A Brief History of the Flute: It’s Origins and Evolution

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Don’t be fooled by the sophistication of the modern concert flute, with its keys, springs and complex mechanism. The flute is not merely a product of modern acoustic engineering, it is an ancient, in fact pre-historic instrument, dating from the stone age and one that many historians believe could be among the first musical instruments ever created. Whether held forward like the instrument we now know as the recorder, or held sideways as with the concert flute, flutes have long featured prominently across the world and throughout all of documented history.

In this article we will explore the origins of the instrument we know and love today. We will trace its evolution from the pieces of bone with holes in, found some 40,000 years ago to the well-honed, evenly tuned and responsive flutes we take for granted in the modern era. The flute has been on a fascinating journey but whether it has yet reached its final destination remains to be seen.

So When Did It All Begin?

Like much of ancient history, the exact origins of music are uncertain, but it is thought that the earliest forms were produced by the human voice and possibly by ‘accidental’ sound effects such as natural sounds produced in the environment and the sounds of everyday tasks such as cooking, using tools etc. 

Music could even have been one of the earliest forms of communication, before language itself was even formalised. 

It is difficult to comprehend the place in history of something that has, in terms of documented proof, always ‘been there’.

To attempt to put this into context, music making was happening before the last ice age, before the pyramids were built and way before the birth of Christ and the dawn of the common era.

Music was not just a ‘pass-time’ or ‘amusement’ to early man, it was probably integral to life, may have been used to warn others of danger or even to attract a mate. 

This is further illustrated by the timeline at the end of this article.

The Earliest Musical Instruments

As early man began to use tools to create items for specific uses, it is not surprising that he also turned his hand to creating the means to make a wider range of sounds.

Percussion instruments were an obvious place to start, and a way of evolving environmental sound into music.

The regular tapping of a hammer or a metal tool could have been one of the first rhythms ever heard by man. 

As this all happened way before writing was invented, we rely on archaeologists to provide likely proof for the existence of particular instruments at any particular time. 

A number of instruments have laid claim to the title of ‘the oldest instrument in the world’ including the drum, but, since a notable discovery in Slovenia in 1995, the flute’s case for claiming this illustrious crown is a compelling one. 

The Discovery of ‘The Oldest Instrument in the World’

Divje babe is Slovenia’s oldest archaeological site and provides the country, and the world, with a huge amount of information about the customs and habits of early man.

The site has been excavated on ten levels and over 600 artefacts have been found there, including a piece of bone which has since become known as the ‘Divje babe flute’.

The ‘flute’ is in fact a piece of bone from the femur of a cave bear.

It is 133.6 mm long and has two complete holes and two damaged holes.

Because of the area it was found in, and other artefacts uncovered in the same layer of the excavation, experts believe it is definitely at least 40,000 years old and that it could be as old as 60,000.

This ‘bone’ has also become known as a ‘neanderthal’ flute and is the only musical instrument discovered so far that could have been played by our neanderthal ancestors. 

The exact date of its manufacture, and even whether this artefact is actually a flute at all, is still an ongoing controversy.

In support of the neanderthal theory, the bone has holes which are precisely placed and correspond to recognisable, roughly diatonic pitches when the instrument is blown.

Some historians have tried to explain these as random bite marks but this theory is not consistent with the size of teeth of the animals believed to be in existence in the area at the time. 

Conversely, if created deliberately, the flute does demonstrate a surprising level of skill for the neanderthal.

These early ‘men’ are believed to have not even been capable of communicating through language and it is also surprising that just one example of the instrument has so far been found.

The debate continues to rage, but Slovenia has justifiably claimed the Divje babe flute as a national treasure and tourist attraction and has housed it in their national museum under the banner of being the ‘oldest musical instrument in the world’.

Modern replicas of the instrument have been created and are played regularly in Slovenia, most notably by the musician Ljuben Dimkaroski.

They are known as tididibabs.

The Next Discoveries

Ice age Flute

Although the Divje babe flute is thought to be the oldest example of the instrument, it is likely that the flute was invented multiple times across the world at different points in history.

In charting its progress, we can only go by documented proof as found by historians and archaeologists but proof has been found of the flute in Egypt, Israel, China, India, Greece.

Is the Flute A Thing of the Past?

From the fall of the Roman empire around 400 AD until the around 1100 AD, little was heard of the flute and there is very little documentation to contradict the idea that it simply disappeared for several centuries.

It was not until the 11th and 12th centuries that the flute began to re-emerge, probably starting in Germany.

By the beginning of the 15th century, flutes are shown in various pictures right across Western Europe and beyond. 

At this stage, flutes were still made from bone but were more sophisticated than the ancient examples described above, resembling more closely a modern recorder.

The Flute in the Renaissance Era

Renaissance Flute (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Throughout the renaissance period in the 16th century, the flute was one of the most popular instruments of a very vibrant Italian music scene.

The instrument was held in high esteem, even collected by Henry VIII who was an accomplished performer of the flute/recorder, harp, horn, lute and lyre.

An inventory taken of his renaissance musical instrument collection after his death in 1547 revealed that he owned more than 70 recorders, 40 flutes and assorted other instruments including bagpipes, pipes, fifes and shawms (precursor to the modern oboe). 

Flutes at this time were very simple, consisting of a wooden, cylindrical tube with a cork stopper at one end, a blow hole and six finger holes.

Because of the lack of sophisticated keywork, these flutes were able to produce only a limited range of notes so they were made in different sizes, pitched in different keys.

They were also frequently played as a group or ‘consort’.

Key Developments: Baroque Period to Present day

Baroque Flute

From Tudor times until the present day, the popularity of the flute has grown and grown.

Significant changes have taken place to its design over the years which have enormously improved its intonation, flexibility and tone quality.

The instrument pictured above is still little more than a tube with holes in, yet our modern concert instruments are much more complex.

The main changes, made by a relatively small number of highly influential flute makers, are outlined below:

Hotteterre Family: 1670s

  1. The tube which comprised the body of the flute was divided into three pieces: the head joint, the body and the foot joint.
  2. The body and the foot joint became conical with the body of the flute having a narrower diameter towards the bottom, while the foot joint widened out to create a small bell. This design is still followed in some modern piccolos.
  3. The first key was added at the bottom to enable the instrument, with the use of complex fingerings, to play all of the chromatic notes although the tuning was still a little variable.
  4. Finger holes were made much smaller.

By 1720, the flute had been further sub-divided with the body now being in two parts with extra joints of differing lengths called the ‘corps de recharge’.

This allowed the performer to shift the pitch of the instrument to be in tune with different orchestras.

These flutes were known as baroque flutes.

Quantz and Tromlitz: 1750 – 1790

Both of these performers wrote lengthy treatises about the development of the flute including formulating new fingerings for each note on the instrument in order to improve pitch and intonation.

Quantz in particular, studied the intonation problems of the instrument in detail and introduced a tuning slide and extra key.

In spite of this, however, flute-makers were still unhappy about the tuning of the instrument and the complexity of the fingering required so they added further keys to improve production of F, B flat and G sharp.

Two keys were then added to the foot joint to expand the range of the flute to C and C sharp and, by the end of the 18th century, two more keys were introduced which resulted in the 8-keyed flute which is the clear ancestor to the modern concert flute.

Theobald Boehm: 1794 – 1881

Theobald Boehm

Boehm, a professional jeweller and goldsmith with a strong aptitude for music, is legitimately known as the ‘father of the concert flute’.

It is his innovations, building on the addition of the keys as described above, which really created the instrument we know today.

Boehm’s first re-design, dating from 1832, involved the creation of a new mechanism that functioned as an extension of the fingers, linking the keys by a series of movable axles.

This meant that, for the first time, the holes could be spaced according to the acoustic properties of the flute, and particularly to create a robust intonation, rather than to be conveniently sized for the players’ fingers.

This made a huge difference to the intonation of the instrument.

By 1847, Boehm had studied acoustics and produced another re-design, this time with a cylindrical body, a foot joint and a parabolic head joint.

The embouchure hole was no longer round or oval, but rectangular with rounded corners.

The holes in this instrument were even larger than the previous design (an innovation introduced in an attempt to make the instrument louder) and could not easily be covered by the fingers so he designed padded cups for each hole to ensure air could not escape.

Pin springs and metal ring keys were subsequently added to facilitate the opening and closing of the keys and, perhaps most crucially, the instrument was made from high quality German silver, which Boehm believed to have the best acoustic qualities available.

This instrument was immediately hailed as an enormous improvement, and its design won Boehm a number of prizes including one at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1855.

The adoration was not universal however, with a number of performers and composers (notably including Richard Wagner) particularly in Germany, Italy and Russia, being reluctant to accept the new fingering system. 

By the end of the nineteenth century Boehm’s ideas had most definitely prevailed and the modern concert flute was born. 

Pictured below are three flutes, all produced by different manufacturers in the late eighteenth century:

The Modern Era Flute

Surprisingly few modifications were made during the latter part of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century but there were a couple of influential figures who made some important modifications:

Albert Cooper (1960s) – Cooper modified Boehm’s mechanism to make playing modern music easier.

The flute was re-tuned to A440, and the embouchure hole was cut in a new way to improve the tone quality.

The flutes became extremely popular with both professionals and amateurs.

Johann Brogger (1980s) – Brogger further modified the Boehm flute by fixing two major problems that had existed for nearly 150 years; poor adjustment between certain keys and problems between the G and B flat keys.

He did this by introducing non-rotating shafts, which gave a quieter sound and less friction on moving parts.

Also, the modifications allowed for springs to be adjusted individually, and the flute was strengthened.

The Brogger flute did not really catch on however, and is only used by a minority of major makers.

Evolution or Revolution?

It is clear that the flute has come an incredibly long way from the neanderthal fragment of bone with holes in, to our modern Concert Flute, made from precious metals and complete with a complex key mechanism enabling a full range of 3 octaves+ to be played perfectly in tune by any competent player. 

Who knows what the next chapter in this fascinating history will be?

Photo of author
Written by Sian Hughes