My parents are in the middle of constructing our family tree. Amazingly, they’ve been able to go back ten generations. As they chase down birth and marriage dates, photos, and names long forgotten, it’s been a fascinating journey to put together the pieces of our history, understand where we came from and unravel connections we never knew existed. Today I’m going to take you on a similar journey and introduce you to some of the types of flutes (call them your long lost flute cousins) from around the world. I’m hoping I might even spark your interest in adding some of the beautiful music they make to your playlist or even try playing new types of flute yourself. Continuing to expand your appreciation and understanding for this amazing group of instruments always yields a hidden treasure that’s sure to inspire you in your own playing.
A brief history of the flute.
The flute is the oldest known instrument in the world. Flute artefacts made of bone and dating back to the Stone Age have been unearthed. The Ancient Summarians, Egyptians and Greeks were all known to use flutes, as depicted in early carvings however these were all front-blown flutes (similar to the recorder), rather than the transverse (side-blown) flute we know today. The first evidence of simple transverse flutes with only a few holes was in Etruscan carvings in the 4th to 1st centuries BC.
Simple wooden flutes with six holes were used throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, in military and folk music. However their problematic intonation and complicated cross fingerings meant they were not heavily featured in musical works. Flute makers up until the 19th century tinkered with flute design and construction – modifying its diameter, the size of tone holes, adding new keys and gradually splitting the instrument into three pieces. However it was a goldsmith and musician called Theobald Boehm that revolutionised flute design, from the early 1800s. The Boehm system as its now known consisted of a system of rods, pins and springs that could allow simultaneous closure of multiple keys that were not playable with your hands alone and thus developed a simpler fingering system for players. He experimented with the use of different metals, sealing tone holes with pads and the cut of the embouchure hole to find the best tone quality possible.
The flutes we play today are based on the Boehm model. Only slight changes have been made during the 19th and 20th centuries – a testimony to his skill considering the manufacturing technologies that evolved during this time. Once the flute had established reliable intonation, beautiful tone and improved playability, composers once again showcased the flute in an explosion of solo works.
Types of flutes from the modern era
The flute family has four main members (although there are other rarer members too). They share the same note fingerings, however there are some important differences in the amount of breath, breath support and embouchure formation required between them.
The smallest of the flute family, the piccolo measures approximately half the length of the concert flute. It’s the highest pitched flute (in the key of C) sounding an octave higher than the concert flute when played. Concert band music often has a piccolo part and so this is a common instrument for flute players to double on. Piccolos can be made from a variety of metals and most commonly the hardwood grenadilla. There is some solo repertoire, concertos and chamber music written for piccolos. The timbre of the piccolo can be described as clear, brilliant and graceful in its middle register, and piercing and shrill when played loudly in its upper register. Hear an example here
The most common of the flute family and the flute we all know and love. Pitched in the key of C, its a non transposing instrument that sounds exactly as it’s written in music. Typically made of nickel silver or silver, it can also be made in more precious metals such as platinum or gold. Listen to a collection of my favourite flute players here… The BEST flute player you’ve never heard of
This mellow-sounding flute is a little different, pitched in the key of G it sounds a perfect fourth below what is written. The diameter, length and weight of the alto flute are all greater than concert flute (it’s 8 inches longer) and require much more air (and support of that air) to achieve good tone quality. The headjoint can be straight or curved.
This mysterious sounding member of the flute family is larger again, being an inch larger in diameter than the concert flute, and measuring in at 52 inches in length. They’re pitched in the key of C, and sound an octave lower than written. It’s typically only used in flute choirs as its easily drowned out by other instruments such as the clarinet. The weight of these flutes can easily fatigue the player, and so modifications such as crutches and rods to rest the flute on the ground are entering the market. The length of the bass flute is so long that in order to depress the keys, a series of rods and levers are needed. The embouchure hole of this flute is much wider and so much more air and a looser aperture are required for good sound production.
Becoming an accomplished player of the concert flute can take several years. Once you’ve become a relatively experienced player, transitioning to one of the other types of flutes can occur with relative ease. If you play in a band or orchestra, playing the piccolo is common. The parts are usually fun and ornamental, its light and easy to play, and quite affordable. The alto and bass flutes are rarely used outside of flute choirs and in chamber music, so unless you are an active member of one of these groups (or plan to be) your opportunity to play them will be rare. Considering the extra cost of these instruments (in the ballpark of $5000 and upwards) together with the added physical difficulty of playing (length, weight, and embouchure adjustments), these two are not for the faint-hearted!
There are other rarer low flutes – the contrabass flute, subcontrabass flute and the hyperbass flute. The tubing of the hyperbass flute reaches an impressive 15m long and reaches a frequency so low, it’s considered on the edge of human hearing! These flutes rest on the ground with the headjoint twisted horizontally. Compositions for these types of flutes are generally limited to flute choirs, although rare solo pieces exist and have an unusual haunting quality. These types of flutes are custom made and can easily reach prices of $50,000.
Types of flutes from around the world
What’s known as the Irish flute, is a simple transverse wooden flute that’s widely used in Irish and Scottish traditional music. Originally keyless, modern varieties of this flute may be keyed. Different playing effects can be achieved by taping the holes and distinct regional playing styles of Irish music have evolved.
The Bansuri bamboo flute is found in many parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The Bansuri can vary in the key they are made by variations in length, inner diameter of the instrument, the relative size and placement of the holes.
The dizi is a transverse, keyless bamboo flute used in Chinese opera, folk music and orchestra. There are several varieties of this instrument, made from different bamboos species as well as several front-blown traditional flutes. An extra hole between the mouthpiece and the finger holes is covered by a thin buzzing membrane, which gives it its unique timbre
Japan has eight traditional flutes or fue, which are a combination of front and transverse instruments. The Shakuhachi is one used traditionally in Zen meditation music but has also been used in folk music and jazz. These instruments are painstakingly handmade by master craftsmen and possess rich tone colouring and the ability to bend pitches substantially through the use of different fingerings and embouchure movement.
What’s known as the Native American flute is a collection of instruments of many names that originate from different tribal regions and languages. Traditionally made of wood, these flutes are front-blown, open holed and are two-chambered (the first chamber collecting the breath and the second producing sound). The haunting yet peaceful melodies of this instrument are often accompanied by rainstick, buffalo drum, and shakers.
The pan flute is difficult to classify into just one culture, as so many countries (including Greece, Romania, South and North America, Africa, Thailand and the Pacific Islands to name a few) have a history with this instrument. The pan flute is an end blown instrument consisting of closed pipes of varying length. The instrument can be straight or curved, and are typically made from bamboo or cane reed. Sound is produced by blowing across the pipes with the length of pipe determining the sound frequency. Overblowing can produce octaves and harmonic notes. A kind of vibrato effect is acheived by physically moving the instrument.