Flute, tubular woodwind instrument enclosing air that is set in vibration when the player's breath is directed against the sharp edge of the mouth-hole. Additional holes along the side of the flute can be opened or closed to produce different pitches. In transverse (horizontally held) flutes, such as the Western orchestral flute, the Indian bansri, and the Chinese di, the mouth-hole, or embouchure, is cut into the side of the tube. In end-blown (vertically held) flutes the hole may be at the end of the tube (for example, the Arabic ney). In duct flutes, such as the end-blown penny whistle, the recorder, the police whistle, and ocarina, a mouthpiece channels the breath against the edge of a sound hole.
The transverse flute, the most familiar flute of Western music, was known in China by about 900 BC. By about AD 1100 it reached Europe, where it became a military flute in German-speaking areashence its old name of German flute. Families of flutes from soprano to bass were played in 16th- and 17th- century chamber music. Made in one piece, these flutes had a cylindrical bore and six finger holes. The flute was redesigned in the late 1600s by the Hotteterre family of French woodwind makers. They built it in three sections, or joints, with one key and a conical bore tapering away from the player. This flute displaced the recorder as the typical orchestral flute in the late 1700s. Gradually, more keys were added to improve the intonation of certain notes; by about 1800 a four-keyed flute was common, and eight-keyed flutes were developed in the 19th century.
1832 the German flute-maker Theobald Boehm created an improved conical-bore flute, and in
1847 he patented his cylindrical-bore flute, which is the model in widest use in the 20th
century. The cylindrical Boehm flute is made of metal or wood and has 13 or more tone
holes controlled by a system of padded keys. It has a range of three octaves and a tone,
upward from c' (middle C). Other orchestral flutes include the piccolo (an octave
higher than the ordinary flute), the alto flute in G (pitched a fourth lower), and the
bass flute (pitched an octave lower). The flute has a soft and rounded but full-bodied
tone in its lower register, but it is not penetrating. Thus it is often used for sparsely
accompanied solos, such as at the beginning of Debussy's Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un
Faune. The upper register of the flute, and especially the piccolo, is piercing and
can be heard through almost any orchestral texture. In this range it is often used in
tutti passages (for the whole orchestra), often supporting the violins.
Home | Back