Described in the dictionary as ‘a wind instrument made from a tube with holes that are stopped by fingers or keys’, the flute began its life some 60,000 years ago as a simple instrument, played around the fire by neanderthal man. But nowadays, the modern flute now has some 120 different parts, ranging from tiny screws, springs and rods to the three-part tube, made from nickel, silver, gold or even platinum.
In this article, we will explore the different parts of the flute in detail, describing each one and learning about how it contributes to the overall sound of the instrument.
Anatomy of a Flute
The Flute is basically a tube divided into three sections:
- the head joint
- the body
- the foot joint
Like other wind instruments, the pitch of the sound is determined by the length of that tube.
In simple terms, the longer the tube the lower the pitch will be.
The flautist blows across a hole, sometimes altering air flow and embouchure (blowing position) and moves his/her fingers over the holes to create the notes they require.
The Head Joint
The first piece we’ll look at is the Head Joint which is a metal tube some 22cm in length that’s also known as the ‘voice-box’ of the flute.
It’s undoubtedly the most important part of the instrument as it’s where air enters and its quality will affect dynamic range, articulation, tuning, tone-colour and projection.
There are an enormous range of head joints available, suiting different requirements and different levels of performance.
The quality and type of metal used will massively affect the tonal properties of the instrument and the head joint can be upgraded separately which will not only improve the sound quality but affect resistance and flexibility of the instrument as well.
Head joints can come in different shapes too.
The straight head joint is most common and favoured by advanced players but there are various curved alternatives which can be easier for children to use as the distance between mouth and fingers is smaller.
Despite appearances, the head joint is not actually perfectly straight, but is tapered, getting narrower towards the embouchure hole.
Its main part is obviously the metal tube but there are a number of other crucial parts attached which we’ll look at next.
The Crown is a cap attached to a screw which seals the end of the flute near the embouchure hole, ensuring that the air has to travel down the flute, past the key holes.
The other end of the screw goes through cork the exact position of which is vital for tuning.
Flute crowns, often highly decorated hence the name, can be made in a range of shapes and from differing materials including silver and gold.
Although only small, the acoustic qualities of the individual crown can be important in determining the overall tone quality of the instrument.
Below the crown, inside the instrument there is a Cork, the exact position of which affects the length of the tube that the air travels down and therefore the pitch.
Even a tiny movement of the cork can cause disruption to the tuning of the instrument so if you think your cork has moved, it is best to take the instrument to a fully qualified flute repairer who will be able to re-position it and restore your flute to its proper tuning.
The Reflective Plate
Attached to the end of the cork you’ll find the Reflective Plate which is a little metal disc that reflects the sound, sending it all the way to the other end of the flute.
The Lip Plate
Soldered onto the tube, the Lip Plate is where the lower lip rests while the instrument is being played.
It is basically a small, curved piece of metal with a hole in the centre known as the embouchure hole.
It allows the performer to keep the flute steady while blowing.
The Riser is the part of the flute that attaches the lip plate to the tubing of the head joint.
It can also be referred to as the ‘wall’ or ‘chimney.’
Although it looks small and insignificant, this part of the flute is hugely important as it is when the air blown into the head joint and it makes contact with the riser that the flute vibrates and produces a sound.
The height of the riser can also affect the volume of the flute.
The Embouchure Hole
The Embouchure Hole is a small hole in the head joint where the air blown by the player enters the flute.
This hole is found in the centre of the lip plate and can vary in size and shape, altering the tone quality of the instrument.
The hole can be cut straight or tapered (this is known as undercut) – something thought to improve the sound.
The Body of the Flute
The Body of the flute contains the majority of the holes and keys and is therefore crucial to the flautist’s technique and ability to produce notes of different pitches.
On the body there is a ridged top section known as the barrel (on the far right in the picture above), which is mainly decorative and usually features the name of the flute’s maker and model followed lower down by thirteen holes operated by a system of keys connected by rods.
The keys fit over the holes and are all covered by pads to ensure a precise fit so that no air can escape.
This means that the condition of the pads will considerably affect the quality of the sound so they need to be regularly cleaned and sometimes even replaced by a qualified repairer if they become too worn.
Each key also has a spring which is vital to its opening and closing and can be adjusted to alter the level of tension or resistance in the keys.
If springs become broken or bent, keys may just fall open so springs should be regularly checked, adjusted and replaced to keep the flute in good working order.
Some flutes have the inner part of the key ‘missing.’
This is known as an ‘open hole’ mechanism and is thought to be superior acoustically but is not recommended for beginners.
As the average flautist does not have thirteen fingers, there are a number of keys which can close more than one hole.
Several additional keys also feature on the body, opening and closing different holes on its underside.
These enable the performer to have better control of the instrument and to avoid some challenging finger combinations, for example when playing trills.
The Thumb Keys
The left hand thumb can be placed in two positions.
The B flat thumb position ensures that notes fingered B are played as B flat as this thumb key is linked to key 3.
The Foot Joint
The smallest section of the flute is the Foot Joint which usually has three holes (one underneath and two on top) operated by keys so that the performer can reach them more easily.
Some foot joints have an additional key, known as a ‘B foot’ which enables the player to play one note lower than the usual bottom note of C.
The mechanism of the foot joint is similar to that found on the body of the flute with the keys being connected by rods, covered by pads and kept in position by springs.
As well as playing a role in changing the pitch of the instrument the foot joint is also important for balance and tuning.
Summing Up the Flute’s Different Parts
That’s it for our guide to the different pieces of a flute, we hope it helped you make a bit more sense of where everything is found.
This description of the parts of the flute merely brushes the surface of what, like many musical instruments, is a sophisticated piece of engineering, crafted to precise specifications to create the best performing experience possible.
The science of exactly how these parts create the instrument we know today would merit an article all to itself but hopefully this overview has helped you to understand your flute a little better and to gain a small insight into how it works.