, and wrote over one hundred sonatas for flute, 4 flute and string concertos, and 7 arias.
  • Praetorius (1571-1621)
  • Handel (1685-1759)
  • Schutz (1585-1672)
    Vivaldi (1678-1741)
  • Philippe Rebille dit Philbert (1639-1717) French flutist. He developed the single-key flute around 1667. Rebille was a court musician for King Louis XIV of France
  • Michel Blavet (1700-1768) was a French transverse flute virtuoso and composer. Blavet held his flute pointing to the left. This is the opposite of how most flute players hold their instruments. He published a book of six flute sonatas titled Six Sonatas for Two Flutes Without Bass, Opus 1 in 1728, and Six Sonatas for Flute and Continuo, Op 2 in 1732.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
  • Quantz Essay of a Method of Playing the Transverse Flute
  • Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) German musician and composer. He played flute, oboe, violin, viola, recorder, and double bass. Paris Quartets was published in 1730 is one of many of his pieces that featured the transverse flute.
  • Jacques-Martin Hotteterre (1674-1763) was a French flute player and chamber musician for the King of France. Hotteterre also played transverse flute in the Paris Grand Opera. He was one of the first flutists to play for an orchestra. He wrote the first method book for transverse flute in 1707. It was titled Principes de le flute tranversiere. He wrote several solo, instructional, and ensemble pieces for transverse flute as well.

In the 19th Century, Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) started making flutes. His first flutes were the standard wooden, keyless models of the time. Boehm was a sought-after flute player, well-known composer, and court musician.

Boehm had worked as a goldsmith, so he was very experienced with the art of manipulating metal. He studied acoustics at the University of Munich. He combined these two interests to improve the sound quality and playability of the flute. Boehm developed a flute with movable tone holes so that he could determine the best placement of each hole for the best intonation possible. He created the tone hole, pad, and keywork system that is still used on modern flutes today. Boehm patented his flute system in 1847. His book The Flute and Flute-Playing was originally published in 1871.

Boehm’s original key system has been changed slightly over the years. The bore of the modern flute is now straight, and slight changes have been made to the head joint (mouthpiece). Concert flutes are made of various types of metal instead of wood. However, the Boehm system is still considered the most effective fingering system ever developed.

In 1950 Albert Cooper (1924-2011) modified the Boehm system slightly. In keeping with changes in the musical tuning of the time, Cooper tuned the Boehm flute to the new standard of A440. Cooper also re-cut the embouchure hole in the flute head joint to alter the timbre of the instrument.

Types of Modern Concert Flutes

The modern concert flute is made in several keys and sizes in order to reach a wide variety of pitches.

Piccolo

The piccolo is the smallest member of the flute concert flutes. It features the same fingerings as the standard concert flute, making it easy for flutists to switch back and forth. Piccolo has a range from D5 to C8, and it sounds one octave higher than written. Piccolos are commonly used in marching bands, orchestras, and some chamber music. Modern piccolos are tuned to the key of C. In the early 20th century, some piccolos were tuned to Db. The piccolo solo in The Stars and Stripes Forever by John Phillip Sousa was written for the Db piccolo.

Treble Flute

Pitched in the key of G, the treble flute is a fifth above the standard concert flute and has the same range as a piccolo. Treble flutes are used in Northern Ireland and Scotland as a replacement for the simple system flutes traditionally used in those countries, but they are not common anywhere else. The 1891 opera Ivanhoe by Sir Author Sullivan used treble flute.

Soprano Flute

This flute is difficult to find today. It’s pitched in the key of Eb. Historically the soprano flute was a common replacement for the Eb clarinet. Today, the Eb is much more commonly used.

Concert flute

This is the flute typically used in orchestras, bands, and other ensembles. It’s pitched in the key of C and has a range from Middle C to D7. Some concert flutes come with a B foot which extends the range down to B3.

Flute d’amour/Tenor Flute

This uncommon flute is pitched in either Ab, A, or Bb. This flute is not used in modern music at all. Modern orchestra instruments are tuned to 440 HZ, the Flute d’amour is a Middle Ages instrument, and its tuning was never updated to modern standardization. The last piece written for this instrument was O Swallow for flute d’amore (A) and Piano by Stephen Dodgson. The sound of a flute d’amour has a different timbre than a modern flute. Some describe it as “haunting.” You can listen to its unique sound on a YouTube video titled Flouto d’ Amore Music for Flauto d’amore and piano.

Alto flute

Alto flute is the third most commonly used flute, after the concert flute and piccolo. You have probably seen it in orchestras and flute choirs. The alto flute has a longer bore and is longer than the standard concert flute. The difference in size gives the alto flute a lower range than the concert flute. Alto flute was Theobald Boehm’s favorite flute. This flute has a range of G3 to Db7. It is pitched in the key of G. Because the alto flute is longer than the concert flute, some models come with a curved head to make playing easier.

Bass flute

Bass flutes are pitched in the key of C and sound one octave below the concert flute. The range of a bass flute is from C1 to C6 and sounds one octave below what is written. They are about 57 inches long and are typically played with a curved head joint. Bass flutes are primarily used with flute choirs. Here is a YouTube of Moon River being played on bass flute.

Contra-alto flute

Contra-alto flutes come in two varieties. They can be pitched in the key of G, or the key of F. Contra-alto flutes are not widely used, and there are only a few companies that make them. This one was made by Eva Kingma in the Neverlands.

Contrabass

The contrabass flute is even rarer than the contra-alto. It is pitched 2 octaves lower than a concert flute, and it is the key of C. Contrabass flute has the same range as the concert flute and is available with a B foot, as well. There are a few modern musicians who use the contrabass flute, including Vinny Golia on his CD Music for Like Instruments.

Like the contra-alto, the contrabass flute is only made by a few companies. A student model will cost about $24,000. One Dutch flute maker named Jelle Hogenhuis has created a contrabass flute from PVC pipe. Using PVC pipe reduces the cost of the instrument, makes the flute louder, and is more durable than the typical contrabass flute made from metal. Here’s a fun video of Dirko Juchem playing the contrabass flute in a blues group.

Subcontrabass flute

This large flute is over 15 feet long and has a bore size of about 3 inches. It’s usually pitched in the key of G. The subcontrabass flute has a range of about 2 1/2 octaves. These flutes are not widely available and have to be custom ordered. They are made of either metal or PVC pipes. They are used exclusively in flute choirs. You can watch the Florida Flute Orchestra perform Tico Tico No Fuba.

Double contrabass

This rare flute is made of PVC pipe. It is the largest and lowest-pitched flute. It’s 18 feet long. Double contrabass flute sounds 3 octaves below the concert flute. The lowest note on this instrument is one full octave below the cello’s lowest C.

FAQ

Question: Who invented the flute?

Answer: The very first flute was made by prehistoric people. The oldest flute found is dated to about 43,000 years ago. It was made from bone and ivory.
The modern concert flute was developed by Theobald Boehm. Boehm was a flute player from Bavaria, Germany. While he didn’t invent the very first flute, he did develop the instrument we play in orchestras and bands today.

Question: Where did the flute originally come from?

Answer: Oldest flutes that have been found date back to between 43,000 and 35,000 years ago. These flutes were found in the Swabian Alps in Germany.
Researchers have found a flute in China that dates to about 900 BC. This ancient Chinese flute is called a ch’ie.

Question: What are flutes made of?

Answer: Modern flutes can be made from many different materials. Copper-nickel, silver, gold, and granadilla wood are the most common flute materials.
Traditional flutes can be made from reed, bone, wood, bamboo, cane, ceramic, plastic, or other materials.

Question: What is a flute player called?

Answer: People who play flute are called flutists or flutists. The difference is usually in geographic location. Occasionally you’ll hear the terms fluter or flutist.

Conclusion

Flutes are one of the oldest known musical instruments. Evidence of flutes has been found as far back as 81,000 BC. This makes flutes the oldest known pitched instruments.

Flutes developed independently across the early human settlements, and today, every culture seems to have its own traditional flute.

Modern orchestral music uses the transverse concert flute. These flutes are popular in Western music.

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