The flute is one of the world’s earliest instruments. It goes right back to the Stone Age, two or three million years ago. People discovered that if they made holes in bits of animal bone, or bark, or shells, they could blow down them and produce notes.
These days, with its shiny metal body and keys, the flute is a long way from a bit of bone with a hole in. But the idea is the same!
Flute players are often called ‘flautists’.
Up at the top of the orchestra, with high notes, the flute reigns supreme. A good flautist can make it sound as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. But no instrument is that easy – it takes practice, skill and experience.
The flute has 16 keys over 16 holes. Pressing certain keys will make two or three other keys go down too.
Inside the orchestra
Like the other woodwind instruments, the flute gets a lot of solos. They are often fast and lively, the flute scurrying around like a little bird.
The flute can also make a soft, haunting sound when it plays low notes, but these aren’t so powerful – they’re best used in music without an orchestra.
There are gentler, more wandering solos too – like the famous opening of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (‘Prelude to the afternoon of a faun’).
A wandering flute solo by Debussy
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Jan van Reeth, flute; BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari. Naxos 8.550262
Outside the orchestra
Concertos: Many, especially from the Baroque era (1600–1750).
Chamber music: Plenty of chamber music, including wind quintets (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn).
Solo pieces: For flute alone or flute with piano – the flute is spoilt for choice.
Folk music: Versions of the flute exist around the world, and play all kinds of traditional folk music in other countries and cultures.
Flutes around the world are blown in different ways. At one time, it was even quite common for the nose to do the blowing instead of the mouth! ‘Nose flutes’ are still found in some cultures.
Construction of the flute
Most flutes are made of silver. For players with a lot of money, there are platinum and gold ones. Wooden ones still exist, too. These are a bit less sparkly in sound, and some players like that.
There are three sections to the flute, which slide together.
The 16 metal keys have little felt pads underneath, so when you press the keys they don’t clatter against the flute.
To play it
Have you ever made a sound by blowing across the top of an empty bottle? Well, that’s exactly how you play the flute!
- Bring the lip plate to your mouth, so that the flute sticks out horizontally to your right.
- Curl one hand round towards you along one half of the flute; curl the other hand round away from you along the other half of the flute.
- Blow across the mouth hole.
- Press keys for different notes.
It takes as much breath to play a flute as it does to play a bassoon! It might be small, but breathing is just as important.
The tongue is very important for the flute: many notes are begun by pronouncing the letter ‘T’ into the flute a fraction before the breath comes out. This ensures a clean, clear start. The stream of air that comes out of your mouth splits against the edge of the mouthpiece. This sets vibrations going down the flute… and out comes sound!
Flutter-tonguing: The flute’s best special effect is ‘flutter-tonguing’. The player rolls an ‘R’, with the tongue behind the teeth, and out comes and exciting, shivery kind of sound.
For more about special effects, go to the Woodwind Family section.
Theobald Boehm was an extremely clever man who decided to use his brilliant brain to redesign the flute. His model was so impressive, he got a gold medal for it at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851. All the keywork on the modern flute – the way the keys are designed and laid out – is thanks to Mr Boehm.
The little one! A piccolo is like half a flute: it’s half the length and plays an octave higher. Its high, bright little notes can always be heard clearly above everyone else’s: in the orchestra, it’s the highest of the high.
Unlike the flute, the piccolo is often made of wood. The wood softens its sharp sound so it doesn’t pierce your ears.
Composers sometimes mix in the piccolo to alter the sound of another instrument. It’s a bit like seasoning your food with salt and pepper: just as the food tastes nicer with seasoning, the sound is brighter with a piccolo!
‘Piccolo’ means ‘little’ or ‘small’ in Italian. So it’s not surprising that the piccolo is a very small instrument.
This is a bigger, lower flute. It’s not used that much, because it’s a bit quiet and gets drowned out by all the others. But it can have a deathly, spooky sort of sound – and some composers like to make the most of that.
The amazing sound of flutter-tonguing, on the alto flute
Sallinen: Chamber Music II
Hanna Juutilainen, flute; Finnish Chamber Orchestra; Okku Kamu. Naxos 8.553747
The flute often stars in folk stories and fairytales. In The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Pied Piper plays on his pipe, or flute, and the children all follow him.
The bass flute has the end bent round so it looks like an umbrella handle. (Some alto flutes have this too.) But composers really do seem to save the bass flute for a rainy day! It’s not used often – again, because it can’t be heard easily in the orchestra.
Find out more about the development of the Flute in .
A Little History of the Flute
The flute is one of the oldest instruments in the world. Years ago, it was just a pipe. It has always existed in different versions – some have the blowing hole at the end, and some along the side.
Ancient pipes could produce only one note. So sometimes they were lined up from shortest to longest, and stuck together. Bingo! – several notes could be played on one instrument. The result was called a ‘panpipe’ or ‘pan flute’.
From the 17th century, the flute attracted more and more attention. It also got its first key! It was for the little finger to press. Before that, it really was just a simple wooden tube with a few holes.
King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712–1786) loved the flute. He played it himself, and his teacher Joachim Quantz wrote hundreds of pieces for him.
In the late 18th century, the flute suddenly became really fashionable. Any gentleman who wanted to look smart and up-to-date simply had to get himself a flute. These flutes would have a blow-hole in the side, like the orchestral ones today. Their full name is ‘transverse flute’.
Then came Theobald Boehm. He was an intelligent man from Germany who decided to use his brain to redesign the flute. All the key-work you see on the flute now – the way the keys are designed and laid out – is thanks to Mr Boehm.
The flute’s sound and what it could do were transformed forever. And it was now made of metal instead of wood. At first, people were a bit suspicious about these shiny new versions; but they soon realised that the flute was better than ever.
Theobald Boehm’s model flute was so impressive that he got a gold medal for it at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851.
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● The flute consists of three joints. What is the bottom joint called?
● How long is a piccolo?
● Flute players are often called…
● Ancient flutes were made from…
● How is the flute held?
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Selected Flute, Piccolo and Alto Flute Extracts
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67: II. The Bird (extract)
The flute is the little bird!
Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd
Taken from Naxos 8.550499
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Flute Concerto No. 2 in D major, K. 314: I. Allegro aperto (extract)
The flute is energetic as soloist with an orchestra.
Performers: Patrick Gallois, flute; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Katarina Andreasson
Taken from Naxos 8.557011
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Overture (Suite) No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067: VII. Badinerie (extract)
Take a deep breath… and off we go!
Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Jaroslav Dvořák
Taken from Naxos 8.554043
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’) (extract)
Wandering questioningly down and up – where’s it going?
Performers: Jan van Reeth, flute; BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari
Taken from Naxos 8.550262
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764)
La Naissance d’Osiris (‘The Birth of Osiris’) Suite: Premier et deuxième tambourin (extract)
After the tambourine rattle, the piccolo sounds right at the top.
Performers: Capella Savaria; Mary Térey-Smith
Taken from Naxos 8.553388
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36: III. Scherzo (extract)
A short, clear burst of high piccolo notes.
Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Adrian Leaper
Taken from Naxos 8.550488
Aulis Sallinen (b.1935)
Chamber Music II, Op. 41 (extract)
The amazing sound of flutter-tonguing – on the alto flute.
Performers: Hanna Juutilainen, flute; Finnish Chamber Orchestra; Okku Kamu
Taken from Naxos 8.553747
Flute and Orchestra
Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)
Nielsen wrote his Flute Concerto in 1926. Unusually for a concerto it only has two movements, and it does not settle comfortably in one key for a long time. The orchestra certainly plays more than an accompanying role in this concert: listen to the dialogue between the flute and the other wind instruments in the orchestra, e.g. in the first movement (track 1) – with clarinet at 2.33–3.00 and rudely interrupted by the trombone at 3.30–4.09.
Performers: Gareth Davies, flute; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Kees Bakels
Taken from Naxos 8.554189
François Devienne (1759–1803)
Flute Concerto No. 7 in E minor
François Devienne was a virtuoso flautist and composer and wrote 17 flute concertos as well as hundreds of pieces for wind instruments. It wasn’t until the 1960s that his music was revived and became better known by flautists and audiences around the world. Listen to the flute’s incredible dexterity and playfulness in the third movement (track 3, 1.33–2.01).
Performers: Marc Grauwels, flute; Walloon Chamber Orchestra; Bernard Labadie
Taken from Naxos 8.555918
François Borne (1840–1920)
Fantasia brilliante on Bizet’s Carmen
This is a flute showpiece based on Bizet’s opera Carmen, flowing seamlessly from one theme to the next. It requires fantastic finger technique and breath-control from the soloist. Music from the opera has also been transcribed for violin by Sarasate and for piano by Busoni and Horowitz. Listen out for the famous Habanera (4.46) and a fabulous virtuoso ending (10.36 onwards).
Performers: Mark Grauwels, flute; Walloon Chamber Orchestra; Bernard Labadie
Taken from Naxos 8.555976
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Syrinx for solo flute
It is thought that Syrinx was originally written without bar lines on the page – in other words, Debussy wanted the performer to have a sense of freedom when interpreting and playing it. Composed in 1913, it was the first significant piece for solo flute to appear for many years. Its title ‘Syrinx’ refers to a myth, in which the god Pan falls in love with the wood-nymph Syrinx: Syrinx does not return his love and, in order to escape him, she turns herself into a water reed and hides in the marshes. Pan hears the air blowing through the reeds, making a kind of melody, so he cuts some of them and puts the pieces side by side to make a musical instrument – pan pipes. But in cutting the reeds to make his pipes, he kills his love.
Performers: Patrick Gallois, flute
Taken from Naxos 9.50085
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788)
Sonata in A minor for solo flute, Wq. 132, H. 562
C.P.E. Bach may have written this sonata for King Friedrich II of Prussia. The King played the flute, and Bach had a permanent job as his harpsichordist from 1741. He composed the Flute Sonata in 1747. In the first movement, you can hear the flute playing the melody as well as a kind of ‘accompaniment’ – that is quite difficult to do successfully as you have to try to be two people at once!
Performers: Patrick Gallois, flute
Taken from Naxos 8.555715-16
Toru Takemitsu (1930–1996)
Voice for solo flute
There are many different techniques used in Voice – a showpiece largely inspired by Japanese ‘Noh’ theatre. You will hear talking and singing through the flute (for amplification), microtones, key clicks, ‘pizzicato’ articulation, air articulation, flutter-tonguing, breathy tones, multiphonics, timbral trills and growling!
Performers: Robert Aitken, flute
Taken from Naxos 8.555859
Flute Chamber Music
Gabriel Fauré (1835–1921)
Sicilienne, Op. 78 (arranged by Donald Sosin for flute and harp)
Much music has been written for flute and harp: they are a compatible couple. This is an arrangement of the Sicilienne from Fauré’s suite Pelléas et Mélisande. A sicilienne is a type of piece that is usually in a minor key and has a lamenting and melancholic (sad) lilt. Listen to the flute accompanying the harp for a change (0.21–0.31).
Performers: Nora Shulman, flute; Judy Loman, harp
Taken from Naxos 8.554166
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Trio Sonata in G major, BWV 1039
This trio was written for two flutes and a harpsichord. Listen to how different the two flute parts are at the very beginning – one is playing the melody and taking the lead, while the other sits quietly on long accompanying notes; gradually the accompanying one takes centre stage, until they are both sharing a beautiful, long, intertwined melody.
Performers: Petri Alanko, flute; Hanna Juutilainen, flute; Anssi Mattila, harpsichord
Taken from Naxos 8.553755
Jean Françaix (1912–1997)
Wind Quintet No. 1
In the 19th century, French composers became really good at writing for wind instruments, and the wind quintet was a great way to show off each one as there was no ‘doubling’ involved (in other words, there was only one instrument on each part). Listen to the flute playing above the cheeky bassoon (third movement, track 3, 1.14 –2.04) and passing the melody like a musical baton to the clarinet.
Performers: The Wind Quintet of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra / DR
Taken from Naxos 8.557356