The Western concert flute or C flute (most flutes are tuned to the key of C) is a popular transverse side-blown musical instrument made of metal. It is the most common variant of the flute, an instrument of the woodwind family. It is recognisable by its clean, pure sound. A musician who plays the flute is generally called a flautist, flutist, or flute player.
Thousands of works have been composed for flute. Other types of flute exist. Uncommon varieties are the alto and bass flute. Contra-alto flutes and Contrabass flutes are rarer; the latter is only available from certain flute makers. The other varieties of flute are excessively rare, with only four double contrabass flutes and only one hyperbass flute in the world. Flutes are used in many ensembles including concert bands, orchestras, flute ensembles, occasionally jazz bands and big bands.
The standard concert flute is pitched in C and has a range of about three and a half octaves starting from the musical note C4 (corresponding to middle C on the piano), however, some experienced flautists are able to reach C8. Modern professional flutes may have a longer B-foot joint, which can reach B3.
The piccolo is a small flute commonly used in Western orchestras. It is usually pitched an octave above the concert flute. Alto and bass flutes, pitched a fourth and an octave below the concert flute, are used occasionally. Music for the alto flute (which is in G) is more common than for the bass. Many other sizes of flute and piccolo are used from time to time. A much less common instrument in this pitching system is the treble G flute. An older pitching system, used principally in older wind-band music, includes D-flat piccolos, E-flat soprano flutes (the primary instrument, equivalent to today's concert C flutes), F alto flutes, and B-flat bass flutes.
The modern professional concert flute is generally made of silver, gold, or combinations of the two. Student instruments are usually made of nickel silver, or silver-plated brass. Wooden flutes and headjoints are more widely available than in the past. Piccolos are often constructed with head and body of different materials (which may be seen as an unfavorable construction), or out of wood (often grenadilla)
Some jazz and rock ensembles include flutes. Since 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. Jethro Tull is probably the best-known rock group using a flute (played by Ian Anderson). A smaller and deeper-sounding instrument has been born of this use, the jazz-flute, which is typically used in these sorts of performances where deep tones and resonance is favored over the traditional classical sounds associated with the flute.
The flute is usually held with three points of pressure between the lower lip, base of left index finger, and right thumb.
Flutes have rather complicated sets of fingerings to produce each note, as compared to the piano, which has one key per note. Flutes often have some of the most rapidly changing parts in orchestral music. To become able to play these parts, it is generally advised that flute players practice complex scales and arpeggios in different modes and keys.
More advanced flute-players can also employ vibrato. When playing with vibrato, a player varies the amount of air blown through the instrument at a rapid rate to create a wobble in the pitch and amplitude of the tone. Most classical and some jazz flute players tend to play with a continuous vibrato, though the amount and speed of vibrato can be altered for expressive purposes. Many purists contend that Baroque music should be played without vibrato, or with vibrato only on certain notes. More specifically, most flute methods from that period call for vibrati - a finger vibrato - rather than a vibrato of breath pulsations. Eventually, when the breath attacks are too fast to be counted as separate notes, they become an instant though not yet subtle vibrato.
In outdoor playing, wind can "blow out" players' embouchures, causing the air stream to become misplaced. It is normal practice for the piccolo and flute players of a marching band to face away from the wind in heavy weather.
A maladjusted flute will not play well. Loose keys caused by loose screws or wear in the key shafts make clicking noises and cause pad alignment problems and leaks. Old pads can rot and leak, making it impossible to play certain notes. Rough handling can bend the keys and make them leak. The return springs can be dislodged or break, preventing opening or closure of the keys depending on if they are normally closed or normally open keys. Occasionally the alignment pins can fall out.
The modern professional concert flute is generally made of silver, gold (both yellow and rose), or combinations of the two; a few of the most expensive flutes are fabricated from platinum. Student instruments are usually made of nickel-silver alloy, composed of nickel, copper, and zinc, (also known as "German silver") or nickel- or silver-plated brass. Curved head joints are also available for student flutes, enabling children as young as 3 years old, whose arms are not yet long enough to adapt to the standard horizontal playing position, to successfully hold and play the flute. Wooden flutes and head joints have a warmer, softer tone which is more desirable to some people than the brighter sound of metal-bodied flutes. The less highly polished bores of wooden flutes tend to darken the timbre. Wooden flutes were far more common before the early 20th century. The silver flute was introduced by Theobald Boehm in 1847 but did not become common until later in the twentieth century. Wm. S. Haynes, a flute manufacturer in Boston, told Georges Barrere, an eminent flutist, 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. Today the silver flute is still far more popular than the wooden flute and is accepted as the standard in most symphony orchestras.
The modern concert flute comes with various options. The Bb thumb key (invented and pioneered by Briccialdi) is practically standard. The B foot joint, however, is an option available on middle-to-upper end models. Other, more recent additions include a C#-trill key, and an increasingly popular roller between the Eb-key and the C#-key.
Open-hole "French model" flutes, whose central openings are covered by the fingertips when depressed, are frequently chosen by concert-level players, though in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe, professionals commonly select ones with closed-hole "plateau" keys. Students may use temporary plugs to cover the holes in the keys until they master the more precise finger placement needed to play open-hole keys. Some players state that open-hole keys permit louder and clearer sound projection in the flute's lower register.
Open-hole keys are also needed for traditional Celtic music and other ethnic styles, and certain modern "extended" avant garde pieces requiring the player to produce harmonic overtones, or to manipulate "breathy" sounds in addition to the traditional "pure" tones. Also, on an open-hole flute, "quarter tones", which fall halfway between the regular halftone steps of the chromatic scale, are achievable.
To play the Western concert flute, one holds the flute in a horizontal position, and blows transversely across the hole in the head joint. To play individual notes, one depresses the keys of the flute in distinct combinations fingerings However, in addition to the standard finger patterns, there are a number of alternate "trill" fingerings, employing a combination of open and closed keys, and auxiliary "trill" keys (which are normally kept closed by springs until depressed), that can assist one in playing difficult passages, or in compensating for the perceived out-of-tuneness of certain notes of the equal-tempered scale in a given key.
The standard range of the concert flute extends from B3 to D7, sometimes to F7. There is an additional octave above C7 known as the altissimo register, which reaches C8, but its usage is rare, required only in advanced musical pieces, as this upper range demands fine breath control and exacting embouchure technique to produce.
During the 16th and early 17th centuries in Europe, the transverse flute was available in several different sizes, in effect forming a consort much in the same way that recorders and other instrument families were used in consorts. At this stage, the transverse flute was usually made in one section (or two for the larger sizes) and had a cylindrical bore. As a result, this flute had a rather soft sound and limited range, and was used primarily in compositions for the "soft consort".
During the Baroque period, the transverse flute was re-designed. Now often called the traverso (from the Italian), it was made in three or four sections, or joints, with a conical bore from the head joint down. The conical bore design gave the instrument a wider range and a more penetrating sound, without sacrificing the softer, expressive qualities of the instrument. In addition to chamber music, the traverso began to be used in orchestral music.
In the baroque era, flutes become used in the scores of opera, ballet and chamber music. With this, composers now wrote music for the flute. These included Praetorius, Schütz, Rebillé and Descoteaux, Bach, Telemann, Blavet, Vivaldi and Handel.
Because of the works of such composers, the flute was becoming popular as a solo instrument. However there were few professional flutists who had the instrument as their main instrument (many had oboe as their main instrument). In 1707, Jacques Martin Hotteterre wrote the first method book on playing the flute: Principes de la flûte traversière. The 1730s brought an increase in operatic and chamber music feature of flutes. The end of this era found the publication of Essay of a Method of Playing the Transverse Flute by Quantz, considered the greatest exposition on flute method of its time.orchestras being formed, and the flute being a member thereof, featured in symphonies and concertos. Throughout the rest of the century the interest in flutes increased, and peaked in the early half of the 1800s. Friedrich Dülon was the flutist considered a great artist, and Theobald Boehm began flute making. The style of flutist changed during the classical era; keys were added to the flute to strengthen its lower register, used by all professional flutists.
With the romantic era, flutes begin to lose favor. Symphony Orchestras featured brass and strings more, and many musicians did not accept Boehm’s new flute design, however they would slowly win favor throughout Europe as the century wore on, until the end of the century brought a flute revival spurred by artists such as Debussy, when the Boehm flute had won favor. The early 19th century saw a great variety in flute designs. Conical bores giving a penetrating sound were used in Vienna, English flutes had a range to low C and played best in flat keys, French flutes gave a softer tone, and German flutes blended best with orchestras.
With the ability to record sound (beginning in the 1890s), flutes begin to regain their favorability, not seen since the classical era. Recordings of flute music became increasingly common, with professional flautists spending a great deal of time recording music. Beginning in the 1970s, models of alto and bass flutes were invented for modern music and flute ensembles. In the 1990s, the French model replaced the previously used pre-1940 Boehm model, used by professionals. The 20th century brought the first recordings of Baroque music on modern flutes.
Click here for a picture of the flute family, including their alternate head joints and foot joints.
Each of the above instruments has its own range. The piccolo reads music in C like the concert flute but sounds one octave higher. The alto flute is in the key of G, and extends the low register range of the flute to the G below middle C. Its highest note is a high G (4 ledger lines above the treble clef 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; the soprano flute, between the treble and concert; and the tenor flute or flûte d'amour in Bb or A, 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 sub-bass flute, which is pitched in F, between the bass and contrabass; the subcontrabass flute (pitched in G or C), the contra-alto flute (pitched in G, one octave below the alto), and the double contrabass flute in C, one octave lower than the contrabass. The flute sizes other than the concert flute and piccolo are sometimes called harmony flutes.
Often, a different head can make the flute play like a different flute. Some flute makers sell both end blown heads and transverse heads that can be interchanged. The same flute body can be used as a whistle/recorder style instrument, or as a transverse flute.
The most common mechanical options of flutes are "offset G" keys, "split E" modification, and a "B foot". All of Boehm’s original models had offset G keys, which are mechanically simpler, and permit a more relaxed hand position, especially for younger players. Offset G keys are more common on less-expensive flutes, but available on almost all makes at every level of expense. The in-line G was originally invented because it was easier to manufacture, and was used by the better commercial flutes, though currently even the best of flute makers offer the offset G as an option on their flutes. The split E modification makes the third octave E easier to play for some players, a less expensive option is the "low G insert". The B foot extends the range of the flute down one semitone to B below middle C.
Trill keys permit rapid alternation between two notes. Fingerings using the trill keys also permit a skilled player to reach four octaves of range, though the commonly used range is three octaves. The C# trill key, an increasingly popular option available on many top-end professional flutes, allows many trills and tremolos that would otherwise be difficult or impossible.
Less expensive flutes are usually constructed of silver-plated nickel silver (nickel-bronze bell metal (63%Cu, 29%Zn, 5.5%Ni, 1.25%Ag, 0.75%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%Ag, 5%Cu), "coin silver" (90% silver), or [Britannia silver] (95.8% silver). It is reported that old Louis Lot French flutes have a particular sound by nature of their specific silver alloy. Professionals tend to play more expensive flutes made from more expensive materials.
The tubes are usually drawn, especially in student flute models. Soldered tubes are thought by some to improve tone. Tone-holes may be either drawn or soldered, more often soldered in more expensive instruments. The rest of the mechanism 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.
The head-joint tube is tapered slightly towards the closed end. 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, which vary slightly both between manufactureres and in individual flutes especially where they are hand-made. Head joint geometry appears particularly critical to acoustic performance and tone, but there is no clear consensus on a particular shape amongst manufacturers. Acoustic impedance of the embouchure hole appears the most critical parameter. 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.
Tone holes are stopped by pads constructed of fish skin (gold-beater's skin) over felt, or in some very low-cost or “ruggedized” flutes, silicone rubber. Accurate shimming of pads on professional instruments to ensure pad sealing is very demanding of technician time. In the time-honored method, pads are seated on paper shims sealed with shellac. A recent development is "precision" pads fitted by a factory-trained technician. Student model 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).
Flutes may have open or closed tone holes (ring keys). Student models generally have closed holes for ease of playing. Flutes for more advanced players generally have open-holed, "French" keys in order to facilitate alternate fingerings, "extended techniques" (e.g. quarter-tones, glissando) and multiphonics. Multiphonics and microtones are possible on closed-hole flute, but not on entire register and are hard to get; glissandos are limited to half tone only in this kind of flute). Many flute-players prefer these open-hole keys (some say that open-holes create a better projection of the sound). Closed holes permit a more relaxed hand position for some players, which can help their playing. Plugs can be used to seal off the open holes of learning students.
Flutes' key axles are typically made of drill rod steel or stainless steel. Flutes' steel axles and mechanisms need periodic cleaning and relubrication for optimal performance. Trained technicians are skilled at this. Oil should only be applied to a disassembled flute. (James Phelan, a flute maker and engineer, recommends single-weight motor oil SAE 20 or SAE 30 as a key lubricant for superior performance and reduced wear, in preference to commercially available "key oil".)
Most flute 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 its cost.
Inexpensive Western concert flutes are normally made of brass, polished and then silver-plated and lacquered to prevent corrosion. They can also be made from a range of metals such as silver (Britannia or Sterling); gold (yellow, white, or rose); platinum ; and even alloys. Composites such as Carbon Fiber can be used as well. They can be either gold on the inside and silver on the outside, or vice versa. It is thought that silver flutes create a brighter sound, and gold allows for a darker, more multilayered sound. However, the idea that different materials can significantly affect sound quality is under some contention, and some argue that different metals make no difference whatsoever in sound quality Gold can be more difficult to play, because it requires more expertise in order to create a resonant sound. It is more flexible, but only if the flautist is capable of providing sufficient breath support.
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 instruments are designed to prevent or reduce galvanic corrosion between the tube and the key mechanism. For example, many quality concert flutes have bronze springs.
Flutes can also be made out of wood.
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, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Lloyd and Hubert Laws. Several modal jazz and avant-garde jazz performers have utilized the flute: Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers and James Spaulding. Many saxophonists take up flute as a second instrument, and vice versa.