When people think of the flute they will probably picture the same thing. But what most people don’t know is that there are actually lots of different types each with its own unique sound. Each type has its own history and is used in different styles of music. In this post, we will explore each type, how they differ, and how they are typically used.
History of the Modern Flute Family
The modern flute as we know it today is quite different from the original flutes seen in previous centuries and has had a long history.
The flute is actually thought to be the oldest instrument in the world!
Flutes were originally made from wood and had a much simpler system of key holes.
Lots of baroque period composers such as J.S. Bach, Handel, and Telemann wrote extensively for the flute.
It was a very popular instrument, and whilst is made a beautiful sound, it suffered from poor intonation.
In 1847, Theobald Boehm, a Bavarian German musician, and composer, and inventor, patented a new mechanism and fingering system which solved this problem and is remarkably still used to this day.
He was also the first to make the flute out of metal whereas before they were typically made out of woods like grenadilla, ebony, and even ivory.
The Concert Flute
The first type is the concert flute or the C flute which is probably the one you picture when thinking of a typical flute.
Typically made of metal (although you can also get wooden flutes), it’s a long cylindrical tube and has 15 or more finger holes that are covered to change the pitch.
It has a range of 3 octaves, from Middle C (C4-C7).
Unlike lots of other woodwind instruments, you play the flute by blowing across the embouchure hole and it’s also known as the transverse (across) flute because of this.
You’ll find the concert flute played in orchestras, chamber music, and solo performances.
The next type of flute we’ll look at is the piccolo.
Considerably smaller than the concert flute (around half the size), the piccolo plays notes an octave higher.
Due to its higher pitch, the piccolo has a very bright sound that cuts through any other instruments playing at the same time even being heard above a whole symphony orchestra.
The fingering is the same as the flute, but the lip plate needs to sit a little higher on the lips and more air is needed to produce a sound.
Unlike other modern flutes which are made out of metal, piccolos are made out of wood with metal keys much like the original flutes were.
The Alto Flute in G
The alto flute is the next type of flute in our guide.
It’s quite a bit bigger than the concert flute having a wider bore so produces sounds at a lower pitch.
It’s a transposing instrument which means when a player reads the note C, what actually sounds is a G an interval of a perfect 4th lower.
Known for its mellow and rich sound, the alto flute isn’t that commonly used in classical music but 20th century composers such as Stravinsky and Ravel wrote a number of pieces to feature it.
One thing that is unique about alto flutes is that their head joints can be straight (as shown in the image above) or curved like the bass flute which we’ll look at next.
The Bass Flute
Next, we have the bass flute in C which is pitched an octave lower than the concert flute.
Other than the considerably larger size, another noticeable difference is its U-shaped head joint which helps to facilitate a comfortable playing position.
You’re unlikely to see it played often although it’s used in flute choirs and chamber music.
Probably one time you have heard it being used was in the Jungle Book overture which you can hear below.
The Contrabass, Subcontrabass, and Double Contrabass Flutes
Now on to some much more rare types of flutes we have the contrabass, sub contrabass, and double contrabass flutes.
These are considerably larger than the concert flute that we looked at first contrabass flute having 9 feet of tubing, the subcontrabass flute with 8 feet of tubing the double contrabass flute being over 8 feet tall with a massive 22 feet of tubing.
The contrabass flute is pitched in C two octaves below the concert flute which gives it a deep sound with lots of resonance.
The subcontrabass flute is in G and so is also a transposing instrument. It sounds two octaves below the alto flute.
And finally, the double contrabass flute is the lowest of the three and sounds three octaves below the concert flute.
Since these instruments are so large, they’re typically only used by professional musicians and you’ll only see them used in very specific settings like flute choirs.
They are also incredibly expensive with a contrabass flute setting you back in the region of $20-25k and the double contrabass flute costing around $50k.
To learn more about these three uncommon types of instruments you can watch the video above.
Other Types of Flute
The flute is a very diverse instrument that has many different forms throughout the world and the flute’s history.
Let’s take a look at some of the other flutes that you might not be so familiar with.
The Baroque Flute
Another flute we need to mention is the Baroque Flute which has a very different sound to the other flutes in our list with it sounding more like a recorder.
Made out of wood, baroque flutes are a lot simpler than their modern concert flute counterparts and have a much more gentle sound. They also have a smaller embouchure hole making the tone a lot more sweet and quieter.
Another difference is the number of finger holes with the baroque flute typically only having 6 finger holes which means that musicians have to do a lot of cross-fingerings to achieve different notes.
The Bansuri flute is a type of Indian bamboo flute.
The bansuri has been in use for many years and can be found all over India, Nepal, and Bangladesh with the most famous being the North Indian Bansuri which was used by Krishna to play his enchanting music on.
Another flute from Asia is the Chinese Dizi flute.
The Dizi is a Chinese transverse woodwind instrument, also made out of bamboo and typically made with six finger holes.
This type of flute has been used for thousands of years and is thought to be over 9000 years old.
The last flute we’ll look at is The Shinobue which is a type of Japanese musical instrument.
There are 2 different types, the Oyayashi and Uta, they have different sized holes.
It is very popular in the music associated with Japanese festivals and has a very distinct and beautiful sound.
As you can see, there are many different types of flutes other than the common ones most people think of.
There are lots of others that we haven’t covered here too but hopefully, this guide has been helpful in learning about the many flute types and their similarities and differences.