Room 69--The Flute

The standard flute

Berlioz describes the flute in his treatise on Instrumentation as “the most agile of all wind instruments. It is just as suitable for fast diatonic and chromatic passages-­slurred or detached--as for arpeggios and figures with wide jumps. The large flute (C flute) is the one most often used. In normal orchestras, it is generally used in two parts, although soft chords sustained by three flutes would frequently produce wonderful effects."

How the flute sounds

Here is an example of the slow movement from Vivaldi's Flute Concerto nicknamed "The Goldfinch."


Here is the famous flute solo which opens the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy.


BASIC PLAYING TECHNIQUE--The flute is held horizontally and supported by the left forefinger, the right hand, and the front of the lower jaw. The lower lip is pressed against the lip plate, and the instrument is rotated slightly so that the player can blow a stream of air across the far edge of the mouth-hole.

The most important element in overall playing flexibility and tone quality is the embouchure, or the positioning of the mouth and lips for playing. For the flute, there are basically two types of embouchure--tight and relaxed. Both methods come into play in order to conquer the idiosyncrasies of the instrument, to control the subtleties of its tone, and to maintain proper intonation.


The flow of air into the flute is regulated by the tongue. The tongue is held forward in the mouth to block the passage of air. To initiate the flow, the tongue is drawn back quickly as though the player were saying the syllable tu. The tone is stopped by moving the tongue back to its original position. In rapid passages where the tongue cannot recover quickly enough to repeat tu, a combination of two different syllables is used: tu ku, tu ku. This is called double-tonguing. For rapid passages, another combination is used: tu ku tu, tu ku tu. This is triple-tonguing.

There is also flutter-tonguing, where the player makes the sound of a trilled "r" while blowing through the instrument. Here is a brief example from the music of Schoenberg. Listen for the flute and the feeling of rapid articulation you hear. It is rather subtle because the violins are playing in unison with the flute.


DIAGRAM Dimensions to be inserted:
Overall length: 26.38 inches
Diameter of bore: 3/4 inch.
Present-day flutes are usually made of silver and less often of gold or platinum.

Contains blowhole and fine-tuning mechanism

An adjustment for fine-tuning the instrument. Cap is connected to screw mechanism which adjusts a cork stopper and thereby lengthens or shortens air column within instrument. Generally, this adjustment is only made by an experienced technician. Most tuning problems are slight enough that they can be corrected by merely pulling apart or pushing together the tuning joint (the point of connection between the head and body joint.

Contains all the keys played by fingers of left hand and first three fingers of right hand.

Contains the keys to play the low C, C-sharp, and E-flat of the instrument. All three can be played by the little finger of the right hand.

In 1830, the year of the Symphonie fantastique, orchestral flutes were still constructed from various woods, predominantly boxwood. As the 19th century progressed, it was found that a more brilliant tone could be produced by an all-metal flute. Around 1850, there began a gradual transition from wooden to metal. By 1900, wooden flutes were scarcely seen. Today, they are primarily used by special ensembles whose purpose is to present authentic performances on period instruments.

The most revolutionary contribution to the technology of the flute was made by Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) of Munich. First, he bored a separate hole for all chromatic pitches and distributed the holes in their acoustically correct positions. Formerly, the holes had to be bored so they could be reached by all the fingers, a limitation that caused some pitches to be slightly out of tune. Secondly, the holes were to stand open and were to be bored as large as possible. The third and most important part of Boehm's work was his creation of a mechanical system of keys and hole covers to place control of all the holes within easy reach of the fingers. This system was applied to other instruments, including the clarinet. With minor modifications, the flute and clarinet still use the basic Boehm system.

In recognition of the far-reaching influence of Boehm's concepts on the other winds, he is sometimes called "the father of modern woodwind instruments." In addition to his system, Boehm also re-introduced the cylindrical bore to the flute, a move which rescinded the conical bore of the instrument that had been introduced in France during the late 17th and early 18th century by the Hotteterre family.

When air is properly blown through a flute, the entire column of air inside the instrument is set into motion and creates what is known as a standing wave. The way in which the air begins to vibrate is directly related to the player's embouchure and the angle at which the stream of air hits the edge on the opposite side of the instrument's blow hole. The stream of air vibrates back and forth across the edge, a phenomenon which is an "ignition system" that initiates the vibration of the entire air column. In the world of acoustics, a sound produced in this method is called an "edge tone." In the above diagram, the area called "slit" is the equivalent of the player's embouchure.


"Low, soft notes on the flute are the simplesti high, loud notes are least simple, but still remain not very richly compound. There is a feeling of gentleness and an innocence, due to this relative paucity of upper harmonics, which the ear appreciates all the better in contrast to more complicated sounds. Though the flutes have neither the versatility nor the variability of, for example, the violins, they are indispensable in their own limpid beauty, and are so individual that no other instrument of the orchestra can stand in for them."

Donington, Robert, Music and its Instruments, Methuen and Co., New York, 1982.

"Since Boehm's time there have been no really important changes in the structure of the flute. But mention might be made of the instrument built by Giorgi in Florence, in 1888. The material of the Giorgi flute was ebonite, and it dispensed with keys altogether, having a separate hole for every semitone of the octave. But since only ten fingers were available for the eleven holes of the instrument, the left index finger had to cover one hole with the tip of the finger and one with the second joint. Giorgi's flute is not held transversely before the face, but in the same position as the oboe and clarinet, the embouchure being pierced in a separate bulbous head-piece. The difficult fingering and the wide intervals between the holes, which can be reached only by performers with unusually large hands, have prevented any general adoption of this instrument."

Geiringer, Karl, Instruments in the History of Western Music, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978.

"The transverse flute, held across the performer's face, came to Europe via Byzantium. It is the only one of the various flutes to have remained uninterruptedly in general use from classical antiquity down to the present day."

Geiringer, Karl, Instruments in the History of Western Music, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978.

During the last half of the 18th century, various instrument makers around Europe began to manufacture what could be called a "Walking-stick Flute." It consisted of the usual three or four joints of the flute fixed together with an added length to fill out the walking-stick. Some of them were quite elegant, with appointments of silver and ivory, but they never caught on as a viable performance instrument.

"Avant-garde composers, annoyed by the "svleet" sounds of the flute, have tried their best (or their worst) to improve on it by instructing the players to blow through the flute without producing a recognizable pitch, or to clap the keys without blowing."

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Lectionary of Music, Mc Graw Hill, New York, 1989.

"In pre-Columbian South America, Indians made flutes out of bones, samples of which still exist. There is a legend of a Peruvian Indian whose beloved died young. Disconsolate, he went to her place of burial, exhumed one of her legs, and fashioned a flute out of her tibia. He played wistful pentatonic melodies on it, and this intimate contact with a part of the body of his beloved gave him surcease from his sorrow."

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Lectionary of Music, Mc Graw Hill, New York, 1989.

J.J. Quantz wrote 312 flute concerti and 204 flute sonatas for his employer, King Frederick the Great. However, the king possessed a gargantuan appetite for sonatas and wrote 120 of his own.

The flute is not an instrument with a good moral effect. too exciting.

(Aristotle, Politics, 322 B.C.)

The music of the flute is enervating to the mind. (Ovid, Remedia Amoris, 10 B.C.)

Flute, n. A variously perforated hollow stick intended for the punishment of sin, the minister of retribution being commonly a young man with straw-coloured eyes and lean hair.

Bierce, Ambrose, The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, (pub. 1967).

In 1774 the Gentleman's Concerts were begun in Manchester by 26 amateur musicians. Since they all played the flute, for some years the orchestra consisted exclusively of 26 flutes.

Previn, Andre, ed., Andre Previn's Guide to the Orchestra, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1983.

Alcibiades refused to learn the flute, as a sordid thing, and not becoming a free citizen; saying that to play on the lute or the harp does not in any way disfigure a man's body or face, but one is hardly to be known by the most intimate friends when playing on the flute.

Plutarch, Lives, (c. 46-120 A.D.)

The sound of the flute will cure epilepsy, and a sciatic gout. Theophrastus (c. 370-c.287 B.C.)

A tooter who tooted a flute
Tried to teach two young tutors to toot;
Said the two to the tutor:
Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tutors to toot?

Suggested works for further listening

BACH: Suite No. 2 in B minor for Flute and Strings
BLOCH: Suite Modale, for Flute and Strings
DEBUSSY: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
DEBUSSY: Syrinx, for Unaccompanied Flute
MOZART: Flute Concertos in G and D major
NIELSEN: Flute Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY: Chinese Dance and Dance of the Reed Flutes, from the ballet, The Nutcracker
TELEMANN: Suite in A minor for Flute and Strings
VARESE: Density 21.5
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