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The History Of the Flute

History Of The Flute

History Of the Flute

The history of the flute can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, an early stone age. During that period, man learned how to cut notches in a bone to produce a sound.

The primitive flute was later improved during the Neolithic era. This happened with the addition of tone holes to play notes.

And the flute starts to experience gradual development from one era to another. We now have a sophisticated key mechanism on a modern concert flute.

Some of the paintings from the Neolithic era depict people playing flutes.

The painting serves as one of the pieces of evidence that the flute has been in existence since the Neolithic era.

of course, there were no written records to clearly explain the circumstances surrounding the flutes being played.

However, various archaeological discoveries have revealed and confirmed that the flute has existed since ancient times.

With their findings, some presumed that the existence of the flute dates to around 900 B.C.

In this article, we will discuss the history of the flute in more depth. We will discuss its development in different eras. How the flute evolved from prehistoric to modern times, in particular.

What is a flute?

A flute is a wind instrument of tubular shape with holes and key mechanisms along its body. The holes on the flute body are generally called tone holes. Tone holes can be opened or closed by the fingers or key system.

How Does a Flute Make a Sound?

We play this wind instrument by blowing a stream of air across the embouchure. The embouchure is a special hole on the flute mouthpiece used to play the instrument.

The embouchure can be at the end of the flute. All the flutes whose embouchure is at the end of the tube are generally called vertical flutes.

The typical example of a vertical flute is the recorder. Other ancient flutes, like the ocarina and panpipe, are also vertical flutes.

Also, we can have the embouchure on the side of the tube. This kind of flute is widely called a transverse flute.

Examples of transverse flutes are the modern concert flute, Chinese dizi, and Indian bansuri.

When flutists blow a stream of air across the flute embouchure, the instrument makes a sound.

This happens because the air columns inside the tubular body of the flute are vibrating.

The pulsations of the vibrating air column are what we hear as the sound of the flute.

Shape and Materials of the Flute

The common shape of the flute is tabular. But we also have a globular-shaped flute, also known as the vessel flute.

Most ancient flutes are made of wood or bamboo. The tone holes and embouchure are directly drilled on the wooden body of the flute. Tone holes are drilled directly on the bamboo flute as well.

Click the link here to learn more about the various materials used to make flutes.

The modern flute is typically made of metal, and it has a sophisticated key mechanism. Also, they had drawn or soldered tone holes and a special embouchure.

Types of flutes

We have different types of flutes around the world. The different types of flutes we have come from different cultures around the world.

But most of these flutes have some basic similarities. These have to do with their materials, mode of play, and method of construction.

Click the link here to learn more about the different types of flutes we have.

History of the Flute

The flute is not a modern instrument, as many people may think.

The history of the flute started in the early Stone Age, known as the Paleolithic era.

During this period, bones were normally drilled with simple holes. The stream of air is then blown across the hole to create a rasping noise.

So, the flute has been in existence since the prehistoric period.

But it was made from animal bones and not wood or metal during that period.

Thus, the flute from animal bones and can be explicitly considered as the ancestors of the flute.

There are several pieces of evidence from different archaeological discoveries to back this up. Also, some paintings during that period proved the flute’s long existence.

To elaborately tell the story of the flute in this article, we will divide the history of the flute into seven sections.

The seven different sections of the history of the flute are listed below.

  • Stone Age (Paleolithic Era)
  • Middle Ages (Medieval)
  • Renaissance Period
  • Baroque Period
  • Classical Period
  • Romantic Period
  • Twentieth Century

The flute developed during each of these periods into what we have today.

The construction of the flute changed from being made from bone to wood and then to metal. This occurred for the flute to meet the musical demand of the time.

Evidence of the Flute in Ancient Time

The flute is recognized as the oldest woodwind instrument known to humans.

The results of different archaeological findings and ancient paintings confirmed this.

For instance, a functional bone flute dated around 900 B.C. was discovered in China some years ago. The oldest flute found was the thigh bone of a young cave bear, with two to four holes.

Also in 1995, a chunk of a cave bear’s thigh bone with two holes drilled in it was also found in Slovenia.

Neolithic bone flute, found at Bornholm (Denmark). About 3000-2500

The scientists who discovered the bone concluded that it was one of the flutes Neanderthals used more than 43,000 years ago.

Besides, a flute with a V-shaped mouthpiece and five holes was found at the Höhle Fels cave in Germany. Archaeologist Nicholas Conard concluded that the flute existed 40,000 years ago.

The archaeological findings of this flute were published in the “Nature” journal on August 5th, 2009.

There are many other archeological findings that support the long existence of the flute. But we could not cover all of them here.

Also, some of the paintings from the Neolithic era (10,000–4,500 BC) serve as evidence that the flute has been in existence since ancient times.

Historical Development of the Flute

The flute has passed through many stages of development since its early existence in the Paleolithic era.

As a result, it has become one of the most versatile woodwind instruments known today.

The flute’s developmental journey started with a series of little improvements. Every improvement is meant to make it better than its early form. 

People of different eras wanted the instrument to sound better and play more notes. So, they keep improving the instrument from time to time.

Musicians and instrument makers of different eras were directly or indirectly involved. They all contributed greatly to the flute’s development.

Their contributions transformed the flute from a drill bone into the modern concert flute we all know today.

But significant contributions came from Johann Joachim Quantz, Charles Nicholson, and Theobald Boehm.

Through their different contributions, the modern flute has more and larger holes. It also has complex key mechanisms used in playing the instrument.

These allow the modern flute to sound better and cover a wider tonal range, respectively.

The flute has enjoyed progressive development in different periods of musical history.

But the major development started in the medieval period and continued until the modern period.

The following sections will take us through the historical development of the flute.

Flute During the Early Stone Age (Paleolithic Era)

This period was the time when the great ancestor of the modern flute came to life. During this period, men used their technical abilities as of that time to cut notches in a bone.

They did this to create rasping noises by simply rubbing the bone with a stick.

The ancient men also attached a thin bone inform of a fish to a thong and swirled it very fast in the air.

This creates a very loud, weird moaning sound in the air.

Likewise, they blew a stream of air across the sharp edge of a hollow bone stick.

This produced a penetrating sound and functioned as a whistle or primitive flute at the time.

Sometimes, they bore through the foot-joint of a reindeer and blow through it as well.

This also creates the penetrating sound of what we called the “primitive flute” of that period.

Flute during the later Stone Age (Neolithic era)

The Neolithic era, known as the “later stone age,” started around 10,000 B.C. in Europe.

This period marks some improvements in the flute’s development as a musical instrument.

The bone flutes of the Paleolithic era that men used to create a penetrating sound like a whistle were reworked.

Specifically, some fingerholes were technically added to the bone flutes. This improvement empowers the bone flutes to produce a few notes.

Later, other materials like clay and wood were adopted to make the tabular and globular flutes.

This cuts across different geographical zones around the world.

During this time, the flutes are exclusively used for non-musical purposes.

Some of them are used as tools for the love spell. This continues today among some ethnic groups around the globe.

Flutes are also used during this period as an instrument to increase the magic power of the fertility spell.

In fact, some of the vessel flutes (like the modern ocarina) of this period were made into the shape of different animals.

Flute During the Middle Ages (Medieval)

The flute gained popularity again during the Middle Ages. It also experienced some meaningful developments during this period.

Basically, different cultures across the world had different flute-like instruments during the Neolithic period.

For instance, the Sumerians and Egyptians played the vertical flute. Ancient Greeks played panpipes, aulos and floghera for instance.

The wind instrument, like the transverse flute, was used in Greece, India, China, Japan, and Etruria. 

The flute somehow entered Europe and was used in some parts of the region during this period. Thereafter, it disappeared and later found its way back to Europe.

It reappeared around the twelfth century. That was when transverse flutes from the Byzantine Empire first appeared in Germany. The Byzantine Empire is known today as Istanbul.

The reemergence of the flute in Europe during this period exposed the flute to a new way of life. Its reemergence also led to its development.

The flute eventually became a military outdoor instrument. It plays alongside other instruments like bells, bagpipes, drums, and trumpets.

The Flute’s History During the Late Middle Ages

Following that, the flute’s popularity spread throughout Germany. So, by the fourteenth century, it had spread to other countries.

It became known in England, France, Spain, and other parts of Europe.

It is called different names in these countries. This was to differentiate it from vertically held flutes like the recorder.

Specifically, it is called the German flute in England. Likewise, it is called the flauta alemana in Spain and the flute allemande in France.

In fact, it was initially called tibia, which is its old Latin name, in Germany.

The medieval flutes have no valid repertoire recorded for them. Likewise, there is no record of how it looks or its playing technique.

The History of the Flute During the Early Renaissance Period

History Of the Flute - Early transverse Flutes

The Renaissance period is the era in which the flute begins to experience meaningful development.

Flutes of various sizes and shapes appear across Europe and other continents during this time.

Flutes were generally simple during the Renaissance period. Basically, they are single instruments with cylindrical bodies and transverse types.

Typically, they are made of wood with a cork stopper.

In particular, they have a narrow cylindrical channel and very thin walls.

It also has six small tone holes for playing and a small embouchure to blow through it.

The flute of the Renaissance period could produce notes up to two octaves or more.

The range of the instrument spans from D’ up to A”’ (a wide range of D’ to A”’).

Furthermore, they used the same fingering as recorders. But they play one note higher.

Specifically, they did not have the bottom little-finger hole. But they had the capability to produce certain semitones.

Flutes, used during the Renaissance period, were practically not meant for serious musical work.

This was due to their unclear intonation and intricate cross-fingering.

However, they were commonly used in ceremonial and military ensembles. This was a popular practice across France, England, Germany, and Italy.

Their usage dropped towards the end of the seventeenth century.

The reason was that they produced an unrefined tone in the upper register. They were also inefficient at producing chromatic tones.

Late Renaissance Period Improvement

The simple transverse flutes of the Renaissance came with tone limitations. Thus, it required extensive modifications before it could play in serious music.

In fact, the Renaissance transverse flutes were far less used than the recorder.

This may be due to its harsher tone compared to the recorder. As a result, it was only used as a military instrument.

But the flute later underwent some modifications and improvements during the Renaissance period.

Its transformation started with the adoption of a somewhat wider cylindrical bore for its body.

The wider cylindrical bore made the lower octave easier to blow. It also no longer limited the instrument to the highest register.

This new transverse flute was actually made in several sizes. This empowered them to be able to play in consorts.

Of course, different Renaissance instruments are usually played in consorts with similar instruments.

The new transverse flutes during that period were also played in concert with similar instruments.

The flute consort primarily consisted of three different sizes of flutes. The three sizes are pitched a fifth apart.

Subsequently, the larger ones of the new transverse flute are being gradually admitted to art music.

The Flute in History During the Baroque Period

The emergence of the modern concert flute started during the baroque period.

Despite the improvement and transformation, the flute experienced during the Renaissance period, it was still far from adequate.

Their tone was harsh, and they could also only produce certain semitones.

For that reason, they still cannot take part in serious music from that era. So, the need for extensive modifications was necessary for them to take part in serious music.

These requirements drive some baroque-era flute players to innovate and improve the instrument.

Most of the flute’s transformation during the baroque period occurred in France. France had a particular fondness for wind instruments.

Around the 17th century, the soprano flute from the Renaissance-period flute consort was split into three parts.

Thus, like a recorder, the flute now has the head joint, the middle joint, and the foot joint.

The head maintained the cylindrical bore of the old Renaissance flute. But the bore of the middle joint and the foot joint were redesigned to taper towards the open end.

In addition, another key was technically added to the Renaissance flute’s six fingerholes.

This key is a closed key (D#), and it is for the little finger. The new D# key allows players to play more notes on the flute.

This was the first modification the flute experienced during the Baroque period. The credit for this innovation goes to Jacques Hotteterre.

Jacques Hotteterre’s Flute During the Baroque Period

The first modifications and redesigns of the transverse flute are credited to Hotteterre. Jacques Hotteterre is a French flute virtuoso and composer.

The Hotteterre family was well known at the time for their work as French instrument makers.

Later in the 17th century, the new flute with a single D# key attached started to gain popularity.

This Jacques Hotteterre key mechanism was a great improvement to the semitone playing on the flute.

It allows the flute to play almost all the semitones for the first time.

This flute is still conserved today, and it’s generally known as the “baroque flute.” Baroque flutes are generally made of wood or ivory.

Further Improvement During the Baroque Period

During the second half of the 18th century, the flute improved even more.

Specifically, the middle joint of the instrument was also divided. Its division is used to correct the intonation defect of the instrument.

After 1720, the foot joint was also divided to enhance the tonality of the instrument.

Also, two additional keys were added to improve the way the instrument is played.

This improvement is meaningful to Jean-Baptiste Lully, the popular French composer and instrumentalist. So, he introduced the transverse flute into the orchestra of the opera in 1677.

Later in 1717, Johann Sebastian Bach, the iconic German composer of that era, used the transverse flute. That marked the first time he used the transverse flute in his work.

Before, the word flauto in Bach’s music meant recorder. But he wrote “flauto traverso” in his composition to mean the transverse flute.

The History of the Flute in the Classical Period, 1750–1825

The flute experienced further significant development during the classical period. 

During the beginning of the classical period, the baroque flute remained the same. 

Thus, the modifications it had been subjected to during the Baroque period did not change. 

Also, the form it assumed during the Baroque period remains the same.

This was maintained by the baroque flute until the late second half of the 18th century. 

But the flute experienced great improvement after 1775. This happened when classical music was approaching its peak. 

Because the baroque flute can truly only play the scale of D major, more key holes were added to the instrument. The key holes are for the flute to accommodate notes in other scales. 

So, to the D#’ that had already been added during the Baroque period, G#’, Bb’, and F’ were also added. 

Six-Keyed Flutes Of Classical Period

During this period, six-keyed flutes were created based on Schuchart’s four-keyed flute. This was done by other notable instrument makers of that period. 

Richard Potter extended the fundamental note of the flute from D’ to C#’ and C.This was achieved by increasing the length of the instrument. Also, two additional keys were added. 

Others, like Thomas Lot-Paris and August Grenser-Dresden, also developed six-keyed flutes. They also extended the flute’s tonal range to low C. 

Around 1800, the transverse flute with its six keys was widely distributed. 

The second key for F1 for proper fingering and the key for C2 were later added at the beginning of the 19th century. 

These additional two keys make the transverse flute an eight-key instrument. 

So, the flute transformed from a one-key to a well-developed eight-key instrument.

But this transformation was just the beginning. This was because the flute still required improvement.

Romantic (1815–1910) Theobald Boehm Flute

The romantic period marks the most significant development in flute history.

This happened with the redesign of the flute in the middle of the nineteenth century. The German flutist and instrument maker, Theobald Boehm, redesigned the flute.

He used his goldsmith facilities and other equipment to start making the flute. This happened between 1812 and 1817.

Theobald Boehm’s flutes follow the best models of the time with further improvements.

Boehm used a new type of springs, linings, and corks for the joints of his flute. He also used a new moveable metal embouchure.

In October 1828, he established and outfitted his personal flute shop.

He made a possible effort to create flutes with a better key mechanism than previous ones.

By the end of 1828, Boehm had completed his first flute in his flute shop.

Boehm’s new flute has a new key mechanism that is both solid and elegant in construction.

The new key mechanism of the flute met with general approval for its intonation and tone quality. The tone of this flute is very beautiful, sweet, and mellow.

In fact, it was generally adopted, but even with all that, the tone is not powerful.

Theobald Boehm Flute Final Design

Despite the general approval of his new flute innovations, Boehm still wants more. He believed his new flutes needed improvement.

The reason was that certain passages and keys could not be easily played.

For instance, his flute can only play the scale of E major with difficulty. Also, the intonation of his flute was far from perfect.

Boehm Encounter with the Charles Nicholson Flute

The story changed when Theobald Boehm visited London in 1831.

Theobald Boehm heard the younger Charles Nicholson playing with a powerful tone and was so impressed. So he made up his mind to build a new flute after Nicholson’s model.

Nicholson’s father, who is also a celebrated flutist, modified the instrument the younger Nicholson played.

He lined the headpiece with metal and enlarged the embouchure and tone holes.

His intention was to make the tone of the flute more powerful while still being delicate.

He also wanted to permit the usual fingerings in the third octave as well as facilitate glides and vibratos.

The final structure of his new flute promoted flat keys like E flat, A flat, and F and C minor.

Basically, Theobald Boehm increased the size of the holes we have on the transverse flute. He also changed their position.

The new hole positions are beyond the bounds of the possibility of a player’s finger reaching them.

Because of that, he utilized key mechanisms to help the player cover and uncover the holes.

Boehm worked with Rudall and Rose in London and Godfroy in Paris. The two companies helped him manufacture the flute with a new system.

Thereafter, he made a ring-keyed flute in 1832. In 1833, he played his ring-keyed flute in London and Paris.

The “l’Académie des sciences” and greatest artists of that time identified the benefit of its ring-keyed flute.

These provided the earliest recognizable acoustical model for the modern flute.

In fact, the system is still used in the design of modern (transverse) concert flutes.

Boehm Cylindrical Tube Innovation

The Boehm flute of 1832, with its conical bore and ring keys, maintained its stance for fifteen years.

In his quest to devise a better tube form for the flute, he experimented with tubes of different bores.

He later studied the principles of acoustics in 1846 and 1847 under Professor Dr. Carl von Schafhäutl.

And after several experiments, Boehm made another flute in the later part of 1847.

The metal flute with a cylindrical bore and covered keys was made based on scientific principles.

Boehm used a cylindrical tube for the flute instead of a conical bore and used larger tone holes.

He made the new flute out of metal instead of the wood that was commonly used before. He also added other features like padded keys and a parabolic head joint.

Theobald Boehm’s new way of making flutes is a significant improvement.

Boehm’s new innovative approach to the making of flutes was received with enthusiasm.

The acceptance of the new flute is dominant in France, England, and America.

But his new way of making flutes was met with some skepticism in his home country of Germany.

Even so, there have been many fine flute makers, and many splendid flutes have been built.

His innovation, however, is responsible for the design, proportions, and theory of modern flute making.

The theory he used to make his flute then is as valid today as it ever was.

Specifically, Boehm’s system and design gave birth to the modern concert flute we are using today.

To learn more about Theobald Boehm’s flute development, click the link highlighted.

Summary Of the History Of The Flute


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