The lilting, lyrical tones of the flute make it one of the most popular instruments for young musicians and one of the easiest to recognize in an orchestra.
Experts recommend that you begin to teach the flute and other woodwinds when your child is old enough to have developed adequate lung capacity—typically by ages 7 or 8—and the dexterity to hold and manage an instrument correctly.
The flute, which is also one of the oldest-known instruments, has a fascinating history, as it has developed over time:
1. Ancient Origins
The flute, which is the first-known wind instrument, was used by Stone Age people. Flutes have been fashioned from animal bone, wood, metal, and other materials. The oldest-known example of a Western-style, end-vibrated flute dates back at least 35,000 years ago. Unearthed near the town of Ulm in Germany, the flute was made from the bone of a griffin vulture.
Early flutes tended to be end-blown, played in the same vertical position as the recorder is today. Later evolutions resulted in the side-blown—or transverse—flute attaining the form we now know today.
Ancient Sumerians and Egyptians used flutes fashioned from bamboo, eventually adding three and four finger holes that increased the number of individual notes they could play. Ancient Greek flutes were end-blown and had six finger holes. The Romans are known to have played transverse flutes, which may have been introduced to Western Europe by the Etruscans as early as the 4th century BCE.
The ultimate source of the transverse flute was likely Asia, reintroduced to early medieval Western Europe via the Byzantine Empire.
2. Medieval and Renaissance Pipes, Fifes, and Flutes
Medieval flutes, which were typically wooden, with six open finger holes and no keys, were often paired with a drum as the minstrels’ portable pipe-and-tabor set.
The Renaissance witnessed the development of flutes, often made from boxwood, with two groupings of finger holes and a slimmer cylindrical bore. While this new design made the tone lighter and more airy and delicate, the sound from the lower register became more problematic. Military bands continued to use the smaller fife.
3. The Flute Replaces the Recorder
The transverse flute began to displace the recorder in the middle of the 17th century, and before another century had passed, it had moved into a place of popularity among a wide range of composers.
During this period, changes in the flute’s size and shape conferred upon it a greater musical range. Its larger chromatic range made it capable of evoking a rich palette of moods, from the pastoral to the sprightly, to dramatic declarations of love and soaring flights of fantasy.
In the Baroque period, French musical instrument makers—the Hotteterre family chief among them—introduced major changes. They included the creation of three joints for the instrument, increasing to four joints by the early 18th century. The Baroque flutes also featured a bore that tapered toward the foot end. The alterations permitted cross-fingering in order to play in various keys. They additionally made upper-register volume and tuning better. New sliding joints permitted the flute to be tuned in tandem with other instruments of an ensemble.
The designation “flute” in compositions from the Baroque period typically continued to mean the recorder, with the transverse flute becoming commonly known as the “German” flute.
4. A Classical Flourishing
By the early 1800s, the flute had six keys and would soon add two more. These classical flutes, like their earlier Western European counterparts, were usually made of wood with a cone-shaped shaft and six keys.
The flute as we know it today took its modern form at the time of the Classical period in music, the era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. During this time, the flute became an integral part of the symphony orchestra.
5. Baroque and Classical Music for Flute
In 1681, Jean-Baptiste Lully became the first to write the transverse flute into an operatic orchestra.
Over the Baroque and Classical periods, a number of composers created compositions showcasing the capabilities of the flute.
Early 18th century composer Georg Philipp Telemann’s Twelve Fantasias for flute without bass presents flutists with passacaglias and fugues that demonstrate the many possibilities of the instrument, including the “false polyphony” resulting from rapid changes in tone and subject, with the high and low registers alternating.
Mozart wrote his Flute Concerto in G major, No. 1, K. 313, which contains a liltingly expressive Adagio movement, encased by lively Allegro and Rondo movements.
Beethoven composed numerous works for the flute. His Serenade in D major, Op. 41, is composed for flute accompanied by piano. The work is a series of six subsections, by turns serene and vivacious, introduced by an overture. Its Andante con variazioni e coda has earned praise from musicians as a supreme example of the composer’s art.
6. Boehm’s Lyrical Revolution
Today, flutists use the term “Western concert flute” to describe modern flutes descended from Western European models. This style of flute is also known as the “C” flute because it is usually tuned to that note on the scale, or as the “Boehm flute,” due to the influence of Theobald Boehm on its evolving design.
The German-born Boehm, whose long career spanned most of the 19th century, was the greatest influencer of the way the modern flute looks and sounds. A flutist himself, as well as a goldsmith and artisan, Boehm produced a series of significant innovations in the design of the instrument beginning in 1810.
Building on previous ideas of other instrument-makers, Boehm also adopted the idea of using larger tone holes, as well as the use of ring keys. In his iterations of the flute in the 1830s, Boehm provided tone holes organized to create the best possible acoustic values. He also linked the keys through a series of movable axles.
He also adapted newly invented pin springs to his instrument and put felt pads on its key cups in order to impede the unnecessary escape of air. He altered the silhouette of the embouchure—the mouth hole—to make it rectangular, and constructed the instrument of German silver, for its superior acoustic qualities.
By the close of the 1870s, Boehm was offering his “modern silver flute.” Over the course of his career, he produced a revolution in the way flutes were designed, constructed, and standardized. His basic flute design remains largely in use today. The Library of Congress holds a number of examples of Boehm’s flutes in its Dayton C. Miller collection.
7. Today’s Flute—An Ancient Instrument with a New Voice
Modern flutes typically have 16 keyed openings, corresponding to an even-tempered octave. Many contemporary flutes possess a range of three octaves. Today’s flutes are typically made from blackwood or cocuswood, or from silver or a silver and nickel-silver alternative.
Current members of the flute family include the piccolo, the concert and bass (or contrabass) flute, all in the key of C, in increasingly lower registers and with different ranges. The lowest note on the hyperbass flute has a frequency of only about 16 hertz, considered lower than the lower limit of human hearing.
Flutists today have a rich repertoire of solo and ensemble pieces to choose from, including works by earlier composers such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a well as 20th century masters such as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and many others.