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A selection of flutes from around the world

The flute is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. Unlike woodwind instruments with reeds, a flute is an aerophone or reedless wind instrument that produces its sound from the flow of air across an opening. According to the instrument classification of Hornbostel-Sachs, flutes are categorized as Edge-blown aerophones.

A musician who plays the flute can be referred to as a flute player, a flautist, a flutist, or less commonly a fluter.

Aside from the voice, flutes are the earliest known musical instruments. A number of flutes dating to about 40,000 to 35,000 years ago have been found in the Swabian Alb region of Germany. These flutes demonstrate that a developed musical tradition existed from the earliest period of modern human presence in Europe.


Chinese women playing flutes, from the 12th-century Song Dynasty remake of the Night Revels of Han Xizai, originally by Gu Hongzhong (10th century)

The oldest flute ever discovered may be a fragment of the femur of a juvenile cave bear, with two to four holes, found at Divje Babe in Slovenia and dated to about 43,000 years ago. The authenticity of this fact, however, is often disputed. In 2008 another flute dated back to at least 35,000 years ago was discovered in Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, Germany. The five-holed flute has a V-shaped mouthpiece and is made from a vulture wing bone. The researchers involved in the discovery officially published their findings in the journal Nature, in August 2009. The discovery is also the oldest confirmed find of any musical instrument in history. The flute, one of several found, was found in the Hohle Fels cavern next to the Venus of Hohle Fels and a short distance from the oldest known human carving. On announcing the discovery, scientists suggested that the "finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe". Scientists have also suggested that the discovery of the flute may help to explain "the probable behavioural and cognitive gulf between" Neanderthals and early modern human.

A three-holed flute, 18.7 cm long, made from a mammoth tusk (from the Geißenklösterle cave, near Ulm, in the southern German Swabian Alb and dated to 30,000 to 37,000 years ago) was discovered in 2004, and two flutes made from swan bones excavated a decade earlier (from the same cave in Germany, dated to circa 36,000 years ago) are among the oldest known musical instruments.

Panflute players. Cantigas de Santa Maria, mid-13th century, Spain

Playable 9000-year-old Gudi (literally, "bone flute"), made from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes, with five to eight holes each, were excavated from a tomb in Jiahu in the Central Chinese province of Henan.

The earliest extant transverse flute is a chi ( 篪) flute discovered in the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng at the Suizhou site, Hubei province, China. It dates from 433 BC, of the later Zhou Dynasty. It is fashioned of lacquered bamboo with closed ends and has five stops that are at the flute's side instead of the top. Chi flutes are mentioned in Shi Jing, compiled and edited by Confucius, according to tradition.

The Bible, in Genesis 4:21, cites Jubal as being the "father of all those who play the ugab and the kinnor". The former Hebrew term refers to some wind instrument, or wind instruments in general, the latter to a stringed instrument, or stringed instruments in general. As such, Jubal is regarded in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the inventor of the flute (a word used in some translations of this biblical passage). Some early flutes were made out of tibias (shin bones). The flute has also always been an essential part of Indian culture and mythology, and the cross flute believed by several accounts to originate in India as Indian literature from 1500 BCE has made vague references to the cross flute.

Flute acoustics

A flute produces sound when a stream of air directed across a hole in the instrument creates a vibration of air at the hole.

The air stream across this hole creates a Bernoulli, or siphon. This excites the air contained in the usually cylindrical resonant cavity within the flute. The player changes the pitch of the sound produced by opening and closing holes in the body of the instrument, thus changing the effective length of the resonator and its corresponding resonant frequency. By varying the air pressure, a flute player can also change the pitch of a note by causing the air in the flute to resonate at a harmonic other than the fundamental frequency without opening or closing any holes.

To be louder, a flute must use a larger resonator, a larger air stream, or increased air stream velocity. A flute's volume can generally be increased by making its resonator and tone holes larger. This is why a police whistle, a form of flute, is very wide for its pitch, and why a pipe organ can be far louder than a concert flute: a large organ pipe can contain several cubic feet of air, and its tone hole may be several inches wide, while a concert flute's air stream measures a fraction of an inch across.

The air stream must be directed at the correct angle and velocity, or else the air in the flute will not vibrate. In fippled or ducted flutes, a precisely formed and placed windway will compress and channel the air to the labium ramp edge across the open window. In the pipe organ, this air is supplied by a regulated blower.

In non-fipple flutes, the air stream is shaped and directed by the player's lips, called the embouchure. This allows the player a wide range of expression in pitch, volume, and timbre, especially in comparison to fipple/ducted flutes. However, it also makes an end blown flute or transverse flute considerably more difficult for a beginner to produce a full sound on than a ducted flute, such as the recorder. Transverse and end-blown flutes also take more air to play, which requires deeper breathing and makes circular breathing a considerably trickier proposition.

Generally, the quality called timbre or "tone colour" varies because the flute can produce harmonics in different proportions or intensities. The tone colour can be modified by changing the internal shape of the bore, such as the conical taper, or the diameter-to-length ratio. A harmonic is a frequency that is a whole number multiple of a lower register, or " fundamental" note of the flute. Generally the air stream is thinner (vibrating in more modes), faster (providing more energy to excite the air's resonance), and aimed across the hole less deeply (permitting a more shallow deflection of the air stream) in the production of higher harmonics or upper partials.

Head joint geometry appears particularly critical to acoustic performance and tone, but there is no clear consensus on a particular shape amongst manufacturers. Acoustic impedance of the embouchure hole appears the most critical parameter. Critical variables affecting this acoustic impedance include: chimney length (hole between lip-plate and head tube), chimney diameter, and radii or curvature of the ends of the chimney and any designed restriction in the "throat" of the instrument, such as that in the Japanese Nohkan Flute.

A study in which professional players were blindfolded could find no significant differences between instruments made from a variety of different metals. In two different sets of blind listening, no instrument was correctly identified in a first listening, and in a second, only the silver instrument was identified. The study concluded that there was "no evidence that the wall material has any appreciable effect on the sound colour or dynamic range of the instrument". Unfortunately, this study did not control for headjoint design, which is generally known to affect tone (see above). Controlled tone tests show that the tube mass does make a difference and therefore tube density and wall thickness will make a difference. One must also consider the inefficiency of the human ear to detect sound, versus electronic sensors.

Categories of flute

Playing the zampoña, a Pre-Inca instrument and type of pan flute.

In its most basic form, a flute can be an open tube which is blown like a bottle. There are several broad classes of flutes. With most flutes, the musician blows directly across the edge of the mouthpiece. However, some flutes, such as the whistle, gemshorn, flageolet, recorder, tin whistle, tonette, fujara, and ocarina have a duct that directs the air onto the edge (an arrangement that is termed a " fipple"). These are known as fipple flutes. The fipple gives the instrument a distinct timbre which is different from non-fipple flutes and makes the instrument easier to play, but takes a degree of control away from the musician.

Another division is between side-blown (or transverse) flutes, such as the Western concert flute, piccolo, fife, dizi, and bansuri; and end-blown flutes, such as the ney, xiao, kaval, danso, shakuhachi, Anasazi flute, and quena. The player of a side-blown flute uses a hole on the side of the tube to produce a tone, instead of blowing on an end of the tube. End-blown flutes should not be confused with fipple flutes such as the recorder, which are also played vertically but have an internal duct to direct the air flow across the edge of the tone hole.

Flutes may be open at one or both ends. The ocarina, xun, pan pipes, police whistle, and bosun's whistle are closed-ended. Open-ended flutes such as the concert flute and the recorder have more harmonics, and thus more flexibility for the player, and brighter timbres. An organ pipe may be either open or closed, depending on the sound desired.

Flutes can be played with several different air sources. Conventional flutes are blown with the mouth, although some cultures use nose flutes. The flue pipes of organs, which are acoustically similar to duct flutes, are blown by bellows or fans.

The Western concert flutes

An illustration of a Western concert flute

The Western concert flute, a descendant of the 19th-century German flute, is a transverse flute that is closed at the top. An embouchure hole is positioned near the top, across and into which the player blows. The flute has circular tone holes, larger than the finger holes of its baroque predecessors. The size and placement of tone holes, the key mechanism, and the fingering system used to produce the notes in the flute's range were evolved from 1832 to 1847 by Theobald Boehm, and greatly improved the instrument's dynamic range and intonation over those of its predecessors. With some refinements (and the rare exception of the Kingma system and other custom adapted fingering systems), Western concert flutes typically conform to Boehm's design, known as the Boehm system. Beginner's flutes are normally made of nickel silver or brass which is silver plated, while professionals use solid silver, gold, and sometimes platinum instruments. There are also modern wooden bodies instruments usually with silver or gold keywork. The wood is usually African Blackwood.

The standard concert flute is pitched in the key of C and has a range of three octaves starting from middle C (or one half-step lower, when a B foot is attached to the instrument). This means that the concert flute is one of the highest common orchestral instruments, with the exception of the piccolo, which plays an octave higher. G alto and C bass flutes are used occasionally, and are pitched a perfect fourth and an octave below the concert flute, respectively. Parts are written for alto flute more frequently than for bass. The contrabass, double contrabass, and hyperbass are other rare forms of the flute pitched two, three, and four octaves below middle C respectively.

Other sizes of flutes and piccolos are used from time to time. A rarer instrument of the modern pitching system is the treble G flute. Instruments made according to an older pitch standard, used principally in wind-band music, include Db piccolo, Eb soprano flute (the primary instrument, equivalent to today's concert C flute), F alto flute, and Bb bass flute.

The Indian bamboo flute

A Carnatic eight-holed bamboo flute
An eight-holed classical Indian bamboo flute mainly used for Carnatic music
A bansuri being played by an Indian classical music artist.

The bamboo flute is an important instrument in Indian classical music, and developed independently of the Western flute. The Hindu God Krishna is traditionally considered a master of the Bansuri (see below). The Indian flutes are very simple compared to the Western counterparts; they are made of bamboo and are keyless.

Pannalal Ghosh, a legendary Indian flutist, was the first to transform a tiny folk instrument to a bamboo flute (32 inches long with seven finger holes) suitable for playing traditional Indian classical music, and also to bring to it the stature of other classical music instruments. The extra hole permitted madhyam to be played, which facilitates the meends (like M N, P M and M D) in several traditional ragas.

Pandit Raghunath Prasanna developed various techniques in the realm of flute playing so as to faithfully reproduce the subtleties and nuances of the Indian classical music. In fact, he was responsible to provide a strong base to his Gharana by training his own family members. Disciples of the family like Pt. Bhola nath Prasanna, Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pt. Rajendra Prasanna globally known for their melodious music.

Indian concert flutes are available in standard pitches. In Carnatic music, the pitches are referred by numbers such as (assuming C as the tonic) 1 (for C), 1½ (C#), 2 (D), 2½ (D#), 3 (E), 4 (F), 4½ (F#), 5 (G), 5½ (G#), 6 (A), 6½ (A#) and 7 (B). However, the pitch of a composition is itself not fixed and hence any of the flutes may be used for the concert (as long as the accompanying instruments, if any, are tuned appropriately) and is largely left to the personal preference of the artist.

Two main varieties of Indian flutes are currently used. The first, the Bansuri, has six finger holes and one embouchure hole, and is used predominantly in the Hindustani music of Northern India. The second, the Venu or Pullanguzhal, has eight finger holes, and is played predominantly in the Carnatic music of Southern India. Presently, the eight-holed flute with cross-fingering technique is common among many Carnatic flutists. This technique was introduced by T. R. Mahalingam in the mid-20th century. It was then developed by BN Suresh and Dr. N Ramani. Prior to this, the South Indian flute had only seven finger holes, with the fingering standard developed by Sharaba Shastri, of the Palladam school, at the beginning of the 20th century.

The quality of the flute's sound depends somewhat on the specific bamboo used to make it, and it is generally agreed that the best bamboo grows in the Nagercoil area in South India.

Chinese flute

Chinese flute are called [dizi] (笛). There are many varieties of dizi with different sizes, structures (with or without resonance membrane) and number of holes (from 6 to 11) and intonations (playing in different keys) in China. Most are made of bamboo, but can come in wood, jade, bone, and iron. One peculiar feature about Chinese flute is the use of a resonance membrane mounting on one of the holes which vibrates with the air column inside the tube. It gives the flute a bright sound. Commonly seen flutes in modern Chinese orchestra are bangdi (梆笛), qudi (曲笛) , xindi (新笛) , dadi (大笛). The bamboo flute playing vertically is called “xiao”(簫) which is a different category of wind instrument in China

Japanese flute

The Japanese flute, called the fue Fue (, hiragana: ふえ), encompasses a large number of musical flutes from Japan, both of the end-blown and transverse varieties.

Persian flute

Flute is an important part of Persian folk music and is largely performed by Kurds and Baluch people. The rare art of performing double-flutes is also present in these regions. Another type of Persian flute is the ney, which is an end-blown flute.


The sring (also called blul) is a relatively small, end-blown flute with a nasal tone quality and the pitch of a piccolo, found in the Caucasus region of Eastern Armenia. It is made of wood or cane, usually with seven finger holes and one thumb hole, producing a diatonic scale. The sring is used by shepherds to play various signals and tunes connected with their work, and also lyrical love songs called chaban bayaty, as well as programmatic pieces. The sring is also used in combination with the def and the dohl to provide music for dancing. One Armenian musicologist believes the sring to be the most characteristic of national Armenian instruments.

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