Used in ancient Mexican, Egyptian and Sumerian cultures, the flute is one of the oldest musical instruments. The flute first appeared in Europe in the twelfth century where it was used in military bands and commonly referred to as a fife. This flute was made out of one piece of wood with six evenly spaced finger holes. During the Renaissance and Baroque period, the flute gained status as an artistic instrument and composers ranging from Marais to Bach wrote specifically for the flute. Flutemakers including Hotteterre and Quantz gradually added keys which allowed the performers to open and close remote holes. While the Baroque flute was very popular with amateur performers, it was notoriously out of tune, causing the composer Luigi Cherubini to comment, “the only thing worse than one flute is two.” Throughout the Classical era, keys were added to accommodate technical demands without regard to the overall intonation or higher efficiency. This continued into the nineteenth century, until the German flutemaker and composer Theodore Boehm completely revamped the flute, designing a new scale which improved intonation greatly. He introduced the metal flute in 1847 and it quickly became popular in the Europe and the United States. With minor adjustments, Boehm’s design remains the basis for most flutes made today. Professional flutists today can choose from silver, gold or platinum flutes, which range in price from 8,000 to 25,000 dollars. Silver flutes tend to project better, while gold and platinum offer more tonal possibilities for advanced players. To avoid the expensive cost of professional flutes, students typically play nickel or silver plated instruments, which cost around 400-800 dollars.
The flute is made up of three different sections: the headjoint, middle joint, and footjoint. Players blow into the mouth hole of the headjoint, covering a quarter to a third of the hole with their bottom lip and using the upper lip to blow downward. Because the player does not blow directly into the mouth hole and only a portion of the air creates sound, the flute actually requires more air than any other wind instrument except the tuba. By blowing into the lip hole, the performer creates a vibrating column of air that makes a sound. The pitch of the sound is determined by keys that are depressed and thus change the length of the air column. To articulate notes, the flutist touches the tongue behind the upper teeth, as if saying “too.” The piccolo flute, alto flute and bass flute use all the same fingerings as the “C” flute, respectively sounding an octave higher, a fourth lower and an octave lower.

Today, the flute is often heard in bands, symphony orchestras, chamber groups, and jazz ensembles. After the piccolo, the flute has the highest range of all the woodwind instruments, with the ability to play from “b” to “e4” over three octaves higher. Composers often showcase the flute’s lyrical quality with singing melodies such as the solo from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Likewise, the flute is capable of virtuosic technical flourishes as heard in Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint Saen’s Carnival of the Animals. In both of these works, the flute is cast as a “bird,” thus combining both its singing and flashy qualities. The flute is also featured with prominent solos in orchestral works by Debussy, Ravel, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Dvorak. Regarding solo repertoire, flutists inherited Baroque sonatas by Telemann, Handel and Bach, along with several Mozart concertos, countless French nineteenth-century showpieces, and notable twentieth-century works by Hindemith, Varese and Prokofieff. Prominent flutists include James Galway, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Jeannie Baxtresser, Emannuel Pahud and Jacques Zoon.

  • Joseph G

    To any randos that find this. I love the quote “What’s worse than a flute? Two Flutes!”. Sadly this article uses it in the wrong context I believe. To anyone that curious I believe the real reason this quote exists is because difference tones. Because flutes produce an almost pure tone with very little overtones, they tend to create a third difference tone. If they played perfectly the same tone they would sound fine but any difference even to the extream of 1 hz and you get an ugly sound. 🙂 Just another reason to love the flute.