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Woodwind ( Aerophone)

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The flute is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. Unlike other woodwind instruments, a flute produces its sound from the flow of air against an edge, instead of using a reed. A musician who plays the flute is generally referred to as either a flautist or a flutist. Flute tones are sweet and blend well with other instruments.


Early flutes were made of carved bone.
Early flutes were made of carved bone.

The flute has appeared in many different forms in many different locations around the world. A three-hole flute made from a mammoth tusk, from the Geißenklösterle cave in the German Swabian Alb and dated to 30,000 to 37,000 years ago, plus two flutes made from swan's bones excavated a decade earlier from the same cave in Germany, dated to circa 36,000 years ago are among the oldest known musical instruments. The Flute has been dated back to, almost or even further back in time, the prehistoric times. A bone fragment of the femur of a juvenile cave bear with two to four holes found at Divje Babe in Slovenia and dated to about 43,100 years ago may also be an early flute . Some early flutes were made out of tibias (shin bones). Playable 8000-year-old Gudi (instrument) (literally, "bone flute"), made from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes, with from five to eight holes each, were also excavated from a tomb in Jiahu, in the Central Chinese province of Henan.

During the 16th and early 17th centuries in Europe, the transverse flute was available in several different sizes, in effect forming a "consort" much in the same way that recorders and other instrument families were used in consorts. At this stage, the transverse flute was usually made in one section (or two for the larger sizes) and had a cylindrical bore. As a result, the flute had a rather soft sound and limited range, and was used priimarily in compostions for the "soft consort".

With the advent of the Baroque (17th and 18th centuries), the transverse flute was re-designed. Now often called the traverso (from the Italian), it was made in three or four sections, or joints, with a conical bore from the head joint down. The conical bore design gave the instrument a wider range and a more penetrating sound, without sacrificing the softer, expressive qualities of the instrument. In addition to chamber music, the traverso began to be used in orchestral music, eventually occupying an exalted status amongst the woodwinds. Many composers, such as Frenchmen Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Michel Corrette and Michel Blavet, Italians Antonio Vivaldi and Pietro Locatelli, and Germans Georg Phillipp Telemann and Johann Joachim Quantz, wrote significant collections of sonatas and chamber works for the traverso. Quantz also wrote an important treatise on the flute and its performance pratice. Johann Sebastian Bach also contributed to the literature of the flute with his Sonatas for Flute and Continuo BWV 1034-35 and the Partita BWV 1013.

The flute has been featured in many varying kinds of music. One short example from rock music is the ocarina solo featured in The Troggs' song "Wild Thing" in the mid-'60s; more recently, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (band) fame brought the flute to the world of rock and roll, playing a transverse flute as his instrument of choice for nearly forty years.

Flute acoustics

A flute produces sound when a stream of air directed across a hole in the instrument bounces in and out of the hole. [ ] Some engineers have called this a fluidic multivibrator, because it is functionally analogous to an electrical device or electronic circuit called a multivibrator.

The air stream across this hole creates a Bernoulli or siphon effect leading to a von Karman vortex street, which excites the air contained in the usually cylindrical resonant cavity within the flute. The player changes the frequency of the air's vibrations by opening and closing holes in the body of the instrument, changing the effective length of the resonator, thus altering the volume of the resonant cavity, which determines the pitch of the note(s) being produced. Special effects whistles produce a glissando with a plunger at the end of the body, similar to a tyre pump or fly sprayer. This slide effect can be produced on a modern day flute just by using the head joint and your finger.

To be louder, a flute must use a larger resonator, a larger air stream, or increased air stream velocity. A flute's volume can generally be increased by making its resonator and tone holes larger. This is why a police whistle, a form of flute, is very wide for its pitch, and why a pipe organ can be far louder than a concert flute: a large organ pipe can contain several cubic feet of air, and its tone hole may be several inches wide, while a concert flute's air stream measures a fraction of an inch across.

The air stream must be directed at the correct angle and velocity, or else the air in the flute will not vibrate. In fippled flutes, a precisely formed and placed channel extrudes the air. In organs, the air is supplied by a regulated blower.

In non-fipple flutes, the air stream is shaped and directed by the player's lips, called the embouchure. This allows the player a wide range of expression in pitch, volume, and timbre, especially in comparison to fipple flutes. However, it also makes an end blown flute or transverse flute considerably more difficult for a beginner to produce a full sound from than a fipple flute such as the recorder. Transverse and end-blown flutes also take more air to play, which requires deeper breathing and makes circular breathing a considerably trickier proposition.

Generally, the quality called timbre or "tone colour" varies because the flute can produce harmonics in different proportions or intensities. A harmonic is a frequency that is a whole number multiple of a lower register, or " fundamental" note of the flute. Generally the air stream is thinner (vibrating in more modes), faster (providing more energy to excite the air's resonance), and aimed across the hole less deeply (permitting a more shallow deflection of the air stream) in the production of higher harmonics or upper partials.

Almost all flutes can be played in fundamental, octave, tierce, quatre and cinque modes simply by blowing harder and making the air stream move more quickly and at a more shallow angle. Flute players select their instrument's resonant mode with embouchure and breath control, much as brass players do.

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Many believe that the timbre is also affected by the material from which the instrument is made. For instance, instruments made of wood are often believed to be less bright than metal instruments. Different metals are also thought to influence the tone. However, a study in which professional players were blindfolded could find no significant differences between instruments made from a variety of different metals. In two different sets of blind listening, no instrument was correctly identified in a first listening, and in a second, only the silver instrument was identified by a significant fraction of the listeners. The study concluded that there was 'no evidence that the wall material has any appreciable effect on the sound colour or dynamic range of the instrument'. Physicists who study flutes usually agree that relatively small differences in shape are more important than differences in material, because the waves in the air couple only weakly to vibrations in the body. Wooden flutes usually have different shapes from metal instruments. For instance, the junction between the tone hole risers and the bore are usually sharper in wooden instruments, and these sharper edges are expected to have a substantial effect on sound. This does not mean that a gold flute is no better than, say, a brass one, as the gold flute is likely to have been hand-finished by a more proficient craftsman, and by that merit, possess superior acoustic qualities.

Categories of flute

Playing the zampoña, a Pre-Inca instrument and type of pan pipes.
Playing the zampoña, a Pre-Inca instrument and type of pan pipes.

In its most basic form, a flute can be an open tube which is blown like a bottle. Over time, the increasing demands of musical performance have led to the development of what many people consider the flute, the Western concert flute, which has a complex array of holes and keys.

There are several broad classes of flutes. With most flutes, the musician blows directly across the edge of the mouthpiece. However, some flutes, such as the whistle, gemshorn, flageolet, recorder, tin whistle, tonette, fujara, and ocarina have a duct that directs the air onto the edge (an arrangement that is termed a " fipple"). This gives the instrument a distinct timbre which is different from non-fipple flutes and makes the instrument easier to play, but takes a degree of control away from the musician. Usually, fipple flutes are not referred to as flutes, even though the physics, technique and sound define them as being such.

Another division is between side-blown (or transverse) flutes, such as the Western concert flute, piccolo, fife, dizi, and bansuri; and end-blown flutes, such as the ney, xiao, kaval, danso, shakuhachi, and quena. The player of a side-blown flute uses a hole on the side of the tube to produce a tone, instead of blowing on an end of the tube. End-blown flutes should not be confused with fipple flutes such as the recorder, which are also played vertically but have internal ducts to direct the air flow across the edge of the tone hole. The earliest extant transverse flute is a chi ( 篪) flute discovered in the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng at the Suizhou site, Hubei province, China. It dates from 433 BC, of the later Zhou Dynasty. It is fashioned of lacquered bamboo with closed ends and has five stops that are at the flute's side instead of the top. Chi flutes are mentioned in Shi Jing, compiled and edited by Confucius.

Flutes may be open at one or both ends. The ocarina, pan pipes, police whistle, and bosun's whistle are closed-ended. Open-ended flutes such as the concert flute and the recorder have more harmonics, and thus more flexibility for the player, and brighter timbres. An organ pipe may be either open or closed, depending on the sound desired.

Flutes can be played with several different air sources. Conventional flutes are blown with the mouth, although some cultures use nose flutes. Organs are blown by bellows or fans.

The Western concert flutes

An illustration of a Western concert flute
An illustration of a Western concert flute

The Western concert flute, a descendant of the 19th-Century "German Flute", is a transverse flute which is closed at the top. Near the top is the embouchure hole, across and into which the player blows. It has larger circular finger-holes than its baroque predecessors, designed to increase the instrument's dynamic range. Various combinations can be opened or closed by means of keys, to produce the different notes in its playing range. The note produced depends on which finger-holes are opened or closed and on how the flute is blown. There are two kinds of foot joints available for the concert flute: the standard C foot (shown above) or the longer B foot with an extra key extending the flute's range to B below middle C.There can also be a Bb below middle c foot joint added to the instrument. With the rare exception of custom-devised fingering systems, modern Western concert flutes conform to the Boehm system.

The standard concert flute is pitched in the key of C and has a range of 3 octaves starting from middle C (or one half-step lower with a B foot). This means that the concert flute is one of the highest common orchestral instruments, with the exception of the piccolo, which plays an octave higher. G alto and C bass flutes, pitched respectively, a perfect fourth and an octave below the concert flute, are used occasionally. Parts are written for alto flute more frequently than for bass. Alto and bass flutes are considerably heavier than the normal C flute, making them more difficult to play for extended periods of time.

Other sizes of flute and piccolo are used from time to time. A rarer instrument of the modern pitching system is the treble G flute. Instruments made according to an older pitch standard, used principally in wind-band music, include Db piccolo, Eb soprano flute (the primary instrument, equivalent to today's concert C flute), F alto flute, and Bb bass flute (incidentally, the clarinet and brass families retain this orientation to a Bb, rather than C tonal centre).

The modern professional concert flute is generally made of silver, gold (both yellow and rose), or combinations of the two; a few of the most expensive flutes are fabricated from platinum. Student instruments are usually made of nickel-silver alloy, composed of nickel, copper, and zinc, (also known as " German silver") or nickel- or silver-plated brass. Curved head joints are also available for student flutes, enabling children as young as 3 years old, whose arms are not yet long enough to adapt to the standard horizontal playing position, to successfully hold and play the flute. Wooden flutes and head joints have a warmer, softer tone which is more desirable to some people than the brighter sound of metal-bodied flutes is obtainable from wooden flutes, whose somewhat less highly polished bores tend to darken the timbre. Wooden flutes were far more common before the early 20th century. The silver flute was introduced by Theobald Boehm in 1847 but did not become common until later in the twentieth century. Wm. S. Haynes, a flute manufacturer in Boston, told Georges Barrere, an eminent flutist, that in 1905 he made one silver flute to every 100 wooden flutes but in the 1930s, he made one wooden flute to every 100 silver flutes. Today the silver flute is still far more popular than the wooden flute and is accepted as the standard in most symphony orchestras.

The modern concert flute comes with various options. The Bb thumb key (invented and pioneered by Briccialdi) is practically standard. The B foot joint, however, is an option available on middle-to-upper end models. Other, more recent additions include a C#-trill key, and an increasingly popular roller between the Eb-key and the the C#-key.

A closed hole "Take-down" flute in case
A closed hole "Take-down" flute in case

Open-hole "French model" flutes, whose central openings are covered by the fingertips when depressed, are frequently chosen by concert-level players, though in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe, professionals commonly select ones with closed-hole "plateau" keys. Students may use temporary plugs to cover the holes in the keys until they master the more precise finger placement needed to play open-hole keys. Some players state that open-hole keys permit louder and clearer sound projection in the flute's lower register.

Open-hole keys are also needed for traditional Celtic music and other ethnic styles, and certain modern "extended" avant garde pieces requiring the player to produce harmonic overtones, or to manipulate "breathy" sounds in addition to the traditional "pure" tones. Also, on an open-hole flute, "quarter tones", which fall halfway between the regular halftone steps of the chromatic scale, are achievable. Click here for a chart of quarter tone fingerings.

To play the Western concert flute, one holds the flute in a horizontal position, and blows transversely across the hole in the head joint. To play individual notes, one depresses the keys of the flute in distinct combinations fingerings. However, in addition to the standard finger patterns, there are a number of alternate "trill" fingerings, employing a combination of open and closed keys, and auxiliary "trill" keys (which are normally kept closed by springs until depressed), that can assist one in playing difficult passages, or in compensating for the perceived out-of-tuneness of certain notes of the equal-tempered scale in a given key. Click here for a trill fingering chart.

The standard range of the concert flute extends from B3 to D7, sometimes to F7. There is an additional octave above C7 known as the altissimo register, which reaches C8, but its usage is rare, required only in advanced musical pieces, as this upper range demands fine breath control and exacting embouchure technique to produce. For a fingering chart, click here.

Flute Terms

  • Crown - the cap at the end of the head joint that unscrews to expose the cork, and which helps keep the head joint cork positioned at the proper depth of insertion.
  • Lip plate - the part of the head joint which contacts the player's lower lip, allowing precise positioning and direction of the air stream.
  • Riser - a metal section shaped like a 'top hat with the top cut off', which raises the lip plate from the head joint tube.
  • Head joint - the top section of the flute, has the tone hole/lip plate where the player initiates the sound by blowing air across the opening.
  • Body - the middle section of the flute with the majority of the keys.
  • Closed-hole - a finger key which is fully covered.
  • Open-hole - a finger key with a perforated centre, allowing the use of techinques such as pitch bending or glissando.
  • Pointed arms - arms connecting the keys to the rods which are pointed and extend to the keys' centers; found on more expensive flutes.
  • French model - a flute with pointed French-style arms and open-hole finger keys, as distinguished from the plateau style with closed holes.
  • Inline G - the standard postion of the left-hand G (third-finger) key - in line with the first and second keys.
  • Offset G - a G key which is extended to the side of the other two left-hand finger keys (along with the G# key), thus requiring less bending of the wrist, rendering it easier to reach and cover effectively, and less uncomfortable and fatiguing to play.
  • Split E mechanism - a system whereby the second G key (positioned below the G# key) is closed when the right middle-finger key is depressed, enabling a clearer third octave E; standard on most flutes, but omitted from many intermediate- and professional-grade flutes, as it can reduce the tonal quality of 3rd octave F#.
  • Trill Keys - two small, teardrop shaped keys between the right-hand keys on the body; the first enables an easy C-D trill, and the second enables C-D#. A Bb lever or "trill" key is located in line directly above the right first-finger key. An optional C# trill key which facilitates the trill from B to C# is sometimes found on intermediate- and professional-quality flutes.
  • Foot joint - the last section of the flute (played farthest towards the right).
  • C foot - a foot joint with a lowest note of middle C; typical on student model flutes.
  • B foot - a foot joint with a lowest note of B below middle C, which is an option for intermediate - and professional-grade flutes.
  • D# roller - an optional feature added to the Eb key on the foot joint, facilitating the transition between Eb/D# and Db/C#, and C.
  • " Gizmo key" - an amusingly named optional key on the B foot joint which can be used to play low B, as well as assisting in playing C7.
Playing a transverse flute.
Playing a transverse flute.

Variation in Materials Used

  • Leonardo de Lorenzo - My complete story of the Flute

Inexpensive Western concert flutes are normally made of brass, polished and then silver-plated and lacquered to prevent corrosion. They can also be made from a range of metals such as silver (Britannia or Sterling); gold (yellow, white, or rose); platinum ; and even alloys. They can be either gold on the inside and silver on the outside, or vice versa.

Most metal flutes are made of alloys that contain significant amounts of copper or silver. These alloys are biostatic because of the oligodynamic effect, and thus suppress growth of unpleasant molds, fungi and bacteria.

Good instruments are designed to prevent or reduce galvanic corrosion between the tube and the valve mechanism. For example, many quality concert flutes have bronze springs.

Members of the concert flute family

From high to low, the members of the concert flute family include:

  • Piccolo in C or Db
  • Treble flute in G
  • Soprano flute in Eb
  • Concert flute (also called C flute, Boehm flute, silver flute, or simply flute)
  • Flûte d'amour (also called tenor flute) in Bb or A
  • Alto flute in G
  • Bass flute in C
  • Contra-alto flute in G
  • Contrabass flute in C (also called octobass flute)
  • Subcontrabass flute in G (also called double contra-alto flute) or C (also called double contrabass flute)
  • Double contrabass flute in C (also called octocontrabass flute or subcontrabass flute)
  • Hyperbass flute in C (also spelled hyper-bass flute)

Click here for a picture of the flute family, including their alternate head joints and foot joints.

Each of the above instruments has its own range. The piccolo reads music in C like the concert flute but sounds one octave higher. The alto flute is in the key of G, and extends the low register range of the flute to the G below middle C. Its highest note is a high G (4 ledger lines above the treble clef staff). The bass flute is an octave lower than the concert flute, and the contrabass flute is an octave lower than the bass flute.

Less commonly seen flutes include the treble flute in G, pitched one octave higher than the alto flute; the soprano flute, between the treble and concert; and the tenor flute or flûte d'amour in Bb or A, pitched between the concert and alto.

The lowest sizes (larger than the bass flute) have all been developed in the 20th century; these include the sub-bass flute, which is pitched in F, between the bass and contrabass; the subcontrabass flute (pitched in G or C), the contra-alto flute (pitched in G, one octave below the alto), and the double contrabass flute in C, one octave lower than the contrabass. The flute sizes other than the concert flute and piccolo are sometimes called harmony flutes.

The Indian Bamboo Flute

The Indian Bamboo Flute, one of the instruments of Indian classical music, developed independently of the Western flute. The Hindu god Krishna is traditionally considered a master of the instrument. The Indian flutes are very simple instruments when compared with their Western counterparts; they are made of bamboo and are keyless. The Indian concert flutes are available in standard pitches. In Carnatic Music, the pitches are referred by numbers such as 1(C), 1-1/2(C#), 2(D), 2-1/2(D#), 3(E), 4(F), 4-1/2(F#), 5(G), 5-1/2(G#), 6(A), 6-1/2(A#) & 7(B) (The above is assuming the tonic note is C). However, the pitch of a composition is itself not fixed and hence any of the flutes may be used for the concert (as long as the accompanying instruments, if any, are tuned appropriately) and is largely left to the personal preference of the artist.

Two main varieties of Indian flutes are currently used. The first is the Bansuri, which has six finger holes and one blowing hole, is used predominantly in Hindustani music, the music of Northern India. The second is Venu or Pullanguzhal, which has eight finger holes, and is played predominantly in Carnatic music, the music of Southern India. Presently, the 8-holed flute with cross-fingering technique, is common among many Carnatic flautists. This was introduced by the eminent flautist T. R. Mahalingam in the mid-20th Century. Prior to this, the South Indian flute had only seven finger holes, with the fingering standard developed by Sharaba Shastri of the Palladam school, at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The quality of the sound from the flute depends somewhat on the specific bamboo used to make it, and it is generally agreed that the best bamboo grows in the Nagarcoil area in South India.

Dvoyanka (Double Flute)

The dvoyanka is a double flute from the Balkans made of a single piece of wood, with six sound holes on one side. It is most frequently made of ash-wood, plum tree, pear tree, cornel or boxwood. The tune is played on the one pipe, which is accompanied by a drone from the other pipe. This kind of playing is similar by structure to music played on the kaval. It is also a favorite instrument of shepherds. Line-dances and lively melodies are frequently played on the dvoyanka. Shepherds directed their flocks by their playing, since sheep remember and recognize a melody in time. A shepherd could “teach” his flock to start from the pen towards the pasture at one melody, and to return to the village in the evening at another. The dvoyanka is similar to the dvojnica, an instrument typical for the regions of Central and Western Serbia and also Serbian regions across the river Drina, which are made and played somewhat differently to the dvoyanka.

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