The flute is the oldest known melodic instrument, dating back 43,000 years, and has been discovered in some form in almost all known human cultures around the world.
Contemporary and historical flutes
*referred to as the “C” Flute because until the past 2 decades, it’s lowest note was a C.
Today, most people play on instruments that go down to a B below middle C.
Created in: 1832/1847 by Theobald Boehm, who revolutionized the instrument by re-arranging the tone holes according to best acoustic placement and equal temperament intonation, rather than the previous method of placing tone holes where the fingers could cover them. He additionally, created a new key system, altered the conical bore to a cylindrical bore, and suggested metal instead of wood for the body of the instrument.
Silver : standard flute sound
Gold : warmer, rounder, “matte” sound
Platinum : direct, colder, laser-like sound
Wood.: an airy, more hollow sound
Material choice is entirely personal and many players will mix and match different materials to achieve the sound palette that works for them.
*unless you plan on renting a flute for the player, you should not specify your ideal choice
What it’s good at
Fast, technical passages
Even tone throughout the instrument
Intonation is the most stable of all the flutes
Very wide range of color and sound palette
Ok…now let’s break it down. The following rules apply pretty much across the board for all of the auxiliary flutes.
The first octave of any flute is going to project less with the reputation for having a more diffuse sound (accentuated on the larger auxiliary flutes.) It is possible to develop the ability to play “loud” sounding low notes with greater control of the airstream and harder articulation that gives a “laser-like” edge to the sound.
1. The low B, C, C#/Db, and D#/Eb all use the right hand pinky, making fast passagework between these notes difficult and trills and tremolos virtually impossible.
2. Harmonics are NOT possible in this register because all of the notes are fundamentals (except the higher B if the flute player is using a B-foot flute.)
3. Tongue rams, tongue pizzes, and air noises should be written in this octave only.
This is the meat and potatoes of the flute range. All of these notes are first harmonics, and thus, most have the same fingering as their first octave equivalents, but use a different amount of air pressure that pushes the pitch to the first harmonic, an octave higher. In instances where the harmonic is thin, or out of tune, slight fingering variations exist (C, C#, D) and therefore act as fundamentals and have the greatest variation when compared to their harmonic fingered from the lower register.
1. Octave jumps: Very fast, repeated jumps back and forth between octaves of the same note are difficult because you are often doing the work by alternating air speed without the aid of a fingering change.
This is where fingerings change completely from the first two octaves (where fingerings are roughly the same between octave jumps) because the natural harmonics in this octave are both hard to control (especially in passagework), out of tune, and have a limited dynamic range. As a result, you can have wonderful color (and pitch) variation between “real” fingerings and harmonic fingerings of notes as there are many options from which to choose. Timbral trills work especially well in the lower half of this octave. Do not expect younger students or amateurs to have great facility in the higher ranges of this octave.
Flute players are used to reading ledger lines. Please do not write 8va for this (or any octave) as it takes our brains longer to process because of the different fingerings between the 2nd and 3rd octaves.
2. Many flutes do not have the capability of trilling between high G and A. (This is an optional key that most professional flute players do have, but that is not standard on student flutes, or all flutes.)
3. Tremolos in this octave are hard to do fast/at all
This octave is considered "non-standard" for student flute players. All of the notes in the high octave are almost impossible to play softer than forte. These are loud, airy, bright sounding notes, whereas these same pitches on the piccolo (written an octave lower) are more laser-like in sound with much greater dynamic possibilities.
C, C#, and D are all in professional flute players repertoire.
Most players will not have fingerings above high D in their fingers.
E generally doesn’t speak quite as well as F.
The only trill that is possible is C-C#/Db
PICCOLO | ALTO FLUTE | BASS FLUTE
Because the baroque flute grew out of the renaissance consort family, smaller flutes have always been used for different color and for greater ease in the higher octaves (that baroque flutes couldn’t reach). It has been used mainly orchestrally since the times of its creation in 1680, though in the 20th and 21st centuries it has been increasingly used in chamber and solo repertoire. As the flute acquired more keys, so did the piccolo, however the piccolo has maintained a conical bore and wooden body (a holdover from the baroque/classical flute design) for stability of pitch and sweetness of sound at that size.
Flute players are expected to know how to play the piccolo and as such, it is taught in schools to all aspiring flute players. Most players will own their own instrument. That said, many people hate playing the piccolo, or just don’t do it that much, so always consult with the player you are writing for about their comfort level (I love it!)
Wood with metal keys : standard orchestral sound
Nickel or plastic : standard military, band, student instruments
What it’s good at
Fast, technical passages
Who did it well?
Ravel - Always writes really great piccolo parts. In his orchestral and chamber music works he often writes beautifully for the piccolo in the low register.
Lowell Lieberman - Concerto for Piccolo
Donatoni - NIDI
1. The piccolo is a transposing instrument by an octave. What you see on the page is an octave lower than what you will hear.
2. The piccolo can do so much more than just play loud and high. Explore all the possibilities!
The Alto Flute has a very distinct sound, due to the fact that the diameter of the tube is wider, and the length is longer. This creates a more "hollow", diffuse, and mellow sound that composers have exploited for beautiful colouration and effect. Before Boehm's new key system, tone holes were covered by fingers only. As a result, flutes could only be so large in order for human finger to be able to reach and cover the notes. Once Boehm redesigned the key system, with springs and levers to cover holes the tube that fingers cannot naturally reach, it was possible to "blow up" the flute to bigger sizes.
Created in: Not until 1855 as a Boehm prototype. Fun fact: it was originally called the Bass Flute in G.
Generally silver or nickel. It is very unsusual that alto flutes would be made of gold or platinum as the amount of previous metal needed is so much more, and would make it prohibitively heavy for players to hold.
Curved vs. Straight headjoint
This is not something you can specify, but rather is chosen by the player for their comfort level. From a physics perspective, I am always in favor of the straight headjoint as it means that the airstream doesn’t have to travel around a bend, allowing a louder, more supported sound, but this may just be in my head.
What it’s good at
Playing G and A below middle C
Who did it well? some of the pioneers of alto flute writing
Stravinsky - Rite of Spring
Ravel - Daphnis and Chloe
Boulez - Le Marteau sans Maitre
Takemitsu - Toward the Sea
1. The Alto Flute is a closed hole instrument. This makes some multiphonics, quarter tone fingerings, and pitch bends impossible.
For a lot more about the alto flute, please visit:
In order for the Bass Flute to sound an octave lower than the C Flute, the length and diameter of the tube is much longer/wider even than the Alto Flute. It is so long that a curved head joint is required. There are some Bass Flutes that are designed in a triangle-esque format, or vertically to help with the fact that the instrument is so heavy and can be very tiring (and sometimes injury inducing) to play. Unlike the piccolo and alto flute, learning the Bass Flute is unusual for students unless they have the opportunity to play in a flute choir as there are no Bass Flute parts in standard orchestral/chamber music repertoire.
Created in: 1931 in England
Usually nickel, or some silver alloy that will allow the instrument to be as light as possible.
What it’s good at
Playing quietly...ok, personally I struggle with the bass flute as I find the instrument itself quite problematic and often not worth the trouble associated (purchase/rental costs, amplification often necessary, limited range and dynamics, and the physical toll it takes on ones body) unless you’re looking for a very specific sound. That said, there are many people who loved to play the bass flute. Flutists like Claire Chase and Erin Lesser have done amazing things for advancing what is possible on the bass flute and have worked extensively with many composers to make sure that works written for the instrument are effective. Check out the scores, recordings, and videos of their collaborations with composers to see what techniques you find might work for you.
1. The Bass Flute requires A LOT of air to play. As a result, a player will not be able to sustain a note for the same amount of time that the would be able to do on a regular flute. As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the flute, the longer you can hold your breath.
2. Do not write in the bass clef for the bass flute. Please write in treble clef knowing that the pitches will sound an octave lower than what is written
A lot more information about the Bass Flute:
Some more notes about
Alto/Bass - Most orchestral players will not own an alto/bass flute. Given the amount of repertoire being written on these instruments, most players who perform a lot of new music are increasingly needing to either buy their own instruments, or get access to one somehow, though this SHOULD NEVER BE ASSUMED. Always check with the player you are writing for if they have an instrument. If they don’t, make sure it is included in your commissioning contract that the ensemble will rent one for the player (it should never be the players responsibility to rent an instrument. You should also always make sure to check with the flute player to see if they are comfortable playing these instruments - the bass flute especially, is very large, heavy, and awkward and causes many players severe performance related injuries. You will have flute fans for life if you check in with them.
If it is a union ensemble, the organization might not choose to program your work because of the extra fees associated with doubling/tripling/quadrupling etc. Generally it is 20% extra for first double, 10% for each additional double, so definitely make sure if you are writing for a union group that you have ok’d every double ahead of time (also in orchestras, many players do not double, so they have to hire additional players to cover these parts…)
***Extended techniques on auxiliary instruments: DO NOT ALWAYS WORK. Do not assume that something that works on the regular flute will work on any of the auxiliary instruments (many do not). Check in with a flute player before sending anything to print.
EARLY FLUTES (PRE-BOEHM)
BAROQUE | CLASSICAL | ROMANTIC
The following instruments are not standard for flute players to have learned. Playing any of these flutes is like learning an entirely new instrument and should not be compared to the concept of playing auxilary flutes. Each one uses a completely different set of fingerings, and also a different way of producing sound and air support. Choosing to play early flutes is a big undertaking for any flute player, and you will find that most people do either one or the other (early or modern).
That said...these instruments are beautiful and have such unique colors and characteristics. They also have an unparalleled ability to pay microtonally.
BAROQUE FLUTE (traverso)
*in many original manuscripts it will be referred to as a traverso because the word “flute” had historically been used to describe a recorder (recorder in French is flute a bec.)
Created in : 1680’s in the court of Louis XIV
Materials : Wood (generally rosewood or ebony) with ivory joints. One key made of metal.
The baroque flute became hugely popular amongst the aristocracy of France in the late 1600's due to it's sweet tone and ability to play a large range of dynamics (the closest wind instruments, the recorder and oboe, were much brighter and had much more difficulty playing softly.) It was often featured with some plucked instrument and singers in delicate songs that allowed the expressivity of the instrument to shine.
Pitch and temperament
It is important to remember that equal temperament was not in practice at this time. Almost all instruments (save the organ) were not fixed pitch instruments, and as a result, music developed to have flexible intonation and flexible temperament. The pitch in one town might be different to the next town (pitch was generally based on the pitch of the organ in that city) and could vary greatly from country to country. Pitch in France was generally around 392-408, Germany 412-420, and Italy went even as high as 460. Traveling woodwind musicians would have to travel with several different "middle joints" that would allow them to play at a variety of different temperaments.
Forked fingering and colours
The baroque flute does not have the aid of the extra tone holes that Boehm placed on the C-Flute because the fingers could not reach them. Metal, and craftsmanship, was expensive, so the fewer keys, the more affordable the instrument was. Without the help of extra keys and tone holes, baroque flute players have a lot on their plate. If we think back to the physics portion, we can remember that you can change the length of the tube by raising ones fingers A tube that has its holes covered successively is going to produce a strong, stable sound. However, if you vent any of the holes, creating a break in the tube, the sound is reduced in volume and support immensely as air escapes the tube. These sorts of fingerings are called "forked" or "cross" fingerings. Every note not in the D Major scale is a forked fingering. This meant that each key has a very distinct characteristic that great composers of the time exploited for beautiful effect. This also meant, that a lot of music doesn't extend past 3#'s and 3b's because venturing into those keys is quite a nightmare for gnarly fingerings and intonation, though some composers would purposely choose keys further round the circle of fifths for their unique coloristic properties.
Created in : 1750's-1820's
Materials : Wood (generally rosewood or ebony) with ivory joints. 6-8 keys made of metal.
As music became increasingly chromatic and metal became cheaper, flute makers experimented with adding keys on various parts of the instrument to aid with the forked fingerings that were weak in sound and often quite out of tune. It is important to remember that there was no standard number of keys as makers and players were constantly experimenting to try and achieve greater ease of playing. Many players continued to play on the one keyed flute (most Mozart is possible on one key) but most experimented with trying to find greater facility on the instrument.
The immense popularity of the flute over the 18th century resulted in a treasure trove of repertoire. One of the greatest benefactors of the flute was Frederick the Great of Prussia, an avid flute player, who employed both CPE Bach and Quantz as his court composers. It was Frederick the Great for who challenged Bach with the Musical Offering theme when he was visiting his son, and who would encourage Quantz to write his famous treatise: On Playing The Flute, one of the most important historical performance treatises consulted today.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the flute would become more of an orchestral and salon instrument rather than a solo instrument (like it was in the Baroque). One can see composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven experimenting with the combination of woodwind instruments in a section, alternating between 0,1, and 2 flutes in a section (yes yes...ok the Haydn Creation has 3 flutes but it is only for a hot second...)
Today, when we play historically informed Classical flutes, they are pitched at 430 hz.
Created and used: 1820-1860
Players continued to experiment with adding keys to the flute and altering its bore to try and fix intonation issues, but this resulted in a thin, bright sound that unfortunately didn't project well. This caused Theobald Boehm to feel that a radical redesign of the instrument was necessary, however, there were many skeptics for a long time. It took him several decades to come up with a system that he felt worked, and then after that, he had to convince flute players that buying a new instrument, and learning the new fingerings was worthwhile. While the Boehm flute was adopted by the Paris Conservatory, it didn't become standard until the 20th century.