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A Quick Guide To The Alto Flute In 20 Minutes

Alto Flute

Alto Flute

The alto flute is a woodwind instrument and one of the members of the Western concert flute family. Despite flutes being quite ancient instruments, the alto flute is much more recent.

People played the alto flute in Western concerts or classical music. But it is not played as often as the standard concert/C (soprano) flute.

The standard concert flute in C is the most famous member of the Western concert flute family.

The piccolo is the second most popular, and the alto flute is the third most popular member of the family.

The alto flute is a lovely woodwind instrument. It has a sultrier sound and an upper register that is more ethereal.

These types of flute come with two types of headjoint. Flautists can choose between the straight or curved head joint options.

These options allow players to select the most comfortable instrument headjoint.

In this post, we are going to discuss the alto flute from different points of view. 

We will also answer some questions that people usually ask about the alto flute. This we will do under the “frequently asked questions” section.

Brief History Of the Instrument

Generally speaking, the flute has been around since the palaeolithic ages. But the alto flute and some other flutes in the modern flute family were later created.

The origin of the modern alto flute can be traced back to the Renaissance period. Some of the old instruments of that period are the ancestors of the modern alto flute.

In particular, the bass flute in G of the Renaissance period developed into the flute d’amour. The flute d’amour was popular during the Baroque era.

The flute d’amour thereafter became the immediate predecessor of the nineteenth-century alto flute.

But the alto flute lost its popularity to the concert D flute. The concert D flute is the ancestor of the modern C flute. The concert D flute was played during the Classical era.

Click the link to learn more about the history of the flute here.

Theobald Boehm Development

Thereafter, Theobald Boehm developed the mechanism and acoustics of the modern alto flute. This happened in 1855, and his instrument featured a facile mechanism and a projecting tone.

The first alto flute recorded the first sale in January 1858. The workshop ledger revealed that it was sold to Marcel Ciemirski in Lemburg for 156 florins. The 1865 reference letters suggested the instrument was already well-established.

The original Boehm design maintained its standard for two decades. But it later experienced a slight modification in bore size.

In the early 20th century, the market for alto flutes increased in Europe. The alto flute later found its way into America.

Henry Bettoney of the Cundy Bettoney Company was the first American dealer to offer an alto flute as a stock item.

Evva Kingma’s Contribution

During the 1980s, the Dutch instrument maker Evva Kingma created an open-hole alto flute. He did it in collaboration with Jos Zwaanenburg, who is a flautist and composer. 

The open-hole alto flute is much desired by flautists who play with extended techniques.

Evva Kingma also made use of Boehmn’s original alto flute design. The Dutch instrument maker made use of Boehmn’s original alto flute design. However, he used a wider tone hole and a 24mm bore for his alto flute.

This design by Evva Kingma provides a more stable scale and sonority in the third octave.

Thereafter, he worked together with another flautist, Jon Fonville. They collaborated and designed the instrument with a revolutionary mechanism.

The Evva Kingma’s revolutionary mechanism design permits the flautist to interfere with Boehm’s fingers system. This allows them to play microtones.

Design/Construction

The design of the alto flute is like that of other western concert flute families.

The instrument key system with his body size used Theobald Boehm’s invention.

These instruments are usually made with different metals. Metals like silver, nickel, or silver-plated metal, and nickel-plated metal, like silver-plated brass.

Alto flutes are constructed in three parts. The parts are the headjoint, the body, and the foot joint. This three-part design is common to all other flutes in the family.

The instrument headjoint contains the mouthpiece and has a lip plate and riser. Also, the head joint of the instrument comes in two different types. The two types are the straight headjoint and the unique curved headjoint.

We are going to discuss the two types of alto flute headjoint later in this post.

The body of the instrument is made with a wide bore and has tone holes as well as a key mechanism used to play the instrument.

The Alto Flute Headjoint

Curved Headjoint Alto flute

The two types of headjoints we have are “curved headjoints” and “straight headjoints”.

The two headjoints are both great options for flautists. But, choosing one headjoint over another is a matter of personal preference.

Some flautists hate playing the instrument with a curved headjoint. This is because it changes the balance of the instrument.

Of course, the straight headjoint offers better intonation in general. But that does not change the fact that the curved headjoint also produced an amazing sound as well.

Furthermore, choosing a straight head joint is not an option for people who have shorter arms. Or let me say, people with smaller hands.

The reason for this is that it can be problematic for smaller players.

Specifically, playing a “straight head” instrument with a smaller hand can cause a lot of pain in the right hand.

The reason is the awkward position of playing with their right hand.

Straight Headjoint Alto Flute

A straight headjoint does not create any problems for people with longer arms. Because they could easily stretch their hands to reach all the keys.

The curved headjoint allowed smaller players to grasp the instrument with ease. They can play it without severely stretching their arms.

It also gives the instrument a much lighter feel in the hand. For those reasons, a lot of people choose or prefer the curved headjoint.

Choosing An Alto Flute Headjoint

straight-and-curved-headjoint-alto-flute-Pic800

When we are choosing the instrument headjoint, we need to consider experience and hand size.

A curved headjoint is the best choice for beginners and flautists with a small stature. A straight headjoint is best for a stronger or more experienced flautist.

Thus, if our hand is smaller, we go for a curved headjoint instrument. and a straight headjoint if we have a bigger hand.

Moreover, we can either get one head joint or both. Some alto flutes come with both straight and curved headjoints.

This allows flautists to swap between the two styles of the headjoint.

Assuming we have both headjoints, the one we will use for playing will depend on the playing scenario.

For example, using a curved headjoint is a good idea when playing for an extended period of time. Thus, for such a long day of recording or performing, a curved headjoint is the best.

This will prevent us from having or feeling pain in our hands after a long day of performance.

Likewise, we can choose to play the straight headjoint if we are playing for a shorter period of time. For example, making a brief appearance at a concert.

Types of Alto Flute

The Closed and Opened-Holes Alto Flute

There are two major types of alto flutes on the market. The major differences between these two types are the hole and key mechanisms.

The two types are the closed-hole alto flute and the open-hole alto flute.

These two types of alto flute can come with either a straight headjoint or a curved headjoint. They also have footjoints to C, which sounds like G.

Besides, some have unusually extended foot joints that sound like F#.

The Closed-Holes Alto Flute

Closed Hole Alto Flute

This type of the instrument is widely known as the standard and is the most common instrument on the market.

It has different key configurations as well as a range of bore sizes. These depend on the preferences of different flute makers’ designs.

The difference in the key configurations and bore size limits the functionality of this type of alto flute.

The reason for this is that a technique that a player can use very well on one instrument may be impossible to use on another.

Besides, the absence of open holes limits the ability of players to perform some extended techniques or alternate fingering.

Specifically, the closed-hole flute restricts the number of multiphonics the instrument can perform.

Using a closed-hole instrument also restricts the options for some basic extended techniques. Specifically, techniques like alternate fingering, timbral trills, and pitch bending.

The Open-Hole Alto Flute

The-Opened-Holes

These types of flutes have a hole in the middle of the A, G, F, E, and D keys.

For the correct note to sound on an open-hole flute, the entirety of the open holes must be covered. The flautists cover these open holes with the pads of their fingers.

The open-hole instrument is somehow uncommon, unlike the standard (closed-hole) instrument.

Specifically, the number of open-hole alto flute makers is very small. Just a few makers, like Eva Kingma, provide an option for “open hole” in their alto flute production.

The open-hole instrument is not that popular. But they are gaining more popularity in the alto flute world.

Basically, the open-hole alto flute allows you to play some extended techniques or alternate fingering. It is not possible to do that on a closed-hole flute.

Specifically, the flautist can play some multiphonics as well as microtones. This aspect makes the open-hole alto flute similar to the open-hole standard flute in C.

The open-hole alto flutes have a B footjoint option for handmade instruments.

Alto Flute Tone Range and Sound

The instrument’s range is almost the same as the range of a regular C flute. Specifically, the alto flute has a range of G3-G6.

The alto flute has an undeniably well-defined mellow tone and a beautiful lower range. Its tone is much less shrill and piercing than the C flute.

The instrument is in G and is a transposing instrument. It is a fourth lower than the soprano flute.
Consequently, it has an extended lower range compared to the regular flute in C.

It has a much softer, slightly airier, and richer tone, especially in its lower range. Its low notes are dark but feather-light.

Indeed, the instrument has a unique, responsive lower register. It also has a very warm and projecting sound over all octaves.

It never loses its softness, even while going up in its range.
Also, in its high register, it never becomes sharp, but rather it keeps its airy, soft, ethereal sound.

The sound produced by the instrument at the highest ranges is not pleasant. For that reason, most flautists stop playing the higher range of the instrument when the sound produced starts to change.

Generally, the tone of this beautiful wind instrument can also be described as having a full and warm sound. Its tone proclaimed mystery, particularly in the lower range.

The alto flute is a versatile wind instrument. It is agile like a normal flute but with a twist.

How to Play the Alto Flute

Playing the alto flute is not different from playing the standard C flute. Both instruments are played the same way, with the same fingering.

Specifically, it is played by blowing air, at the correct angle, into its embouchure.

Then, simultaneously use the 16 key mechanisms to open or close the tone holes along its body.

The key mechanisms are systematically used in different orders (or schemes) to create tones of different pitches.

However, the instrument is a transposing instrument and cannot play the same note as the C flute.

Indeed, the alto flute will not sound pleasantly well with the C instrument, like a piano or regular C flute.

Therefore, to play the same note with the C flute or a piano on the instrument, we must play it a perfect fourth lower.

Furthermore, playing the instrument needs a little change when it comes to the instrument’s embouchure.

Typically, the instrument embouchure’s hole is a little bigger than the one on the regular flute.

As a result, we need to relax our embouchure more and blow less. Note that because the alto flute is bigger than the regular C flute, it does not mean it needs more air to be blown.

The idea that the bigger the flute, the more air we need to blow to play it is a fallacy. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite is true.

It is a fallacy to think that the bigger the flute, the more air we need to blow to play it.

Bon jour, mon coeur’ by Orlando di Lasso

Enjoy the beautiful sound and music from the instrument.

The fabulous flute player Barry Griffiths plays ‘Bon jour, mon coeur’ by Orlando di Lasso on his TJ copper body alto flute.

How to Transpose C Flute Music for Alto Flute

Straight head Alto Flute

As we already learned in this post, the alto flute is a G instrument. This makes it sound different to the C flute and the piano, which are concert C instruments.

So, what are we going to do when there is a need to play a note score for the C flute and piano with the alto flute?

The answer to this question is very simple. What we are going to do is transpose the instrument.

Of course, if we want the instrument to sound good with the C instrument, we need to transpose it. Without transposing the alto flute, we will not enjoy playing it along with the C instrument.

The reason is that the piano and C flute are in C while the alto flutes are in G.

As a result, the C note for the C flute or a piano will sound like G when we play it on the alto flute.

This shows that the sound of the instrument is the perfect 4th (P4) lower than the C flute and a piano notation.

And if we turn this around, it means that the instrument notation is a perfect 4th higher than the sound of the C flute.

Alto Flute Transposition for C Flute

Bach Fugue in D Minor arranged for C flute and alto flute

Thus, if we have a B note scored for the C flute, an alto flute will play F# to sound the same. The F-sharp (F#) sound is a perfect 4th lower than the B note.

Likewise, if the regular flute in C has a D-flat (Db) note, an alto flute will play an A-flat (Ab). The A-flat (Ab) is a perfect 4th lower than the D-flat (Db) note.

Also, if we want the alto flute to sound E, the note for the C flute will be a perfect 4th higher. That means we will have an A note scored for the C flute.

Furthermore, if the music for the C flute is in the key of the A-flat, it means the out G-pitch instrument will play in the key of the E-flat.

Besides, the music for the instrument can be scored in the key of E-flat to play well with the C flute in A-flat.

What Is the Difference Between Alto Flute and C Flute?

The fact remains that both the alto flute and standard flute in C are members of the western concert flute family. They both have sophisticated key mechanisms and the same playing style.

Nevertheless, the two instruments have their differences, especially in size and tonality.

Specifically, the alto flute has a larger bore size and a longer length compared to the regular C flute.

Again, the instrument is in the key of G while the C flute is in the key of C.

This means when we close all the tone holes on the instrument, it will produce a G tone. On the other hand, the C flute will create a C tone when all its tone holes are closed.

Therefore, we need to transpose while playing the instrument to sound good and blend well with the C flute or the piano.

These two factors make an alto flute quite different from the regular C flute.

Apart from that, the instrument and standard C flute have the same mode of playing and sound production.

The Instrument Price

The question right here is: how much does an alto flute cost? Typically, every beginner that wants to buy a new instrument needs to ask this question.

Indeed, there is no fixed price for alto flutes because the material used to produce them varies. The industrial process used to produce them is not the same.

However, the cost of a professional alto flute starts at $1,000 and goes up to around $5,000.

Moreover, some customised and handcrafted alto flutes made with high-quality materials cost more than that. These special-made flutes are around $15,000 and above.

The Popular Brand

There are many brands of alto flutes we can buy for our first or next alto flute needs. Each of these brands comes with its own significance and peculiarity in the market space.

Of course, we may not find it easy to choose the right brand that meets our needs.

It is not an easy task to point out a particular flute as the best. This also applied to the alto flute. It is harder to pick one instrument brand as the best.

Thus, we are going to name and talk about some brands that have made some great alto flutes.

This section is just an overview of some popular brands to get us familiar with them. To learn more about any of the brands, you can click the link provided and visit their site.

Trevor James Alto Flute

Trevor James Performer Series Signature

Trevor James is one of the most famous instrument makers in the world. Well known for its alto flutes and bass flutes.

Trevor James has different alto flute categories for different levels. These range from the student, and conservatory, to a professional instrument.

The company also has different models of the alto flute for each level. But their flutes are somehow more expensive compared to the other brands.

Northern Lights, by Melissa Keeling Electric alto Trevor James flute

Trevor James instruments are one of the leading brands in the woodwind industry.

This company is a multi-award-winning specialist flute brand around the globe.

Yamaha Alto Flute

Yamaha A421

Yamaha is known for making different professional musical instruments. They are one of the leaders in making high-quality metal alto flutes.

Generally, different Yamaha alto flutes are available for students, beginners, and intermediate flautists. They also have different alto flute models for professional flautists.

As a matter of fact, Yamaha remains the household name in the wind instrument world. This company has one of the best alto flutes in the world.

Pearl Alto Flutes

Pearl-Alto-Flute Signature

Pearl is regarded as one of the best brands in the flute-making industry. Pearl makes its alto flutes for different classes of flautists.

Specifically, they have an alto flute for students or beginners. They also have the instrument model, for an intermediate player, and a professional player level.

The company makes different alto flute designs, with each having varied silver touches.

Most of their flutes are moderately affordable compared to other flute brands. They have the instrument on a budget for every level.

Jupiter Alto Flute

Jupiter JAF1000E Signature

Jupiter is one of the most trusted instrument makers. The company’s alto flute is an excellent instrument for different levels of players.

They also have instrument models with both straight and curved headjoints.

Most of the alto flute models from Jupiter offer not only outstanding value but also enhanced tonal quality.

The Jupiter Flute comes with a good construction model. Their flutes are also perfect for different occasions.

They have affordable alto flutes for everyone. This includes beginners, students, and advanced professionals of all ages.

Gemeinhardt Alto Flute

Gemeinhardt flute signature

Gemeinhardt is one of the fine makers of alto flutes. The company offers a wide range of musical instruments for different levels.

They have special alto flute designs for students and professionals alike.

Gemeinhardt may not be as famous as companies like Yamaha. Even so, their instruments and alto flute are top-notch.

In fact, the quality of their wind instruments demonstrates their trustworthiness and dependability. They are known and trusted as one of the leading brands in the flute market segment.

The company produced fine instruments with great acoustic and mechanical excellence. Their alto flutes are deep, rich, and affordable for all levels.

Armstrong Alto Flute

Armstrong Handmade Professional Heritage Flute -

The Armstrong alto flute is a great, solid, well-made flute. They have both straight and curved headjoint options available.

The Armstrong alto flute is easy to blow, with a full and warm sound.

Most of the Armstrong instruments are designed to last longer. They also designed their instrument to provide a superb playing experience for players.

Armstrong maintained the tradition of making excellent instruments in the US.

Muramatsu Alto Flute

Muramatsu-Signature

Muramatsu is one of the world’s finest professional alto flute makers.

The instrument from the company is recognised worldwide as the ultimate instrument. Similarly, their alto flute is considered one of the best.

This company continues the same tradition of excellence in flute-making. They built their flutes with the utmost care and precision.

The Muramatsu alto flute is great for different performances. You can use them for orchestral, solo, and studio work.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we are going to answer some questions that people frequently ask about the alto flute.

What key is the alto flute in?

The alto flute is in the key of G.

The reason is that playing a C note on the instrument will sound like a G.

That makes the alto flutes transposing instruments.

What is the best alto flute?

The best alto flute or flute generally depends on personal preference. Also, it is unique to each flautist.

You would really like to find your flute, rather than anyone else’s. Therefore, concentrate on finding the perfect flute for you.

Also, let go of the notion that anyone’s flute can be “the best” for everybody.

What is the alto flute range?

The range of the alto flute is from G3 below the middle C to G6 above the treble clef.

How to transpose alto flute to C flute

The alto flute is in G and sounds a perfect 4th lower than the C flute. The A note for the C flute is also a perfect 4th higher than the sound of the instrument.

Thus, we need to play a note that is a perfect 4th lower than the note we have for the C flute score.

We have already discussed this in one of the sections above. Click here to learn more about how to transpose the instrument to the C flute.

How to play the alto flute

The alto flute is played just like the way we play the regular flute in C. The same fingering and blowing. We talk more about this in one of the sections of this post. Click here to navigate back to the section.

What is the Iowa alto flute?

The IOWA alto flute is a virtual instrument and not a real flute made of metal or wood. It is also referred to as an alto flute plugin. The Iowa alto flute is developed by Bigcat Instruments. They used samples of the alto flute from the University of Iowa.


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