The History of the Flute

The flute's evolution from hollowed-out bones to "Anchorman" prop

A wooden classic flute over a partiture's book.
Flutes date back tens of thousands of years, but the modern silver instrument was only invented in the 19th century. A. Martin UW Photography/Getty Images

Invention of the Flute

The history of woodwinds begins with the flute. And the flute begins with bones. The first known flutes date back tens of thousands of years. They were found in caves and consisted of little more than hollowed bones with holes punctured in the side

Flutes were invented independently in many of the earliest civilizations and figure into some of the earliest known written works.

The instrument has varied throughout history in the placement of the finger holes and the positioning of the embouchure, or mouthpiece, as well as the shape and length of the tube itself and the size and curvature of the internal boring.

The modern flute was created around 1830, when German watchmaker and Theobald Boehm instituted several developments, including the creation of his own fingering system, still known as Boehm fingering today, and the introduction of rods connecting the keys.

The Flute in Music

Around the same time as Boehm’s radical transformation of the flute (which also impacted the clarinet), Beethoven began using it in his symphonies. Over the coming years, the Boehm flute catches on and its popularity spreads to other countries and other composers.

By 1878, Boehm has perfected what we now know as the modern, silver flute. By the end of the century, the flute is being featured in the works of Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

During the 20th century, the flute continued its expansion into genres of music other than classical. Gheorghe Zamfir gains fame and wealth for his pan-flute albums. The rock group Jethro Tull puts the flute at the forefront of some of its biggest hits.

The use of the flute in rock and jazz even comes in for some satire courtesy of a mock-serious flute “performance” by comic actor Will Ferrell in the comedy Anchorman.