Flutes and Descriptions About Them

Learn More About One of the Oldest Kinds of Instruments

Girl playing the flute
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The flute is considered one of the oldest man-made musical instruments still in existence. In 1995, archaeologists found a flute made of bone in eastern Europe that dates back 43,000 to 80,000 years old.

Flutes are a reedless, woodwind instrument. Flutes produce sound from the flow of air across an opening.

Flutes generally fit into two basic categories: a side-blown flute, which is the most common form used today, and an end-blown flute. The ancient versions of flutes that have been excavated are forms of end-blown flutes.

End-Blown Flutes

An end-blown flute is played by blowing at the end of a tube or pipe. End-blown flutes have two sub-categories, rim-blown flutes, and duct flutes.

Also known as notched flutes, a rim-blown flute is played by blowing across the top of a tube. The air is split because the tube has a notch or a sharp edge. An example of this is the pan flutes common in Andes Mountains of Peru. There are similar varieties that are popular in the Middle East and Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea.

A duct flute is also known as a fipple flute. It is played by blowing air into a channel. The air travels across a sharp edge. Some common examples of a fipple flute include a standard whistle, a tin whistle, a recorder, and an ocarina.

Side-Blown Flutes

Also known as a transverse flute, a side-blown flute is held horizontally or sideways to play. The precursors of the modern concert flute were keyless wooden transverse flutes similar to modern fifes. Keyless transverse flutes continue to be used in folk music, particularly Irish traditional music. Keyless transverse flutes were used in the Baroque period and earlier. 

Of the modern flutes, however, there are several main types, all of which are side-blown.

Concert Flute in C

The concert flute in C, also called the Western concert flute, is the standard flute. This type of flute is used in many ensembles including concert bands, orchestras, military bands, marching bands, jazz bands, and big bands. This type of flute's pitch is in C and its range is over three octaves, starting from middle C.

Bass Flute in C

The bass flute in C evolved during the 1920s as a substitute for the saxophone in jazz music. It is pitched one octave lower than the standard concert flute in C. To produce the lower tone, the length of the tube is longer. It is usually made with a J-shaped head joint, which brings the blowhole (embouchure) within reach of the player.

Alto Flute in G

The alto flute in G has a history of more than 100 years old. The alto flute is a transposing instrument, meaning that music written for it is in a different pitch than it's actual sound. The alto flute is notated a fourth above its actual sound. The tube of the alto flute is considerably thicker and longer than a standard C flute and requires more breath from the player. The flute is made with a straight head or sometimes, a J-shaped head joint to bring the blowhole closer to the player.

Tenor Flute in B Flat

A tenor flute in B flat is also called the flute d'amore or "flute of love." This type of flute is believed to have been in existence since medieval times. It is usually pitched in either A or B flat and is intermediate in size between the modern C concert flute and the alto flute in G. 

Soprano Flute in E Flat

Rarely available now, a soprano flute is pitched in E flat, which is a minor third above the concert flute. It is the only member of the modern flute family that is not pitched in C or G. It has a range of three octaves.

Treble Flute in G

The treble flute has a three-octave range. The G treble flute is usually responsible for the melody. It is a transposing instrument, which means it is pitched a fifth above the concert flute. It sounds a fifth up from the written note. The instrument is rare today, only occasionally found in flute choirs or some marching bands.

Piccolo Flute

The piccolo also called an ottavino in Italy, is a half-size flute. It produces a sound that is an octave higher than a standard transverse flute. It has most of the same fingerings as its larger relative. It is manufactured in the key of C or D Flat.