In this month’s FAFQs, let’s meet all the members of the flute family! Learn more about all different types of flutes, from the modern concert flute to traditional instruments from different cultures
One of my favourite things about the flute is just how versatile it is. There are a huge range of instruments in the modern flute family, which I’ll introduce you to, but we can’t possibly properly answer this question without diving into all different types of flutes from all over the world!
The flute is recognised as one of the oldest instruments in the world (the oldest flute is dated around 60,000 years old. Cool, right??) and that means that over all those years the flute has evolved into a remarkable variety of sizes and shapes, each offering its own unique sound and character. While it’s also a popular musical instrument in Western classical music, some variation of the instrument is present in virtually every culture in the world!
So let’s meet all the diverse members of the flute family!
The Modern Flute Family
When we talk about the ‘modern flute’ we’re really talking about the Western classical flute. This branch of the flute family evolved from old-system transverse flutes found in the Middle Ages.
At the heart of this family lies the concert flute – this is the instrument everyone thinks of when they think of ‘flute’ in Western classical music. Alongside it, the piccolo stands out for its higher pitch and piercing clarity, often adding brightness to musical arrangements. Less commonly seen but equally captivating are the alto and bass Flutes, known for their deeper and more resonant sounds, offering a contrast to their higher counterparts. Rounding out the family are the rarer yet intriguing contrabass, sub-contrabass, and double contrabass flutes.
The Concert Flute
The Western concert flute has undergone significant evolution since its inception. The modern flute’s design was revolutionized in the 19th century by Theobald Boehm, who introduced a cylindrical shape and a refined system of keys. By including keys in his new design, he was able to improve the tuning and scale of the instrument as holes were able to be placed where they were acoustically needed, rather than being determined by the size of a player’s hands.
Today’s concert flutes are made of three parts: a head joint, a body joint and a foot joint. The foot joint can either be a C-foot, common for beginners, or a B-foot, which extends the range of the flute to a low B. The instrument made be made from a range of materials from silver-plated nickel, silver, gold, various types of wood, or even platinum! Players have a choice of whether to have open or closed holed keys (read more about the difference between those here) and straight or curved head joints (curved head joints are great for more petite, young players).
The piccolo is essentially a smaller version of the concert flute, pitched an octave higher. Known (and often maligned) for its bright and piercing tone, the piccolo is very similar to the concert flute but still requires slight changes (ie, the headjoint needs to sit slightly higher on the lip than the concert flute). Due to it’s short length, its pitch is extremely malleable, which is why they have a reputation for being out of tune (it takes a masterful player to control the sensitive pitch!). Like the concert flute it can be made from a variety of materials, but professional models are mostly wooden.
The Alto Flute
The alto flute is larger than the concert flute, and is known for its rich and mellow sound. It’s pitched in the key of G, a fourth below the concert flute, which gives it a unique tonal quality. As the instrument is larger, many players chose to use a curved head joint, making it more comfortable to play.
The Bass Flute
The bass flute extends the flute family’s range even lower, pitched an octave below the concert flute. It has a distinctively deep and resonant sound, often used to provide a solid bass line in flute ensembles. Due to its size, the bass flute typically has a curved head joint and requires more breath from the player.
The contrabass flute is an even lower member of the flute family, pitched two octaves below the concert flute. It produces a deep and sonorous tone, often used in flute choirs to add depth and richness. The sheer size and unique sound of the contrabass flute make it a rare but fascinating instrument.
Sub-contrabass & double contrabass flute
Both the sub-contrabass and double contrabass are rare members of the family. They are pitched three and four octaves below the concert flute respectively. The size and complexity of these flutes mean that you don’t often see them, though they are occasionally used in flute ensembles to add some satisfying rumble.
Before we have a look into some instruments outside of the Western classical tradition, let’s look at a few other rarer types of flute.
The Baroque Flute
The Baroque flute, a predecessor to the modern flute, was widely used during the Baroque music period. Made of wood and featuring a conical bore and fewer keys, it produces a softer, more mellow sound compared to the modern flute. The Baroque flute’s distinctive tonal qualities make it a favourite for historically informed performances of Baroque music.
The treble flute is in the key of G, pitched a fifth above the concert flute, sitting between the piccolo and concert flute. It has a distinctively sweet and light sound and is often used in flute choirs to add an extra layer of brightness. The treble flute’s size and tuning make it a unique member of the flute family, though it is less commonly found than other types.
Eb Soprano Flute
The Eb soprano flute is pitched a minor third above the concert flute. It’s a fairly uncommon instrument, and is a leftover from marching bands, when a flute might have to double or substitute an Eb clarinet.
The flute d’amour, or “flute of love,” is tuned between the alto and concert flutes (it can be pitched in either A, Ab or Bb. It tends to have a similar resistance to the concert flute, with a bit of the lower warmth of an alto flute. Once popular during the 18th century, they’re seeing a bit of a comeback (Just Flutes has multiple models in various keys!).
Flutes from Around the World
It’s a testament to the flute’s versatility that you can find types of flute in just about every culture in the world. These flutes can be directly-blown (using a fipple mouth piece as in the whistle or Native American flute), side-blown like the concert flute, or end-blown like the Japanese shakuhachi or Middle Eastern ney. They are made from countless different materials, and each reflects its local cultures. I’ve included links below to help demonstrate each, so you can get a sense of how wildly different these lovely instruments can sound.
The Irish flute, a key instrument in Irish folk music, is a simple system flute typically made of wood. They have six tone holes and anywhere up to thirteen keys and while they often come in the key of D, they can be pitched in a variety of keys. Players use a fascinating repertoire of ornamentations that give the music it’s distinct sound. (Philippe Barnes has an excellent book about how to learn these unique ornamentations on the Western concert flute!)
The bansuri is a side-blown bamboo flute that comes from India and Nepal and it plays a vital role in Indian classical music. There are no keys, only six or seven finger holes, which means the instruments can’t play chromatically and often players will have an arsenal of instruments pitched in different keys for every occasion. It’s sound is often gentle and meditative.
The dizi is a Chinese transverse flute. It’s buzzing sound is unique owing to a small membrane that covers an extra hole. They are often made of bamboo but can also be made of other woods (and even jade!). The dizi is integral to Chinese traditional music and Chinese opera.
The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown flute, made from bamboo root. It’s known for its deep, expressive sound and has a strong association with Zen Buddhism, where it’s used as a tool for meditation.
The ney is a Middle Eastern flute, traditionally made from reed cane. It can be found throughout Arab, Turkish and Persian music. It’s sound is soulful and melancholic, which is perhaps why the Sufi poet Rumi often wrote about it (“God picks up the reed-flute world and blows. Each note is a need coming through one of us, a passion, a longing pain. Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated, and let your note be clear. Don’t try to end it. Be your note.”)
The Native American Flute
This is a directly-blown (fipple) flute that come in a huge range of sizes and variations. It’s traditionally made of wood, has six or seven finger holes, and features a separate block that is also called a bird, fetish or totem (it is often carved in the shape of a bird). There are strong spiritual connections and it has become the favourite musical instrument New Age artists.
Much like the Chinese dizi, the Korean daegeum is a traverse bamboo flute featuring a vibrating membrane which gives it a buzzing sound. It’s a key instrument in traditional Korean court music and folk music.