- Discover the many different types of flutes
- Learn about their rich history and what they sound like
- Get to know different composers who praise the flute
- Want to keep it in the woodwind family? Check out our post on bass clarinet vs clarinet
So, What Even Is A Flute?
A flute is an instrument with a column of air confined in a hollow body. It can be in the form of a tube or vessel and is activated by a stream of air striking against the edge of an opening, which produces sound.
In this article, we will present many flute types, and illustrate their history, and possible uses with various examples.
How Many Types Of Flutes Are There?
The flute is an instrument with a global presence and a rich history. From wood, bone, ivory, glass, and porcelain, to plastics, resins, and baked clay, many different flutes exist.
There are a total of 13 types of flutes that exist:
- Concert Flute
- Piccolo Flute
- Alto Flute
- Bass Flute
- Eb Flute
- Irish Flute
- Plastic Flute
- Baroque Flute
- Ney Flute
- Peruvian Clay Flute
- The Native American Flute
1. The Concert Flute
Also known as the traverse flute, the Concert Flute is the most common type of flute and one you will typically hear in modern orchestras.
In the past, they were commonly made of wood, however, it is rare to find them made with this material nowadays. They belong to the “woodwind” family (along with the clarinet, the oboe, and the bassoon, among others).
This modern flute is a tube of metal, about 67 cm in length and 1.9 cm in bore diameter. The sound is produced by blowing across the mouth-hole, activating the air in the tube.
It is functionally in the key of C and thus non-transposing (unlike the Clarinet, for example, or the Flute in E-flat).
It has a practical compass of just over three octaves, overblowing at the octave so that the fingering of the first octave is duplicated in the second. The fingering of the third octave differs from the other two.
One of the main challenges (not only of this type of flute but of the instrument in general) is the control of the sound. As a result, the embouchure is an integral part of the flutist’s training.
The concert flute is an excellent choice for beginners (beyond the challenge of mastering its embouchure hole), and undoubtedly an instrument of choice for professionals.
The fact that it is a very docile instrument (present not only in orchestras but also in many chamber music ensembles, jazz, popular music, and bossa nova, among others) makes the concert flute a very popular instrument.
Tuned one octave above the concert flute, the Piccolo is a transposing instrument, in that its music is written an octave lower than the sounding pitch.
It began to be more widely adopted in the late 19th century, with composers such as Mahler and Strauss incorporating it as full orchestra members.
By the end of the 20th century, the instrument gave rise to piccolo specialists, as more complex and challenging parts began to be composed for the instrument.
With a sharp and distinctively piercing sound, this flute is widely used in the repertoire of military bands and classical music pieces, among other genres.
For example, we find a very prominent role in Berlioz’s “Grand Symphonie funèbre et triomphale”, composed in 1840, originally for a military band, which also includes third flutes in F.
3. The Alto Flute
Pitched in G (4th below the concert flute), the Alto Flute was built by Theobald Boehm in 1854 as a new instrument. Its mechanism differs slightly from the concert flute, as does its sonority, which Boehm compared to the French horn.
It is a transposing instrument, and its music is written a 4th higher than it sounds.
Its tone is particularly mellow, due to its size, and requires excellent lung power to achieve a particularly sonorous and wide result.
Its particular and melancholic color attracted several key composers of the 20th century (such as Stravinsky, Ravel, and Holst), who gave it important roles in paradigmatic works (such as The Rite of the Spring, or Daphnis et Chloé).
4. The Bass Flute
The Bass Flute is tuned in C, an octave below the concert flute. It is held transversely, with the head bent backward in a U-shape to reach the player’s lips.
Some flutes go even lower, like the Sub-bass Flute in G (an octave below the alto flute, or one tone lower still, in F) or the Contrabass Flute, which also happens to be one of the rarer members of the flute family.
The Contrabass Flute is in C, two octaves below the concert flute! Due to its large size, this flute is held vertically, with the head bent twice like the letter P to put the embouchure within reach.
Ravel, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich have composed scores for bass flutes, and various types have been used in avant-garde music and jazz.
5. The E-flat Flute
Also known as the Eb Soprano Flute, this instrument is very similar to the concert flute in terms of the materials it is made of, the way it is played, and its sound.
Its uniqueness lies in that it is tuned neither in G nor C, but in E-flat (a third above the concert flute). Initially used by marching bands to replace the E-flat clarinet, its tuning places it between the concert flute and the alto (tuned to G).
Its tone is sweeter than that of the more conventional flute, and mellower compared to the piccolo. It is not widely used today, and you’d be hard-pressed to find them in live ensembles and recordings.
6. The Irish Flute
In this particular case, the examples could be hundreds! Many, many different cultures have used wooden flutes.
In this case, we focus on the Irish Flute, one of the most popular, introduced in Ireland during the 18th century, and since that time, its popularity has grown quite a bit.
It is basically a transverse flute, and as one of the traditional flutes, it is widely used in the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland.
In its highest register, it has a similar sound to the concert flute, albeit with a lesser ability to project sound.
7. The Plastic Flute
Extremely popular due to its use by children, mainly in elementary schools, the Plastic Flute is the cheapest and most common version of the plastic flute family.
Ideal for children, being made of plastic, they are as durable as they are inexpensive.
And although it does not have the richness of sound of a concert flute, for example, it is an ideal choice for those who want to start with wind instruments, as it is very easy to make a sound, unlike the others, where the flute is a challenge in itself.
For various reasons, several musicians have emerged in the last time that uses it, either in ensembles linked to contemporary music, or in popular music, pop, and rock.
8. The Baroque Flute
It’s become commonplace to find chamber music groups specializing in baroque music.
The Baroque Flute is ideal for those interested in Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Händel, or Georg Philipp Telemann.
Baroque flutes are divided into three parts: head joint, body, and foot joint.
This afforded luthiers precision in the shape and finish of the inner bore. The air channel is narrower than in Renaissance models.
Starting from a cylindrical shape at the head, the inner bore narrows considerably as it approaches the foot.
In today’s copies of these flutes, the last two holes are usually double holes to facilitate the playing of chromatic intervals. However, most of the original preserved instruments have single holes.
The baroque flute has a softer and sweeter sound than its predecessors, primarily due to the shape and size of the inner bore and differences in the air channel construction.
9. The Ney Flute
The Ney Flute, possibly one of the oldest in the flute family, is widely used in the folk music of Turkey, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries.
Also known as the “Arabic flute”, it is a precursor to the modern flute and is made in a very simple way, consisting simply of a hollow cylinder with finger holes.
While modern Neys can be made of metal or plastic, they were initially made of wood or reed.
While a seasoned and experienced player can reach more than three octaves, a beginner can usually reach – with some effort – two full octaves.
Its sound is simple and a little less compact than the concert flute.
10. The Peruvian Clay Flute (The Ocarina)
One of the best-known clay flutes, native to Inca cultures, the Peruvian Clay Flute is a wind instrument different from the flutes previously reviewed.
Unlike others, the Peruvian Clay Flute’s construction is almost circular and has 8 holes to modify the notes, and a loophole underneath to add a string for the hanging instrument.
Its main advantage is that it is particularly easy to use, and makes an excellent gift for children ages 7 and up.
11. The Native American Flute
It is said to theorize that the Native American Flute was inspired by the holes made by woodpeckers in the branches of trees.
When the wind blew through those holes, a beautiful sound was made, and the natives of the region wanted to replicate it.
Unlike the more sophisticated flutes -and as would be expected when placing it among the traditional flutes- they are made in one piece (not by head, foot, body components, etc) from tree branches and milled lumber, and have holes for the player to put their fingers on.
Also, they are not very challenging to play, as there are no complexities in their embouchure, but simply blow into the mouth hole of the flute.
Their sound is clear and simple, and their tones are particularly unstable, which gives them a particular color.
12. The Quena
Originally hailing from the Andean region of South America, the Quena was used to praise indigenous deities.
It’s heavily depicted in paintings and drawings made between 200 BC and 600 AD, in the Peruvian cities of Nazca and Chimu. Their usage can be seen in Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.
They are mainly made of cane, although they were initially made of condor bones, stone, or clay. It is a tubular flute, very simple, similar to the Native American Flutes in terms of its sound.
The quena generally has seven holes: six in the front and one in the back, which is covered with the thumb.
Located within the group of vertical flutes, the quena was initially used to play pentatonic melodies. Over time, this also extended to diatonic melodies and more.
The quena is used commonly in conjunction with various instruments such as charangos, sicus, and more.
13. The Bansuri Flute
The Bansuri Flute is a high transverse flute originating in India, made from a single piece of bamboo and consisting of six or seven open holes.
It is a musical instrument associated with herdsmen and pastoral tradition.
The bansuri, with 14 inches (35. 56 cm) as a typical measure (there are bansuris of approx. 60 cm), was traditionally used as a soprano instrument, mainly as accompaniment in light compositions, including film music.
Although it was later used in Indian classical and folk music, you’ll hear it often used in modern meditation music that you’d find in the ‘new age’ section of music stores.
What Is The Price Of A Good Concert Flute?
There is a very wide price range for concert recorders. But, roughly speaking, a good concert flute, made of good material, can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $20,000.
What Is The Smallest Flute?
The most miniature flute is the piccolo (Italian for “small”). It measures approximately half the length of the concert flute and is also the highest pitched flute.
What Is The Biggest Flute?
The biggest flute of all is the Double Contrabass flute.
It has the lowest pitch, which is hardly surprising considering its dimensions. It measures 2.5 meters tall, has a tubing of almost 7 meters, and can weigh up to 13kg!