Western concert flute

Last updated

Flute traversiere.png
Woodwind instrument
Other names
  • Transverse flute
  • Boehm flute
  • C flute
Classification Edge-blown aerophone
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 421.121.12
(open side-blown flute with fingerholes)
Playing range
Western concert flute
Tessitura of the standard C concert flute is C4–C7. Some have a key for low B3.
Related instruments

The Western concert flute is a family of transverse (side-blown) woodwind instruments made of metal or wood. It is the most common variant of the flute. A musician who plays the flute is called a flautist (in British English), flutist (in American English), or simply a flute player. [1]


This type of flute is used in many ensembles, including concert bands, military bands, marching bands, orchestras, flute ensembles, and occasionally jazz bands and big bands. Other flutes in this family include the piccolo, the alto flute, and the bass flute. A large repertory of works has been composed for flute.


The flute is one of the oldest and most widely used wind instruments. [2] The precursors of the modern concert flute were keyless wooden transverse flutes similar to modern fifes. These were later modified to include between one and eight keys for chromatic notes.


A 1911 illustration of a Western Classical Flute Western concert flute.jpg
A 1911 illustration of a Western Classical Flute


A flautist playing a Western concert flute Flute player.jpg
A flautist playing a Western concert flute
A craftsman takes a break and plays his flute. Tvarflojt - 1987.jpg
A craftsman takes a break and plays his flute.

The flute is a transverse (or side-blown) woodwind instrument that is closed at the blown end. It is played by blowing a stream of air over the embouchure hole. The pitch is changed by opening or closing keys that cover circular tone holes (there are typically 16 tone holes). Opening and closing the holes produces higher and lower pitches. Higher pitches can also be achieved through over-blowing, like most other woodwind instruments. The direction and intensity of the airstream also affects the pitch, timbre, and dynamics.

The piccolo is also commonly used in Western orchestras and bands. Alto flutes, pitched a fourth below the standard flute, and bass flutes, an octave below, are also used occasionally.

(B3) C4-C7 (F7) Range flute.png
(B3) C4–C7 (F7)
(B3) C4–C7 (F7)

The standard concert flute, also called C flute, Boehm flute, silver flute, or simply flute, is pitched in C and has a range of about three and a half to four octaves starting from the note C4 (middle C). The flute's highest pitch is usually given as either C7 or (sometimes) D7; however, more experienced flautists are able to reach up to F7. Modern flutes may have a longer foot joint, a B-footjoint, with an extra key to reach B3.

From high to low, the members of the concert flute family include the following:

Each of the above instruments has its own range. The piccolo reads music in C (like the standard flute), but sounds one octave higher. The alto flute is in the key of G, and the low register extends to the G below middle C; its highest note is a high G (4  ledger lines above the treble staff). The bass flute is an octave lower than the concert flute, and the contrabass flute is an octave lower than the bass flute.

Less commonly seen flutes include the treble flute in G, pitched one octave higher than the alto flute; soprano flute, between the treble and concert; and tenor flute or flûte d'amour in B, A or A[ citation needed ] pitched between the concert and alto.

The lowest sizes (larger than the bass flute) have all been developed in the 20th century; these include the contra-alto flute (pitched in G, one octave below the alto), the subcontrabass flute (pitched in G, two octaves below the alto), and the double contrabass flute (pitched in C, one octave below the contrabass). The flute sizes other than the concert flute and piccolo are sometimes called harmony flutes.

Construction and materials

A closed hole beginner Yamaha FL221 flute in case Flute-in-case-takedown.jpg
A closed hole beginner Yamaha FL221 flute in case

Concert flutes have three parts: the headjoint, body, and foot joint. [20] The headjoint is sealed by a cork (or plug that may be made out of various plastics, metals, or less commonly woods). It is possible to make fine adjustments to tuning by adjusting the headjoint cork, but usually it is left in the factory-recommended position around 17.3 mm (0.68 in) from the centre of the embouchure hole for best scale. Gross, temporary adjustments of pitch are made by moving the headjoint in and out of the headjoint tenon. The flautist makes fine or rapid adjustments of pitch and timbre by adjusting the embouchure and/or position of the flute in relation to himself or herself, i.e., side and out.

Labelled parts of a French model (open-hole) flute with a B-foot joint. Flute parts illustration.svg
Labelled parts of a French model (open-hole) flute with a B-foot joint.

Head joint shape

Close-up of part of the body and the C-foot joint. The instrument features plateau keys with Y-arms, trill keys, and soldered tone holes. The image depicts the D-key adjustment screw, and needle springs. Flute with musicial notes.jpg
Close-up of part of the body and the C-foot joint. The instrument features plateau keys with Y-arms, trill keys, and soldered tone holes. The image depicts the D-key adjustment screw, and needle springs.

The head-joint tube is tapered slightly towards the closed end. Theobald Boehm described the shape of the taper as parabolic. Examination of his flutes did not reveal a true parabolic curve, but the taper is more complex than a truncated cone. The head joint is the most difficult part to construct because the lip plate and tone hole have critical dimensions, edges, and angles that vary slightly between manufacturers and in individual flutes, especially where they are handmade. Head joint geometry appears particularly critical to acoustic performance and tone, [22] but there is no clear consensus on a particular shape amongst manufacturers. Acoustic impedance of the embouchure hole appears the most critical parameter. [23] Critical variables affecting this acoustic impedance include: chimney length (hole between lip-plate and head tube), chimney diameter, and radiuses or curvature of the ends of the chimney. Generally, the shorter the hole, the more quickly a flute can be played; the longer the hole, the more complex the tone. Finding a particularly good example of a flute is dependent on play-testing. Head joint upgrades are usually suggested as a way to improve the tone of an instrument.

Cheaper student models may be purchased with a curved head to allow younger children with shorter arms to play them. [24]

Tubing materials

Less expensive flutes are usually constructed of brass, polished and then silver-plated and lacquered to prevent corrosion, or silver-plated nickel silver (nickel-bronze bell metal, 63% Cu, 29% Zn, 5.5% Ni, 1.25% Ag, .75% Pb, alloyed As, Sb, Fe, Sn). Flutes that are more expensive are usually made of more precious metals, most commonly solid sterling silver (92.5% silver), and other alloys including French silver (95% silver, 5% copper), "coin silver" (90% silver), or Britannia silver (95.8% silver). It is reported [25] that old Louis Lot French flutes have a particular sound by nature of their specific silver alloy. Gold/silver flutes are even more expensive. They can be either gold on the inside and silver on the outside, or vice versa. All-gold and all-platinum flutes also exist. Flutes can also be made out of wood, with African blackwood (grenadilla or Dalbergia melanoxylon ) being the most common today. Cocuswood was formerly used, but this is hard to obtain today. [26] Wooden flutes were far more common before the early 20th century. The silver flute was introduced by Boehm in 1847, but did not become common until later in the 20th century. William S. Haynes, a flute manufacturer in Boston, Massachusetts, United States, told Georges Barrère that in 1905 he made one silver flute to every 100 wooden flutes, but in the 1930s, he made one wooden flute to every 100 silver flutes. [27]

Unusual tubing materials include glass, carbon fiber, and palladium. [28]

Professionals tend to play more expensive flutes. However, the idea that different materials can significantly affect sound quality is under some contention, and some argue that different metals make less difference in sound quality than different flautists playing the same flute. Even Verne Q. Powell, a flute-maker, admitted (in Needed: A Gold Flute or a Gold Lip? [29] ) that "As far as tone is concerned, I contend that 90 percent of it is the man behind the flute".

Most metal flutes are made of alloys that contain significant amounts of copper or silver. These alloys are biostatic because of the oligodynamic effect and thus suppress growth of unpleasant molds, fungi, and bacteria.

Good quality flutes are designed to prevent or reduce galvanic corrosion between the tube and key mechanism.[ citation needed ]

Pad materials

Tone holes are stopped by pads constructed of fish skin (gold-beater's skin) over felt or silicone rubber on some very low-cost or "ruggedized" flutes. Accurate shimming of pads on professional flutes to ensure pad sealing is very demanding of technician time. In the traditional method, pads are seated on paper shims sealed with shellac. A recent development is "precision" pads fitted by a factory-trained technician. Student flutes are more likely to have pads bedded in thicker materials like wax or hot-melt glue. Larger-sized closed-hole pads are also held in with screws and washers. Synthetic pads appear more water-resistant but may be susceptible to mechanical failure (cracking).[ citation needed ]


The keys can be made of the same or different metals as the tubing, nickel silver keys with silver tubing, for example. Flute key axles (or "steels") are typically made of drill rod or stainless steel. These mechanisms need periodic disassembly, cleaning, and relubrication, typically performed by a trained technician, for optimal performance. James Phelan, a flute maker and engineer, recommends single-weight motor oil (SAE 20 or 30) as a key lubricant demonstrating superior performance and reduced wear, in preference to commercial key oils). [30]

The keywork is constructed by lost-wax castings and machining, with mounting posts and ribs silver-soldered to the tube. On the best flutes, the castings are forged to increase their strength.

Most keys have needle springs made of phosphor bronze, stainless steel, beryllium copper, or a gold alloy. The B thumb keys typically have flat springs. Phosphor bronze is by far the most common material for needle springs because it is relatively inexpensive, makes a good spring, and is resistant to corrosion. Unfortunately, it is prone to metal fatigue. Stainless steel also makes a good spring and is resistant to corrosion. Gold springs are found mostly in high-end flutes because of gold's cost.[ citation needed ]

Mechanical options

Comparison of a C foot and a B foot (right) Yamaha Flute YFL-372 372H foot comparison.tif
Comparison of a C foot and a B foot (right)
B thumb key
The B thumb key (invented and pioneered by Briccialdi) is considered standard today. [31]
Open hole keys versus plateau keys
Open-hole "French model" flutes have circular holes in the centers of five of the keys. [32] These holes are covered by the fingertips when the keys are depressed. Open-hole flutes are frequently chosen by concert-level flautists, although this preference is less prevalent in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Students may use temporary plugs to cover the holes until they can reliably cover the holes with the fingertips. Some flautists claim that open-hole keys permit louder and clearer sound projection in the lower register. Open-hole keys are needed for traditional Celtic music and other ethnic styles and some modern concert pieces that require harmonic overtones or "breathy" sounds. They can also facilitate alternate fingerings, "extended techniques" such as quarter-tones, glissando, and multiphonics. Closed holes (plateau keys) permit a more relaxed hand position for some flautists, which can help their playing.
Offset G versus in-line G keys
All of Boehm's original models had offset G keys, which are mechanically simpler, and permit a more relaxed hand position, especially for flautists with small hands. Some players prefer the hand position of the in-line G. [33] For many years there was a misperception that inline G was for "professional" flutes while offset G was for "student" models, but this stereotype has been largely debunked. [34]
Split E
The split E modification makes the third octave E (E6) easier to play for some flautists. A less expensive option is the "low G insert".
B foot
The B foot extends the range of the flute down one semitone to B3 (the B below middle C).
Gizmo key
Some flutes with a B foot have a "gizmo key": a device that allows closure of the B tone hole independently of the C and C keys. The gizmo key makes C7 easier to play. [35]
Trill keys
The three standard trill keys permit rapid alternation between two notes with disparate standard fingerings: lowest, middle, and highest trill keys ease C–D, C–D, and B–A, respectively. [36] Some higher notes (third-octave B and B and most fourth-octave notes) also require use of the two lower trill keys. A fourth so-called C trill key is an increasingly popular option available on many flutes. It is named after one of its uses, to ease the B to C trill, but it also allows some trills and tremolos that are otherwise very difficult, such as high G to high A. [37] Another way of trilling G6–A6 is a dedicated high G–A trill key. [38]
D roller
Some models offer a D roller option, or even an optional pair of parallel rollers on the D and C keys, that ease motion of the right little finger on, for example, low C to D.
Soldered tone holes
Tone-holes may be either drawn (by pulling the tube material outwards) or soldered (cutting a hole in the tube and soldering an extra ring of material on). Soldered tone-holes are thought by some to improve tone, but generally cost more.
Scale and pitch
The standard pitch has varied widely over history, [39] and this has affected how flutes are made. [17] Although the standard concert pitch today is A4 = 440 Hz, many manufacturers optimize the tone hole size/spacings for higher pitch options such as A4 = 442 Hz or A4 = 444 Hz. (As noted above, adjustments to the pitch of one note, usually the A4 fingering, can be made by moving the headjoint in and out of the headjoint tenon, but the point here is that the mechanical relationship of A4 to all other pitches is set when the tone holes are cut. However, small deviations from the objective 'mechanical' pitch (which is related to acoustic impedance of a given fingering) can be improvised by embouchure adjustments.)


Classical music

An early version of Antonio Vivaldi's La tempesta di mare flute concerto was possibly written around 1713–1716, and would thus have been the first concerto for the instrument, as well as the earliest scoring of a high F6, a problematic note for the Baroque flute of that period. [40]

Pop, jazz, and rock

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull playing a flute Ian Anderson 2.jpg
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull playing a flute

Flutes were rarely used in early jazz. Drummer and bandleader Chick Webb was among the first to use flutes in jazz, beginning in the late 1930s. Frank Wess was among the first noteworthy flautists in jazz, in the 1940s. [41] [ better source needed ] Since Theobald Boehm's fingering is used in saxophones as well as in concert flutes, many flute players "double" on saxophone for jazz and small ensembles and vice versa.

Since 1950, a number of notable performers have used flutes in jazz. Frank Foster and Frank Wess (Basie band), Jerome Richardson (Jones/Lewis big band) and Lew Tabackin (Akiyoshi/Tabackin big band) used flutes in big band contexts. In small band contexts, notable performers included Bud Shank, Herbie Mann, Yusef Lateef, Mélanie De Biasio, Joe Farrell, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Lloyd, Hubert Laws and Moe Koffman. Several modal jazz and avant-garde jazz performers have utilized the flute including Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers and James Spaulding.

Jethro Tull is probably the best-known rock group to make regular use of the flute, which is played by its frontman, Ian Anderson. [42] An alto flute is briefly heard in The Beatles song "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", played by John Scott. The Beatles would later feature a flute more prominently in their single "Penny Lane".

Other groups that have used the flute in pop and rock songs include The Moody Blues, Chicago, Australian groups Men at Work and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, the Canadian progressive rock group Harmonium, Dutch bands Focus and early Golden Earring, and the British groups Traffic, Genesis, Gong (although its flautist/saxophonist Didier Malherbe was French), Hawkwind, King Crimson, Camel, and Van der Graaf Generator.

American singer Lizzo is also well known for playing the flute. Her instrument is named Sasha Flute, which has its own Instagram account. [43]

See also


  1. "Flutist or Flautist – Which is Correct?". Writing Explained. 23 March 2018. Retrieved 19 September 2020.
  2. "Wind instrument - The history of Western wind instruments". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 19 September 2020.
  3. Powell, Ardal, Dr. "Medieval flutes". FluteHistory.com. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  4. Powell, Ardal, Dr. "Military flutes". FluteHistory.com. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  5. Powell, Ardal, Dr. "Renaissance flutes". FluteHistory.com. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Montagu, Jeremy; Brown, Howard Mayer; Frank, Jaap; Powell, Ardal (2001). Flute. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.40569.
  7. 1 2 Reisenweaver, Anna (2011). "The Development of the Flute as a Solo Instrument from the Medieval to the Baroque Era". Musical Offerings. 2 (1): 11–21. doi:10.15385/jmo.2011.2.1.2. ISSN   2330-8206.
  8. 1 2 Powell, Ardal (2001). Transverse flute. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.28275.
  9. Vovelle, Michel (2007). "Variations pour flûte sur la fin des lumières". Annales historiques de la Révolution française. 349 (1): 3–28. doi:10.3406/ahrf.2007.3099. ISSN   0003-4436.
  10. Vervliet, S.; Van Looy, B. (1 May 2010). "Bach's chorus revisited: historically informed performance practice as 'bounded creativity'". Early Music. 38 (2): 205–214. doi:10.1093/em/caq021. ISSN   0306-1078.
  11. "Principes de la flute traversiere ou flute d'Allemagne, de la flute a bec ou flute douce, et du haut-bois, divisez par traitez". Library of Congress. Retrieved 23 February 2022.
  12. 1 2 3 Quantz, Johann Joachim (1966). On playing the flute. Schirmer Books. OCLC   16720371.
  13. Barker, Naomi Joy (2003). Mozart; Handel; Telemann; Bach; Bach, Carl Phillip Emmanuel (eds.). "Baroque Flutes". Early Music. 31 (3): 466–468. doi:10.1093/earlyj/XXXI.3.466. ISSN   0306-1078. JSTOR   3138108.
  14. Powell, Ardal, Dr. "Classical flutes". FluteHistory.com. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  15. "Dorus G# key". Oldflutes.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  16. Powell, Ardal, Dr. "19th Century flutes". FluteHistory.com. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  17. 1 2 "redirector: Larry Krantz Flute Pages". Larrykrantz.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  18. Brögger flutes. Brannenflutes.com. Retrieved 25 February 2011
  19. Brögger system . Miyazawa.com. Retrieved 25 February 2011
  20. "How It's Made - Flute". YouTube. Archived from the original on 17 November 2021. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  21. "How to fix your flute". studentinstruments.com.au. Archived from the original on 25 March 2016. Retrieved 29 May 2016.
  22. Spell, Eldred (1983). "Anatomy of a Headjoint". The Flute Worker. ISSN   0737-8459. Archived from the original on 16 November 2007. Retrieved 3 November 2007.
  23. Wolfe, Joe. "Acoustic impedance of the flute". Flute acoustics: an introduction.
  24. "Curved Head Student Flute by Gear4music". Gear4music. 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  25. Louis Lot Analysis Archived 16 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine . Eldredspellflutes.com. Retrieved 25 February 2011
  26. "Finding Your Flute (How to Choose, Rent, Buy a New or Used Flute)". Markshep.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  27. Goldman, Edwin Franko (1934). Band Betterment. Carl Fischer Inc. New York. p. 33
  28. Toff, Nancy (1996). The flute book: a complete guide for students and performer. Oxford University Press. p. 20. ISBN   978-0-19-510502-5.
  29. Higbee, Dale (1974). "Needed: A Gold Flute or a Gold Lip". Woodwind World. Vol. 13, no. 3. p. 22; quoted in Toff, Nancy (1996). "Chapter 7: Tone". The Flute Book. pp. 89–90. ISBN   9780195105025.
  30. Phelan 2001, p. 58
  31. Toff, Nancy (1996). The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers at Google Books, page 56. New York: Oxford University Press US. ISBN   0-19-510502-8.
  32. "What kind of flute option is best, open or closed hole?". Larrykrantz.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  33. "Which is better, Offset or In-Line G?". Larrykrantz.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  34. "Miyazawa Flutes - Experience The Colors of Sound". Miyazawa.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  35. Nancy Toff (1996). The flute book: a complete guide for students and performers. p. 24. ISBN   978-0-19-510502-5.
  36. "Flute and Piccolo Fingering Charts - The Woodwind Fingering Guide". Wfg.woodwind.org. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  37. Edward Johnson. "The C Trill". Brannenflutes.com.
  38. "Sankyo Flutes, mechanical options". Sankyoflutes.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  39. "redirector: Larry Krantz Flute Pages". Larrykrantz.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  40. Powell, Ardal. "Vivaldi's Flutes: Federico Maria Sardelli, Vivaldi's Music for Flute and Recorder, trans. by Michael Talbot (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)". Early Music 36, no. 1 (February 2008): 120–22.
  41. Scott Yanow: Frank Wess – Biography (at allmusic.com)
  42. "Ian Anderson's equipment, flutes". Jethrotull.com. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  43. Schwartz, Danny (8 February 2019). "Lizzo's Flute, Sasha Flute, Is the Most Legendary Flute of All Time". Vulture. Retrieved 21 January 2022.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Five-key flute</span>

The five-key flute is a musical instrument once common in school marching bands, and composed of wood with metal keys. It is a transposing instrument, most commonly in A, this variant being known as the B flute, named after its lowest note and sounding a minor sixth below the orchestral piccolo. The next most common variants are the E piccolo, sounding a fifth above the B flute, and the F flute, sounding a fifth below the B flute. The E piccolo is used for ornamentation in melodies and the F flute is used as a bass instrument in flute band harmonies. They are now often found in British military corps of drums, often playing various regimental marches.

The western concert flute family has a wide range of instruments.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Nicholson (flautist)</span> English inventor and flautist

Charles Nicholson (1795–1837), was a Liverpool-born flautist and composer, who performed regularly in London. He was soloist at many of the Philharmonic Society Concerts from 1816-1836, and first flautist with the principal theater orchestras. He toured extensively in Britain, but never on the Continent. Besides giving classes to many students, he wrote tutors for flute-playing which were published throughout the 19th century.