Instruments | Flute | Woodwind

The flute most familiar to us from its use in orchestral and solo music is more properly known as a ‘transverse’ or ‘side-blown’ flute.

The flute family is distinct from the other woodwind instruments in that it does not use a reed to generate sound. Instead, a stream of air striking the edge of an opening in the side of a tube agitates the enclosed air column. The pitch of the note is dependent on the length of the air column; therefore, by covering or uncovering holes in the tube, the pitch can be altered.

Origins of the Flute

There are examples of flutes dating back thousands of years. A Paleolithic flute made from a swan’s bone discovered in Geissenklosterle, Germany, is thought to be the most ancient surviving example of any musical instrument, at around 36,000 years old. More direct relations of the modern concert flute are known to have existed in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and by the sixteenth century it had become immensely popular.

Technical Developments

The invention of keys in the seventeenth century began the slow transformation of the flute. Prior to this, the flute was able to produce only a limited number of pitches and could not accurately sound every chromatic degree of the scale. In order to overcome this problem, flutes of different lengths (and therefore capable of sounding different pitches) were used by the same player.

The use of keys, however, enabled the player to cover holes beyond the normal reach of his fingers. At a stroke, the instrument’s compass was extended, its intonation improved, and access to the full chromatic range of pitches was granted.

In spite of this development, there remained a great variety of flute designs – and therefore of performing techniques – divided largely along national lines. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that a design was developed which was good enough to consign all others to a chapter in the history books.

Boehm’s Flute

Theobald Boehm was a goldsmith, flautist and flute maker. His particular revolution was the use of ring keys, in which a ring surrounding a finger hole also operated a second hole, allowing one finger to cover two or more holes simultaneously. Boehm also developed a clear relationship between the size and diameter of the flute and the size and placement of the finger holes, as well as changing from a conically bored to a cylindrically bored instrument. He arrived at his final design in 1847, after many years of experimentation.

Boehm’s developments were not universally accepted. Although many enjoyed the tonal power, secure intonation and agility afforded by the German’s design, others felt that it lacked the subtleties of colour found in older models and were unwilling to learn the new fingering patterns Boehm’s model demanded. Only since the early-twentieth century has the flute conformed to a standard Boehm design. Even now it remains one of the most individual of instruments.

The Modern Flute

The basic design of the modern...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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