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Woodwind Instruments - An Overview | Unusual Musical Instruments

An unusual flute player

Flutes are musical instruments from which a note is produced by the player blowing against a hard edge at one end of a hollow tube. The term can be used in a general way for the whole family of instruments, such as panpipes, recorders and shakuhachis. However, the normal use of the word 'flute' in English is for the 'transverse flute', which is the type where the tube is held horizontally across the player's body. One end of the tube is closed while the other is open. Near the closed end is a 'mouth-hole' in the side of the flute. The player blows a stream of air against the edge of the mouth-hole. The note produced can be varied by covering or uncovering finger holes along the length of the tube. The flute has a very clear and pure sound.



The flute is one of the most ancient forms of musical instrument. Bone Flutes dating back to about 7000 BC have been discovered in China. (Claims of a much older Neanderthal flute dating to 45,000 BC should be treated with skepticism). The first mention of the transverse flute was in Ancient Greece in the 2nd Century BC. It seems to have spread westward from there to Europe and eastward to India, China and Japan.

By the 16th Century, the transverse flute made of boxwood was commonplace in Europe. This had a cylindrical bore (the long hole that runs the length of the flute) and six finger holes.

The Baroque Flute

The first major development in flute design was in the late 17th Century. The instrument was divided into two sections called joints: the head joint with the mouth-hole, and the body joint with all the finger holes. The head joint continued to have a cylindrical bore, but the body joint was given a conical tapering bore, so that it was narrower at the foot (the open end) than where it joined the head. This was found to give the flute a much better tone. It is not known who was responsible for this change in design, but it was probably one of the Hotteterre families who were players and makers of flutes.

Such flutes were made in the key of D. Notes which are not part of the normal scale could be played by 'cross fingerings'; that is, combinations of fingers not in the normal sequence. Because there was no cross fingering to produce the E flat note, a single brass key was added to get this note. This type of flute is now known as a 'Baroque Flute'. It is the type for which Bach and Handel would have written music.

Over the next 150 years, more keys were added to the Baroque flute to make the fingerings easier. The Irish traditional flute is one with usually three or four keys. Eventually this process of improvement culminated by about 1830 in the eight-key Baroque Flute.

Baroque flutes have a very beautiful tone on the main notes of the scale, but suffer on the extra notes that are not part of the normal scale. These are often different in volume or tone quality to the main notes.

The Boehm System Flute

Theobald Boehm (1793 - 1881) was a Bavarian flute maker who revolutionized the design of the flute. His first attempt at a redesigned flute was in 1832. He realised that the finger holes on a Baroque flute are smaller than the ideal size in order for the fingertips to cover them. They also have to be close together in order for the fingers to reach them. He devised a system of pads and levers that allowed the holes to be positioned independently of the fingers. They could be much larger and located in the optimum position for the best sound. This greatly improved the ease of playing and the sound of the instrument. This flute was not a great success.

Boehm's second attempt, now known as the 'Boehm System Flute', was unveiled in 1847. It was so successful that it became the standard. Virtually all flutes made today use the same system. Boehm scrapped the conical bore of the Baroque flute and went back to the cylindrical bore of the pre-Baroque flute, but by the introduction of a tapering bore in the head (known as a parabolic head), he was able to keep the tone quality high. He used his system of pads and levers again, so that the flute was easy to play and gave a consistent tone and volume over all notes.

Although the Boehm system flute is not considered to have quite as good a tone as the Baroque flute, it is louder, far easier to play and can be played consistently in any key, making it a much better instrument all around.

Modern Flutes

The modern flute is usually made of silver, although it can be made from other types of metal or from wood. It uses the Boehm system of fingering. There are three sections: the head joint, the body and the foot joint. The foot joint extends the length of the instrument down to C so it can play a full three octaves from C4 to C7 with ease1. Some flutes have an extra long foot joint to extend the range downward by one note to B3. Good players can extend the range upward to as high as G#7. The higher you go, the greater skill required to produce the note.

A typical silver flute costs anything from £300 to about £6000. If money is no object, you can buy a platinum-plated silver flute for around £10,000, a solid gold flute for about £20,000 or a solid platinum flute for about £60,000. The Japanese company Muramatsu makes all of these. Gold gives a 'darker' tone, while platinum gives a loud tone which some find 'harsh'.

Since the flute is quite long for a child to hold, there are special models, such as the Jupiter Prodigy, which have a curved head. This bends the flute around like a letter J, making the mouth-hole closer to the finger holes so that a small child can hold it more easily. They also have a simplified key system that is not capable of playing all the sharps and flats but makes the flute much lighter.

Alto and Bass Flutes

The Alto and Bass flutes are bigger versions of the standard flute, playing at a lower pitch. The Alto plays a fourth below the standard while the Bass plays an octave below the standard flute. The Bass flute is so big that it usually has a curved head like the one described earlier on the small child's flute.

Both the Alto flute and the Bass flute sound like extensions of the flute's lower register. They seem to be quite relaxed instruments - the bass especially. You cannot get a note out of one unless you relax your embouchure (the way you hold your mouth) by a huge amount in comparison to the lower register of the flute. One doesn't tend to see them in orchestras all that much. A notable Alto flute part is in the 'Spring Rounds' movement of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky (the bit where the alto flute has a duet with the E-flat clarinet). However, there is quite a lot of flute ensemble music with alto and bass parts.

The Piccolo

The piccolo is a tiny flute that plays an octave higher than the standard flute. In contrast with the Bass and Alto, it is an extension of the flute's upper register. It is very loud and piercing and can even damage your hearing if you're an orchestral player and play it a lot. (A vindictive flute player can get their revenge on their next-door neighbours for perceived wrongs by practicing piccolo early in the morning). The piccolo is brighter and more brilliant than the flute for the most part, and it theoretically has a similar range but an octave higher. However, it is much harder to play the very top of the piccolo's register, because your embouchure needs to be incredibly tight.

Orchestrally, the piccolo was first used at the beginning of the Romantic era. Possibly the first composer to use it was Beethoven in his Egmont overture. Since then, it has been widely used in pieces that call for a big orchestra. The lower register of the piccolo (from D5) has been described as sounding like a 'nightingale with asthma'. It doesn't have as full a sound as the flute playing in the same register, which is sometimes used to good effect; for example, at the end of the first movement of Shostakovich's 5th symphony.

Flutes in Marching Bands

Flutes have always been popular in marching bands. A simplified flute called a 'fife' is often used. These may be pitched in different keys from a standard flute, such as D flat or A flat. A fife and drum band is still a popular type of marching band.

The Sound of the Flute

A musical note consists of a complex waveform that is repeated periodically. This can be broken up into a number of pure sine waves: the fundamental, whose frequency determines the pitch of the note, and a number of others known as 'harmonics' or 'partials'. These have frequencies that are multiples of the frequency of the fundamental. It is mainly the relative volume of the harmonics that gives different instruments their distinctive sound. The flute has a strong fundamental with relatively quiet harmonics, making it sound very pure and ethereal.

A flute has two distinct moods depending on where in the range you play: low notes sound very different from high ones, but there is no sharp break in the middle. The 'low' mood blends seamlessly into the 'high' one somewhere around the top of the first octave. The lowest register of the flute sounds very dark and mysterious. Because one 'overblows' to get higher notes (the flautist picks out the first harmonic rather than the fundamental when they're playing notes above C5), it is hard to play the lower register loudly for fear of inadvertently playing the notes an octave higher. This adds to the feeling of quietness and darkness.

In contrast, the upper register is bright and brilliant, especially on a metal flute. It has a generally happier mood, and you can play it as loud as you like. In general, the upper register of the flute has a larger dynamic range than the lower register.

Music for Flute

Flutes have been used in orchestras since the very start. The French composer Lully had one of the first orchestras, and he included flutes in it. Thus, there is a huge amount of music written for flute, some of which is listed here. The flute also plays an important role in symphonic music, although it may not get to be the star of the show.

  • Telemann Suite in A Minor
  • Gluck Dance of the Blessed Spirits (from Orfeo)
  • Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 5
  • Bach Badinerie from Orchestral Suite No 2
  • Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp
  • Tchaikovsky Dance of the Two Flutes from The Nutcracker
  • Copland Duo for Flute and Piano
  • Debussy Syrinx for solo Flute
  • Poulenc Sonata for Flute and Piano
  • Rodrigo Concerto for Flute

As well as this music written for flute, it is common practice to play music on the flute that was written for recorder:

  • Vivaldi Concerto for Recorder 'La Notte'
  • Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 4 for Two Recorders

Marching band music is another field that gives prominence to the flute. This is probably best typified by the music of John Philip Sousa.

  • Sousa 'Stars and Stripes Forever'
1C4 is middle C.

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