The flute can turn air into many different, mesmerising sounds. Unlike reed instruments, there is no resistance for the player to blow against, the player themselves bends and shapes the air to create their best tone. It is hardly surprising that the flute has a special place in mythology, most notably the Greek God Pan (the subject of much music, including solo flute piece, Debussy’s Syrinx).
How the flute works
Sound is caused by vibrations. Vibrations are generated on the flute when the airstream hits the riser and the far edge of the tone hole. The tube of the flute acts as a container, allowing the vibrating air to travel down it.
The length of this spring-like column of air is changed by the keys on the flute. Keeping all the keys down makes the tube as long as possible and creates the lowest note. If another hole is opened near the top of the flute, the air column will be shorter. The shorter the column, the higher the note.
This is why bass flutes (an octave lower) are so much bigger than our regular flutes and piccolos (an octave higher) are so much smaller!
-> try moving up the lowest octave on the flute from bottom C, each note needs one higher key to open.
History of the flute
A vulture bone flute is thought to be the world’s oldest recognisable musical instrument at 40,000 years old. Found with evidence of mammoth ivory flute in a European cave. These flutes were used during hunting and in rituals, and were later made of wood or bamboo. Bamboo flutes were popular in East Asia and the six-holed flute was common in Ancient Greece.
The transverse (sideways as opposed to being played vertically like a modern recorder) flute of the Middle Ages was made of one piece of wood with had six finger holes. It was used in the military and at court, usually accompanied by a drum.
In the Baroque era the flute became more popular and changed drastically. From 1660 it was made into three pieces before getting its first key (the D sharp key we still have today). As the flute improved in range and timbre it was able to compete in orchestras and became a rival to the popular recorder.
The baroque transverse flute still had sound, intonation and consistency problems.
Flautist and composer Johann Quantz (1697–1773) studied the intonation problems of the instrument before becoming a flute maker himself. He invented the tuning slide, experimented with shapes and sizes of the tone hole and added another key. These improvements, his many flute compositions and his influential treatise ‘The Art of Playing the Flute’ brought the flute into the limelight and boosted its popularity further.
The improved flute had a firm place in the orchestra during the Classical Era but its timbre and technical capacity was still limited. By 1832 Theobald Boehm (1794–1881) had created the easier, linked key mechanism we know today, with tone holes adapted to improve the sound rather than the fingers. Further improvements to both the mechanism and tube revolutionised the flute and the Boehm system was gradually accepted during the Romantic era.
This created a technically complete flute with a better tone, composers explored the colours and abilities of the instrument and the solo repertoire dramatically increased.
We are able to enjoy this rich repertoire, colours, technical possibilities and history on the powerful instrument we know today.
featured image credit to Josephine Wall (top, The Enchanted Flute)