Types Of Flutes
As a matter of fact, different types of flutes are in existence today and they are played in different cultures around the world.
Typically, the different types of flutes we have, come in different shapes and sizes, which makes them unique to one another.
The sizes of the flutes range from the largest double contrabass flute to the smallest piccolo. Each type of flute has its own historical background and identifiable form and sound.
Another thing that distinguishes each type of flute from one another is their construction materials.
Of course, the material used to make the flutes influences the sound they produce. For instance, the sound of the concert flute with metallic material is totally different to the sound produced by the bamboo flutes.
Again, the sound of the concert flute with different metallic materials like gold and silver, for example, is not the same as well.
However, every flute is played by blowing air through a hole in a pipe, either by mouth or nose. Also, all types of flutes are well known for producing rich and graceful sounds.
In this article, we will discuss the different types of flutes that we have around the world. In the end, we will identify their differences and their traditional usage.
What Is a Flute?
Before we go into the main objective of this post and discuss different types of flutes, we need to understand what a flute is.
The flute is an ancient instrument that has evolved to still be among the best musical instruments we know today.
It is an aerophone instrument and a member of the woodwind family. However, the flute is different to other woodwind instruments like the oboe, clarinet, and saxophone that use reed for their sound production.
The reason is that the flutes produce sound by blowing air across an opening in their bodies. Therefore, the flutes produce sound without a reed, and this makes them reedless woodwind musical instruments.
Basically, the flute is a musical instrument made from a tube with different holes along its body. These holes are used to play the flute.
Specifically, there is a special hole called the “embouchure hole” or “mouth hole” that players blow through to produce sound with the instrument.
Other holes, called tone holes, are used to change the tone of the sound produced by the instrument. The tone holes can be opened or closed with the key and pad mechanisms or fingers.
Depending on the form of the flute, it can only be played by two standard methods, which are vertically and horizontally.
A Brief History of the Flute
The flute is one of the oldest instruments known to man. The history of the flute dates to prehistoric times, and its artefacts consist of bone.
The flute was a common instrument among the ancient peoples of Egypt, Greece, and the Sumerians.
There is different evidence, like painted scenes of musical performances, that shows that these people used the flute.
Simple wooden flutes were commonly used for folk music during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. They were commonly constructed in one piece, with six finger holes and a cylindrical bore.
During the Middle Ages, flutes were commonly used in France, England, Germany, and Italy, but not for serious musical work.
Because flutes of that period had unclear intonation and intricate cross-fingerings. They were often referred to as fifes because of their ornamentation.
The flute has gone through several developments during the classical period.
But the most significant development occurred during the romantic era when Theobald Boehm comprehensively redesigned the flute.
His design allows the flautist to cover more holes than a human finger can do. Also, he re-engineers the tone holes into larger tone holes with padded keys and makes his head joint parabolic.
Different Types Of Flutes
Flutes took various forms, ranging from their design to the materials used for their bodies. Also, the key mechanism makes some flutes different from others.
The first type of flute that we have is the modern concert flute family. These flutes are the most popular flutes we have both in western music (orchestral music) and popular music.
Besides the modern concert flute family, we still have other types of flutes like wooden or bamboo flutes, vessel flutes, plastic flutes, and electrical flutes.
Without any further ado, the most popular types of flutes are listed and discussed below.
- Modern concert flutes,
- Vessel flutes,
- Bamboo and wooden flutes,
- Other flutes.
A Modern Concert Flute
Modern concert flutes are based on 19th-century designs, are commonly made of silver, and have complex key mechanisms.
This type of flute is the most popular in Western orchestral instruments. Of course, modern concert flutes are the most common type of flute we have.
The player held them horizontally and played by blowing across the embouchure and not directly into it like a fipple instrument.
Unlike the earliest flutes that were made from wooden materials, modern concert flutes are all-metal-finished flutes. The only exception is the piccolo, which is made from a special wood material.
The current popular design was established by a 19th-century German flute maker called Theobald Boehm.
He made several changes to make the instrument versatile and unique compared to the old ones.
The modern concert flute is a family of flutes with similar mechanisms but different in materials and sizes.
Specifically, the modern concert flute comprises seven (7) members, which are: Piccolo, Concert/Soprano/C, Alto, Contralto, Bass, Contrabass, and Subcontrabass.
However, piccolo, concert/soprano/C flute, alto flute, and bass flute are the core members of the modern concert flute family.
The piccolo is a type of flute and a member of the western flute family. In fact, it is the second most popular member of the concert flute family.
The Piccolo is a transverse kind of flute because it is held horizontally and blows through the side. Of course, the player will blow air across the blowhole on its side to play the piccolo.
The modern piccolo has almost the same fingerings as the standard concert (transverse) flute.
However, the piccolo is much smaller than the regular flute. It is approximately half the length of the concert flute.
These types of flutes have the body and head joints only, and that contributes to their small size.
You cannot compare its length with another flute from the concert flute family. It is the smallest member of the family.
In fact, the piccolo remains the smallest western flute you can find.
Furthermore, the piccolo is an octave higher than the regular flute, and its octave reaches almost the upper limit of the perceptible pitch. Again, it’s the highest-pitched flute.
Piccolo is also called “ottavino”, which means a little octave in the Italian language. This is because it produces a sound that is an octave higher than written.
This smallest member of the concert flute family can produce a sparking sound with its high and sharp sounds.
It is also capable of producing very softer tones along with the concert flute to create a feeling of tranquillity.
The piccolo adds brilliance to a march and is a very popular instrument in military marches.
This is the most prominent and most popular member of the modern concert flute family. In fact, many professional and beginner flautists use it more than any other flute in the family.
The concert or C flute is about 67cm (26 inches) long and has a cylindrical tube with well-defined tone holes and a key mechanism.
It is smaller compared to the other members of the family and only bigger than the piccolo, which is the smallest member of the flute family.
It is called the concert flute because it is the main flute used in western orchestras and plays on concert pitches. Other name for concert flute are: C flute, soprano flute, traverse flute, and standard flute.
The concert flute is in the key of C and has a range of three (3) octaves starting from C4 to C7. Due to this, the concert flute is better suited for group practice with other instruments using the same score.
Concert or C flute is friendly to beginners in terms of fingering and air demand. These types of flutes remain the easiest modern concert flutes to play.
The versatility of the concert flute stands above that of the other members of the western flute family.
This instrument sounds amazing for solo performance and is influential when used for accompaniment.
Specifically, the concert flute blends well with nearly all the orchestra instruments apart from the oboe.
The alto flute is another popular member of the Western concert flute family, played in Western concert music.
The alto flute comes in two types according to its headpiece or head joint.
The first type is the alto flute with a straight piece, and the second type is the one with a curved headpiece or head joint.
The straight-head alto flutes are for people who are tall and have long arms and fingers.
The alto flutes with curved head joints are designed with people of smaller stature and not too long arms in mind.
Basically, the curved head joints are created to allow the performer to reach the keys with ease.
Unlike concert or C flutes, alto flutes are heavier, longer, and typically made of thicker metal.
The alto flute is a transposing instrument pitched to the key of G. It is also the only member of the western flute family that is not in C.
Specifically, it extends a fourth lower than the popular concert or C flute. It has a range that extends from G3 to G6.
The alto flute has a wider dynamic range and a stronger tone. These types of flutes possess a highly expressive and very beautiful tone. Additionally, they need more air (breath) to thrive.
There is a complete post that talk more about the alto flute. To learn more about the alto flute, read my post about the alto flute by clicking here.
The contralto flute is another type of flute and one of the larger members of the concert flute family. The pitch of this instrument is between the bass and the contrabass flute.
This instrument also has a curved head joint to make it convenient for the player to operate the tone key mechanisms. A curved head joint is common to all larger flutes, and the reason for it is the same.
To play the instrument, the flautist needs to grasp its body upright with an adjustable floor peg. The floor peg is identical to the one used with the bass clarinet.
The proper vertical alignment of the instrument allows the flautist to balance and play the instrument.
This flute is a transposing instrument with two variations. The two variations of the contralto flute are “contralto flute in G” and “contralto flute in F”.
The “contralto flute in G” is a perfect fourth below the bass flute. It sounds one octave below the alto flute.
The “contralto flute in F” is a perfect fifth below the bass flute. It sounds like an octave plus one tone (ninth) below the alto flute.
The bass flute is another type of flute and a member of the modern concert flute family. It can be played in the same manner as a standard flute.
The flautist only needs to blow the required amount of air across the embouchure hole to create a sound and play the instrument.
The bass flutes also have the same fingering as the regular flute, although the embouchure is a little bit different.
Naturally, the bass flutes are not very loud like standard flutes. As a result, they are frequently amplified during performances.
The bass flute is not a transposing instrument and is pitched in C, with a typical range of C3 to C6. It has a pitch that sounds an octave lower than the standard C flute.
We can play the bass flute with other key C instruments without transposing the music because the bass flute is also in the key C.
The bass flutes always come with a curved head joint, unlike the alto flutes, which have both a curved and a straight head joint option.
Specifically, the pipe formed a U shape so that the performers could easily reach the keys to play the instrument.
Bass flutes are played by holding them out to the side. This is because of its size and weight. The bass flutes are about 146 cm long and have a bigger curved head joint and bore size.
The bore size on the bass flute is considerably bigger than the alto flute’s bore.
In addition, the size of this instrument doubled the size of a standard concert flute.
Low Flute Family
Besides the bass flute, we still have other types of flutes in the lower range that form the largest flutes in the flute family.
The low flutes make the lowest sounds and are bigger than other members of the flute family. These types of flutes are rare members of the flute family.
Basically, we have three of them, and they are the double subcontrabass, the subcontrabass, and the contrabass.
These are the largest types of flutes, and they have tubing that stretches up to 22 feet in length. Playing these types of flutes requires a lot of strength.
Therefore, flautists need to build their finger and arm muscles to support these types of flutes.
Moreover, these instruments require a strong set of lungs to be able to carry a tune. It’s a whole different technique for these lower flutes.
The low flute provides a role that the concert flute cannot. They actually play the lowest possible notes of any orchestral instrument.
The contrabass flute is the smallest of the three largest flutes in the flute family. It is one of the exceptional members of the flute family.
The contrabass has a similar range to the standard concert flute but two octaves lower. The range of this low flute is C2 to C5.
The pitch of the lowest note possible on this instrument is two octaves lower than the middle C.
If we want to compare its sound with another instrument in the orchestra, it sounds just like a cello.
The contrabass in C has 9 ft of tubing. It has a slightly larger diameter compared to the regular bass flute.
One of the variations of the contrabass flute is “contrabass flute in G”. The “contrabass flute in G” is pitched to the key of G, which is a fourth below the standard bass flute.
Also, the “contrabass flute in G” pitched is an octave lower than the pitch of an alto flute.
The subcontrabass flute is larger than the contrabass flute but not as big as the double contrabass. If we want to compare its sound with another instrument in the orchestra, the subcontrabass flute sounds like a bassoon.
The subcontrabass flute in G is over 15 ft of tubing.
The subcontrabass flute has two variations. One is the subcontrabass flute in G, which is pitched a fourth lower than the contrabass flute in C.
In addition, the subcontrabass in the key of G is two octaves lower than the alto flute in G.
The second variation of the subcontrabass flute is in the key of F (“subcontrabass flute in F”).
This one is pitched a fifth lower than the contrabass flute. The “subcontrabass flute in F” is also referred to as the “double contra-alto flute” at times.
This larger flute is neither for sale nor in production. However, if you really need one, you can order it to be manufactured.
Double Contrabass Flute
This is the largest of the three largest members of the flute family. The double contrabass flute weighs approximately 30 pounds. It stands over 8 ft tall, and it’s 22 ft of tubing.
The double contrabass flute goes lower than any instrument can go.
The vessel flute is a flute with a spherical body shape, unlike the conical or cylindrical bore common to most flutes. In other words, the body of vessel flutes is not cone or tube-shaped but globular shaped with a closed far end.
Basically, the body of these types of flutes behaves like a Helmholtz resonator because of their spherical hollow body enclosure.
These types of flutes are also called globular flutes, and they have several finger holes and blow holes on their globular or spherically shaped bodies.
Some examples of vessel flutes are: Ocarina, Chinese Xun, Kōauau ponga ihu.
The ocarina is a type of vessel flute and a member of the aerophone instrument family. The earliest ocarina was fabricated in the late 1800s by Giuseppe Donati, who was an Italian musician.
Typically, ocarinas are made with clay or ceramic. However, other materials like bone, wood, plastic, glass, and metal are also used.
There are different kinds of ocarina, varying in the number of finger holes and shape. But the typical ocarina is made with enclosed space, fipple blow holes, and one or more finger holes.
In particular, the ocarinas are made in different shapes, and the finger holes on the ocarina vary. Specifically, the finger holes are around four to twelve, and the blow hole that sticks out from its body is just one. However, there are some ocarinas that have two or more mouth holes and bodies.
Xun (Earth vessel flute)
The Xun is an ancient vessel flute that was used in ancient China. The instrument is believed to have originated in the Neolithic period.
The earliest examples of the instrument were found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, who died in 433 BC.
The instrument is a globular shape made from clay or ceramic. It has a blow hole at the top of its hollow body.
Xun also has a series of (usually eight) finger holes that are drilled into the side of its body. The players blow into the mouth hole and use their fingers to cover the holes in order to produce different notes.
It can be used to play solo melodies or to accompany other instruments. The instrument has a warm, mellow tone that is perfect for playing slow, relaxing music.
Kōauau ponga ihu
Kōauau ponga ihu is a small gourd vessel flute and one of the traditional Māori musical instruments.
The instrument is made from a small gourd with an open top that serves as a blow hole. It also has two small holes on its body that are used to control the tone of the sound produced by the instrument.
Basically, Kōauau ponga ihu is played with the nose. The sound created by playing Kōauau ponga ihu is a sweet flute-like sound.
The Bamboo And Wooden Flute
There are many types of flute peculiar to different ethnic groups and nations, under the wooden and bamboo flute.
For instance, the Chinese have different types of bamboo flutes like Dizi, Koudi, Xiao, and many others.
The Japanese also have different types of bamboo flutes and some of them are Shinobue, Shakuhachi, Komabue, Ryuteki, Nohkan and lots more.
Bansuri, Pinkillu, Khloy, and Khlui are also types of bamboo flutes native to India, the Andes, Cambodia, and Thailand, respectively.
Wooden flutes are also numerous and peculiar to different ethnic groups and traditions as well. For instance, Aquena (or Kena) and Tarka (or tharqa) are native wooden flutes of the Andes.
Moreover, Flabiol, Fujara, Frula, Recorder, Shvi, Spilåpipa, and Txistu are other well-known wooden flutes around the world.
The bansuri is one of the bamboo flutes originating from southern Asia. It is very popular in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and other nearby countries.
The Bansuri is a transverse flute made from a bamboo shaft and is around 30cm to 75cm long. It is a one-piece instrument without separate head and foot pieces.
Bansuri has varied sizes in both length and inner diameter and can vary in pitch.
Along its body, they drilled a blow hole and six finger holes to be used to play the instrument. The Bansuri has no key mechanism, just like several other bamboo flutes.
The Xiao is an end-blown flute that originated in China. The Xiao is often referred to as dòngxiāo and dòng is Chinese for “hole”.
Basically, bamboo is used to make this instrument called xiao. Although bamboo makes up the majority of xiao, ivory, porcelain, and jade xiao are also common.
In the past, the side-blown bamboo flute, dizi, was also referred to as the Xiao. In addition, shùzhúdí was Xiao’s ancient name.
The modern model of xiao is about 70cm to 80 cm long. It has a thumbhole in the back and five finger holes in the front.
The top side of the xiao tube is closed naturally by the bamboo node, while the bottom is left open.
It also has additional holes closer to the tube’s bottom end, which are used for venting, tuning, and adding ornamental tassels.
The tone of Xiao is known to be mellow and gloomy.
Dizi is another type of bamboo flute we have around the world. Specifically, Dizi is a Chinese transverse flute made from bamboo. There are several types of traditional bamboo flutes used in China, depending on the region, to manufacture dizi.
Dizi is also known as “di” or “héngdi” and is regarded as a significant Chinese musical instrument.
Dizi is often used in contemporary Chinese orchestras, operas, and folk music.
Compared to many other bamboo flutes you may find across the world, Dizi has a very distinctive sound. This is made possible via the “mo kong” hole, which is located underneath the blowhole or mouth hole.
The “mo kong” is wrapped with “dimo,” a membrane-like material, which causes dizi to create a buzzing sound.
A flabiol is a type of wooden flute that is commonly made of ebony wood. It is an end-blown vertical flute with a fipple mouthpiece.
This Catalan woodwind musical instrument is about 22 cm to 25 cm long and has eight finger holes which are used to play it.
Five of the finger holes are at the front, while the remaining three are underneath.
The flabiol is meant to be played with one hand and all five fingers.
Traditionally, the left hand is used to play the flabiol while the other hand is used to play the tambor, a small drum with a diameter of about 10 cm.
A recorder is another type of flute made from wood. This woodwind instrument has a tapered cylindrical body with a fipple mouthpiece. It is also an end-blown vertical type of flute.
The recorder operates on the same mechanism as every other woodwind instrument.
It has eight finger holes: seven finger holes on the middle joint and one finger hole on the foot joint.
The thumb hole on the middle joint is underneath and very close to the upper part of the middle joint.
This woodwind instrument has a family that consists of the Descant recorder, Treble recorder, Tenor recorder, and Bass recorder. The descant recorder remains the smallest member of the family.
Almost all the Baroque repertoire is written for the treble recorder, also known as the flute or common flute.
The instrument was no longer used after the middle of the 18th century because of the emergence of the concert flute.
The main reason the recorder is not part of the modern orchestra like other members of the woodwind family is part.
Subsequently, the recorder experienced a rebirth in the 20th century as an easy instrument for children to play.
Other Types of Flutes
There are other types of flutes that are popular in different traditions and cultures around the world.
Although they may not be as popular as western concert flutes and other special types of flutes like vessel flutes, they are in use and well-liked in their community.
All the flutes below are the other types of flutes we have around the world.
The panpipe, also known as the pan flute or syrinx, is another member of the flute family. The instrument also produced sound on the principle of the closed tube. However, it uses multiple pipes of varying lengths.
Each pipe in the panpipe arrangement has different lengths and produces different notes.
The material used in constructing panpipes is typically bamboo or giant cane. Some other materials like plastic, ivory, wood, and metal are sometimes used.
This is a special type of flute named after the name of its inventor, Señor Carlo Giorgi. The Giorgi flute was built in 1888 with ebonite material.
The ebonite was forged into a cylindrical bore with eleven finger holes of the same size to play the instrument.
These eleven finger holes were intended for 10 fingers. The eight fingers and thumbs of both hands controlled ten holes.
The eleventh hole is controlled by the side (phalange) of the left hand’s first (index) finger.
The Giorgi flute is played vertically like an oboe or clarinet.
In addition, it has an embouchure shaped like that of a concert flute at the end of its separate head piece.
It is difficult to play the Giorgi flute because it has wide intervals between its finger holes.
Only performers with incredibly long fingers can easily fit their fingers through the holes. As a result, it is difficult to support and play the instrument.
The Giorgi flute was not generally adopted because the instrument required stretching and was not comfortable for many hands to play.
Irish flutes are transverse, simple-system wooden flutes with a conical bore body and a cylindrical bore head.
This flute is pitched to D, above the middle C. For this reason, it is referred to as a D flute.
However, the Irish flute is not a transposing instrument because all its notes are concert-pitched.
The Irish flute can play a major diatonic scale of D easily by covering all its finger holes and successively uncovering them one by one.
In addition, it can be played conveniently in the keys of D and G without using any cross-fingering. In particular, the keys of D and G are the major keys for various traditional Irish melodies.
The old model of the Irish flute was keyless and had six finger holes that could be played by direct fingering.
But the classical and modern models of Irish flutes combine the basic features of the recorder. Consequently, some modern concert flutes use metal keys.
Moreover, modern Irish flutes are sometimes without metal keys, and those with metal keys have a different number of metal keys.
Irish flutes are majorly made from wood, but other materials like PVC, Delrin, and bamboo are currently used to make the flute.
Native American flute
The Native American flute is a keyless end-blown wood flute. The wood can be either cane, hardwood, or softwood.
It is basically a single unit without separate head, foot, and body parts like western concert flutes. Several Native American flutes, on the other hand, used a block in the headspace.
This block is removable but permanently held in place by a strap. Because moving the block will cause the flute to create a slightly different sound.
It is constructed with either five or six open finger holes and has a mouthpiece with two chambers.
The first chamber of the mouthpiece is called the “slow air chamber” and is designed to trap air from the player.
The second chamber, known as the “sound chamber,” is basically for sound production through the air inflow from the first chamber.
These special types of flutes come in a broad range of keys and musical temperaments.
Electric and Electronic Flute
This is a special type of flute with an attached contact microphone. It could be designed in any form or way, but when a contact microphone is attached, it becomes an electric flute.
Also, with the help of an additional electronic gadget like “MultiVider,” a player can transpose the pitch of the instrument by one or two octaves lower.
And with another special gadget like a preamp (amplifier) and a loudspeaker, the tone quality and volume of the electric flute can be modified.
These special types of flutes are very rare in Western orchestral music. It is mostly used in modern dance music as well as in film studio music.
The electronic flute, on the other hand, reproduces the feeling of an acoustic wind instrument.
Sylphyo is a typical example of an electronic flute. This is an electronic wind instrument (called the Sylphyo) that mimics the sound of an acoustic wind instrument.
It is played by blowing into a mouthpiece and selecting notes using keys on the front of the instrument.
Obviously, there are different types of flutes apart from the ones that come to mind when most people think of them.
A flautist is not forced to utilise just one type of flute because there are so many different types of flutes.
Of course, there are a lot of options when it comes to the flute. For instance, some only create high or low notes, while others may play both high and low notes.
Additionally, we should always keep in mind that the flute’s materials affect the sound it can produce.
Therefore, as a flautist, broaden your expertise rather than focus on just one genre.
There are more that we haven’t discussed here, but perhaps this post has given you a better understanding of the many types of flutes we have and how they are similar and differ from one another.
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