Flutes have a magical sound quite distinct from any other woodwind instrument. Unlike other woodwinds, the movement of air through strategically placed stops creates their distinctive sound, not reed vibration. Many types of flute have emerged over time.
Different types of flute, most commonly played professionally, are in the Western concert flute category. The four most widely played are the standard concert flute, the piccolo, the alto, and the bass flutes. Less common types include the contrabass, subcontrabass, and the soprano flute.
The flute has come a long way from the early bone flutes played by our ancestors as far back as the stone age. Modern engineering created a more versatile and diverse range of sounds found everywhere, from the military to orchestras and modern movie soundtracks.
If you are thinking of learning to play this iconic instrument, here is the story behind the flute and the four main types you may choose to play.
Where did Modern Flute Types Originate?
Flutes belong to the family of woodwind instruments and are unique because they are aerophones which means they create sound through the movement of air across openings and not through a reed.
Since the Paleolithic period, flutes have been part of human history and culture, stretching roughly 2.5 million years ago until 10,000 BCE. Early musicians used hollow bones with apertures to create music.
Flutes are the oldest musical instruments known to man. Archeologists uncovered a five-hole flute from a vulture wing bone Geißenklösterle cave, Southern Germany. They determined the instrument’s age to be between 42,000 to 43,000 years.
However, these instruments were not limited to Europe as a 9000-year-old flute was found in China, made of a red crane’s wing bone. Ancient China is also the apparent birthplace of the first transverse flute with openings to the side of the instrument.
Flutes were relatively simple instruments in the Medieval and Middle Ages and offered a limited sound range and complicated cross fingerings that made them challenging to play.
The German Theobald Boehm is considered the father of the modern flute when the inventor/musician created the Boehm fingering system where mechanical rods and pins and springs allowed the player to play specific keys simultaneously.
These advances extended the final range and versatility of the modern flute, and his designs are behind most of the contemporary flute types that we will explore below.
Types of Flute
The western concert flute is the most commonly played professional modern flute, although the world offers dozens of national varieties of this versatile woodwind instrument. The Western concert flute is typically heard in ensemble playing, including concert bands, orchestras, and flute ensembles.
The Concert Flute
The typical concert flute that we hear today in orchestras and flute choirs is pitched in C, and the range is roughly 31/2 to 4 octaves when starting from middle C. The concert flute typically has a range up to C7 or D7; however, professional players can reach up to F#7.
The standard transverse concert flute is side-blown and closed at the blown end. The flutist creates sound by blowing air over the opening hole and changing pitch via opening and closing the typically 16 tone holes.
The flute also allows techniques such as overblowing, and the direction and intensity of the flutist’s breast can affect the pitch and timbre of the sound.
Piccolo flutes hail back to the Middle Ages, where they commonly used the octave transverse flute as a Military instrument. The high and penetrating sound was audible above the noise of battle. However, the piccolo did not emerge in a cultured musical sense until the first half of the 18th century.
They became established as an orchestral instrument in the Baroque period at the start of the 19th century, where Vivaldi wrote concertos for flute.
The Piccolo flute is half the size of a standard flute yet has most of the same fingerings as the traditional transverse flute. The piccolo stands out by the difference in sound as the notes sound a full octave higher than what is written.
Musicians commonly used piccolos to double the violins or flutes added a unique enhancement in sound due to its higher octave transposition upwards. Piccolo is a common choice in concert band settings.
The iconic Alto type of flute is substantially larger in diameter and length than the standard C transverse flute and stands apart from other flute types with its rich and mellow tone. It creates a sound a perfect fourth below written C pitched in G.
The favored instrument of Theobald Boehm, the Alto flute, is an integral part of an orchestra, adding depth and warm tones to the ensemble more subtly than the C or piccolo flutes.
One can appreciate the alto in solo pieces like Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
The large type of flute is pitched in the C key and falls a complete octave below the concert flute. It is almost 146cm (57 in) long; it uses a specialized joint to bring the embouchure hole to the players’ lips.
Rather unwieldy, the instrument is the least popular of the flute types due to its bulk, and other instruments can often drown it out in the same register.
Lesser Know Flute Types
The Contrabass Flute
The contrabass flute is rare and is typically found in solo and chamber music scenarios. The range is similar to the regular flute, except it is pitched 2 octaves lower than middle C. The contrabass has a haunting sound in low registers below G2 and sometimes sounds similar to a bassoon.
The contrabass requires quite a significant volume of air to sound their distinctive notes with wider slower steam of breath; The contrabass provides a true and deep bass sound to flute choirs.
The Subcontrabass Flute
The subcontrabass is a massive member of the flute family and measures over 15 feet (4,6m) long. Typically pitched in the tone of G, it pitches under contrabass flute in C. These large and unusual flutes with their distinctive dark sound are not typically found outside of flute choirs and are not common.
This large member of the flute family measures over 18 feet (5.5m) and is an octobass flute. It is the biggest flute with the lowest range of sound and is pitched in the C key. making it 3 octaves below the standard C flute.
Unlike its bass flute cousins, this flute does not suffer as much in the softness of sound range and is one of the easiest bass flutes to play. You will typically find the instrument in flute choirs and movie scores.
The hyperbass is an extremely rare version of the flute and the granddaddy of all bass, measuring a whole 26 feet (8meters) in length. It is pitched in C four full octaves below the concert flute and one octave below the double contrabass.
The lowest note of the hyperbass is C0, and at 16 hertz, it even falls under what is considered the average human hearing range of 20 to 20,000 Hz!
The soprano flute or third flute is pitched in E, a minor third above the concert flute, and is one of the rarer flute forms today. Its purpose when it was more widely used was to replace the E flat of the clarinet.
The treble Flute
The treble flute is relatively rare today except in Ireland and Scotland or occasionally in flute choirs and marching bands. The treble flute is pitched in the key of G, sounding a fifth higher than the written note.
The treble flute is similar to a piccolo and plays in a smile range. However, its larger length allows players to access a different quality in its upper registers and extends the treble’s lower range.
Other types of uncommon flute include:
Translated as the ‘love flute, ‘this rare type of flute is not typically found in flue orchestras or orchestras. This flute is pitched in A♭, A, or B♭ and falls between the C concert flute and the alto flute in G.
Verdi composed his opera Aida with three Flûte d’amour to enact the Sacred Egyptian dance at the end of the first act.
Contro Alto Flute
The contro-alto flute is a larger flute between the bass and contrabass flutes. Pitched in either the key of G or F and transposes a fourth or fifth below the bass flute and is held vertically with an adjustable floor peg, much like the bass flute.
Other international forms of flute include:
- Bansuri and the Venu used in Hindustani music
- Dizi used in China
- Korean flute is called the daegeum
- Japanese flute is called the fue
- Sodina of Madagascar
- Sring (also called blul) of Eastern Armenia
Flutes have a haunting quality entirely untouched by other woodwind instruments and provide diverse sounds and effects. Flutes have been part of our cultural evolution and will undoubtedly form part of our musical future.