Flutes in History

Flutes are the oldest instrument in the world. Hollowed bird bones, with holes cut for tone changes, have been found in archaeological sites as old as 10,000 years. Early man may have heard wind whistling across the tops of reeds and designed an instrument that produced the same sound.

One of the earliest known flutes. (Credit: NYTimes.com)

One of the earliest known flutes. (Credit: NYTimes.com)

Early flutes were played vertically, with holes covered by the fingers of either hand. Later flutes, though still vertical, had the ability to change pitch with different levels of air, and became more uniform in shape.

Some Medieval and early Native American flutes. (Credit: gothagepress.com)

Some Medieval flutes. (Credit: gothagepress.com)

Historians have found artistic drawings of transverse flutes, or flutes played across instead of down, as early as 200 B.C. which means that somewhere along the line people decided that playing a flute to the side produced a different sound. Recorders are still played vertically, so this may have been where the two instruments diverged. Over time, each instrument developed its own intonation, fingerings, and signature sound.

Interestingly, the flute seems to have disappeared from history with the fall of the Roman Empire, but it may have survived in some form in Germany and Byzantium, from whence its use spread over Europe. At this time, and for hundreds of years afterward, flutes were played to either side. This explains why some early artistic renderings depict what looks like flutes being played “backwards,” but at the time, it didn’t matter which way the flute was played as long as the holes were covered and the player could get a clear tone.

Later improvements, allowing for changes in intonation, fingering, and tone quality evolved at around 1600 A.D. The real reason flutes improved so dramatically can be blamed on the violin; flutes of the day just couldn’t compete with the range and emotion of stringed instruments. Therefore, flute makers tried experimenting with different shapes, sizes, finger holes, tone holes, and joints to find out what made the best sound. In 1670, Jean Hotteterre invented a flute that assembled from three parts, with the middle part being replaceable with different joints to produce different pitches of music.

A Hotteterre flute with joints for different key signatures. (Credit: Oldflutes.com)

A Hotteterre flute with joints for different key signatures. (Credit: Oldflutes.com)

The best part of this development was the ability to use cross-fingerings to reach every note on the chromatic scale, something that hadn’t yet been possible. This flute also had the addition of an extra key on the foot to allow an E-flat.

In the late 1700’s, flute makers became concerned that the cross-fingerings were very difficult, and at times awkward, so some designers tried adding keys to the some of the holes to eliminate the problem. By the end of the eighteenth century, the flute had a total of eight keys, and was being played regularly in works by composers like Mozart and Haydn.

Eight-key flutes, as played by Mozart. (Credit: Oldflutes.com)

Eight-key flutes. (Credit: Oldflutes.com)

The modern design for flutes can be attributed to Theobold Boehm, a jeweler/goldsmith turned flute designer. He heard a concert where the artist had rather large finger holes, and loved the sound, so he experimented with the larger size, finally covering the holes with a padded cup and spacing the holes for intonation rather than for the comfort of the player. He also added the lip plate. The modern flute was born and has had relatively few changes ever since. Today, this flute is known as a C flute because that is the tone that is produced when no keys are pressed.

A modern C flute. (Credit: Interstatemusic.com)

A modern C flute. (Credit: Interstatemusic.com)

Boehm had experimented with different pitched flutes; the G flute, called an alto flute, and the E-flat flute, called a soprano flute, are still in use today, but aren’t seen very often. Flutes have a family, just like stringed instruments do. At the top of the range, playing the highest notes at one octave above a C flute, is the piccolo. Conical in shape and in single or two pieces, the piccolo is most familiarly recognized in songs like “Stars and Stripes Forever” and has its own rich history. Then comes the E-flat, the C, the alto, and the bass flute. The only flutes in a symphony orchestra are typically the C flute and the piccolo, because the other flutes have ranges that tend to get covered by other instruments.

The Flute family, from bass down to piccolo. (Credit: Scfo.org)

The Flute family, from bass down to piccolo. (Credit: Scfo.org)

In the 1970’s, flute groups, called choirs, were started by those who wanted to play different flutes in smaller groups, but not in something as formal as a quartet or quintet. However since the only music that existed was for small groups, that’s what early flute choirs played. As more and more flute music became available to flute choirs, the range of flutes has expanded with the contralto and contrabass flute as well as a sub-contrabass.

Two styles of contrabass (left) and a sub-contrabass. (Credit: Chris Kjeldsen)

Two styles of contrabass (left, center) and a sub-contrabass (right). (Credit: Chris Kjeldsen)

Modern flute choirs are more like orchestras. Flute makers like Jelle Hogenhuis of the Netherlands hand-design and make what are known as “low” flutes, and most flute choirs have at least one contrabass (two octaves lower than a C flute) and maybe even a sub-contrabass (three octaves lower). Hogenhuis has even challenged himself with creating what he calls the “hyper bass” which is so large it takes up an entire corner, and has to be adjusted to fit a player’s height. I can’t imagine how much air it would take to play that monster.

Jelle Hogenhuis with his hyper-bass. (Credit: Jelle Hogenhuis)

Jelle Hogenhuis with his hyper-bass. (Credit: Jelle Hogenhuis)

The more flutes grow in size and range, the more arrangers and composers take up the challenge of creating music to fit. It’s a cycle that keeps growing and enriching itself. Because of this, flute choirs are becoming more and more popular, probably due to the large numbers of flute players whose talent has lain dormant since they were in high school, but who will play if they have a reason to.

Flutes sure have come a long way in 10,000 years, and they seem to be getting bigger and bigger. It makes me wonder when they will require an auxiliary air source. Read more about flute choirs here: Flute Choir? Is that Even a Thing?