What is flute?



Fr., flute, grande flute; It., fiauto, flauto grande; Ger., Flöte, grosse Flöte

The present century has seen the adoption of metal flutes and the virtual obsolescence of the wooden flute as an orchestral instrument, an event which cannot be reported without some regret over the loss of the wooden flute's mellowness and beauty of tone. It was to be anticipated that the evolution of musical taste toward a predilection for orchestral brilliance and virtuosity would bring about this radical change. Modern flutes are made of silver, gold, and even platinum, and they surpass those of wood in ease of speaking, agility, brilliance of tone, and security in the upper register. Their tone is pure, clear, and serene, possessing beauty of a different quality from that of their predecessors. Some wooden flutes with silver-lined head joint, now in use, are evidence of a lingering wish to preserve qualities of both types.
The over-all length of the flute is about 26% inches. A cork stopper with a screw tuning device is inserted in the end near the embouchure, so that the sounding length of the tube is in the neighborhood of 24 inches. The lowest tone is 2-foot C. Some flutes are made with a low B, necessitating lengthening of the instrument by about 2 inches. The bore is cylindrical, with a diameter of % inch, narrowed slightly at the embouchure end in a parabolic curve.
The flute is made in three sections, the head joint, the body joint, and the foot joint. The foot joint represents an extension to the six-hole pipe envisaged in the preceding chapter, and it furnishes the additional tones C# and C. A longer foot joint may be attached, giving the low B, for those rare occasions when that note is called for.


The modern flute embodies the revolutionary constructive principles introduced by Theobald Boehm in the middle of the nineteenth century, with a few subsequent improvements. What is known as the "Boehm system" is based on three main principles. First, holes were to be bored for all chromatic tones, and these holes were to be located in their acoustically correct positions. Second, the holes were to be as large as possible, for better tone and intonation, and they were to stand open. Formerly, the size of the holes depended on the ability of the fingers to cover them, and also on corrections in pitch necessitated by a compromise in the location of the holes. Third, the mechanism was to be arranged so that the fingers could control all of the holes, by means of keys, hole covers, axles, and springs. The following main features of this arrangement should be considered in relation to the basic six-hole pipe.


flute fingering chart

Fingering Chart for the Flute (Boehm System)

The right hand first finger now plays F when depressed, instead of F#, the second and third playing E and D, as before. By means of a rotating axle, the F# hole is closed when either the first or the third finger key is depressed. The right-hand first finger key also closes the Bt) hole above, providing an alternative fingering for B flat.
For the left hand, a finger plate enables the first finger to close the C# hole from a position an inch below the hole. A combination key and plate for the thumb allows closing either the C hole or both C and B holes.
It was found inconvenient to keep two of the holes open, the G# and the low D#. The G# hole is opened by the left little finger lever. A duplicate hole is bored, however, and this stands open unless the third finger is depressed for G. The right little finger opens the D# hole in the foot joint, and keeps it open for practically all notes above. The same finger controls a split key to play either C or C#, the lowest notes.
The remaining keys are the high D and D# trill keys, operated by the right third and second fingers, respectively, and an added B trill key for the right first finger, duplicating the action of the thumb plate.
Keys are named for the note sounding when the key is depressed. It is to be recognized, however, that whereas G# comes from the hole opened when the G# key is depressed, the effect of depressing the G key is to close the hole from which A comes, the G hole being two holes farther down. The low C hole is the end of the flute.
Fingering a note involves not only pressing the key, but also closing all higher-pitched holes. The entire tube down to the note being fingered has to be tightly closed, except when vents are opened to produce upper partial tones.
In playing position, the flute is supported by the right thumb, the first joint of the left forefinger, and the player's chin. The lower lip partially covers the embouchure hole.
It is understood that enharmonic equivalents are fingered alike; e.g., the fingering for G# and for A flat is exactly the same.



The fingering chart shows how the upper notes of the flute are obtained by fingering a fundamental and, except for the chromatic tones from E to C#, inclusive, in the second octave, opening one or more holes as vents for the production of harmonics. This process is summed up in Fig. 46.


The tones of the first half-octave, especially the foot joint notes, have a warm velvety quality of their own. The sound is deceptively heavy when heard alone, but it is easily covered by other instruments and by strong overtones from low bass notes. This is due, no doubt, to the weakness of the upper partials in the formant of the low register of the flute.
In the following example, the low C sounds clearly because it is the lowest of the three voices.
A gradual brightening of the tone takes place as the sounding length decreases through the first octave, although these fundamental tones do not achieve the clarity and serenity characteristic of the overblown notes of the second octave. This comparison can be noted in the next example, for two flutes.
The third octave is brilliant, with much carrying power, without shrillness at least as far as A, or even B flat.
The highest C# and D should be considered as extremely exceptional extensions of the flute's range. They can be included only in loud passages and it is advisable to double them with the piccolo. Instances of their use are quite rare.
In the production of notes above the staff, various harmonics are employed (Fig. 46). The first C# is harmonic no. 2 (octave), the D no. 3 (octave and fifth), the D# no. 4 (double octave). These harmonics tend to differ in tone and brilliance. The top B flat is a clearer, more manageable tone than the B , mostly because it is a harmonic no. 4 as opposed to a no. 5. The finger combination for high A sometimes proves awkward in passages. The reconciliation of these diversities is an essential part of the art of flute playing, and melodies may cover the entire range of the instrument, although it should be added that the dynamic range of the flute is not wide.
The following is a famous example of a modern solo for the flute.


No wind instrument surpasses the flute in agility, fleetness, and general virtuosity. Flute parts contain all manner of rapid scales, arpeggios, and brilliant passage work.
Wide skips between registers are idiomatic for the instrument.
Loud passages in the high register require more wind. Opportunities should be provided for taking at least a quick breath, either in the phrasing or with a rest.
Two flutes may divide a passage in alternate motives, overlapping on the accented notes. This procedure makes breathing easier for both, and the result is a more rhythmic performance than if both flutes played the whole phrase in unison.
Double-tonguing (Ex. 157) and triple-tonguing (Ex. 158) are both effective and efficient for fast staccato playing.


We have seen that on the flute all normal tones above the first open C# are harmonics. But the term harmonic, in woodwind parlance, is used to denote a tone produced by using a harmonic different from that normally used.

In Fig. 47 (a) are shown three ways to play the high D. First, the normal D as harmonic no. 3 from the fundamental G, with left first finger raised, opening the C# hole as a vent (see fingering chart); second, the same played with the vent closed; and third, the D as harmonic no. 4 from the low D, without vents.
Some flutists are able to produce the entire harmonic series (Fig. 47b) up to the seventh or eighth harmonic from low C, without opening vents.
Notes usually designated to be played as harmonics are those obtained unvented as harmonic no. 3 of the fourteen chromatic tones from low C up to open Qf, inclusive. They are marked with a small circle, like string harmonics. While they possess a certain veiled quality, it is generally admitted that they are inferior to normal flute tones both in clearness and intonation. In Ex. 159 is an extraordinary example of flute harmonics.
Harmonics are useful as an added resource in the fingering of difficult passages. Sometimes the inclusion of one or two notes in "harmonic fingering" will simplify the execution without appreciably affecting the over-all sonority.


The rapid alternation of two tones may present difficulties of fingering and also of embouchure. A trill may involve an exchange of finger combinations requiring the movement of several fingers, together with a quick adjustment of the embouchure to different harmonics. These difficulties can be smoothed out by the use of harmonic fingering or by the addition of extra keys to the instrument. The D and D# trill keys are examples of the latter expedient. In any case, the effectiveness of a given trill, or tremolo, depends upon the expertness of the performer. Practicability is a matter of degree rather than a subject for classification into possible and impossible.
The three keys in the foot joint being controlled by the right fourth finger alone, the trills C-C# and C#-D#, and the tremolo C-D#, are not playable except rather slowly. The little finger has to glide from one key to the other.
The woodwind version of the bowed tremolo is the reiteration of a single note by means of flutter-tonguing, an effect not often used. The more usual tremolo is like the fingered tremolo of strings, a trill with an interval larger than a second. If the interval is too wide the lower note may fail to speak, owing to the inertia of the air column; and if harmonics are involved there is a risk that the fundamental may sound where it is not wanted. Within the first octave, tremolos having an interval greater than a perfect fifth are uncertain, whereas in higher registers a safer limit is the major third.


For added tone-weight, the second flute often doubles the first in unison. Less often it doubles at the octave below, in which case its octave overtone reinforces the first flute. The lower instrument is at a slight disadvantage, since the octave difference places it in a less brilliant register. It is wise to assign some of the duties of the first player to the second player when both are not needed. This allows the first to rest, and tends to make the second part more interesting to play.
The two flute parts may be melodies of equal importance. Light accompaniment figures may be arranged for two flutes. Another instance of inspired orchestration is the following chord from Mahler's Fourth Symphony. To be noted are the sudden change of mode in the harmonic progression, the unusual spacing of the chord in measure 5, and the placing of the perfect fourth in the two flutes. The effect is quite unexpected and magical. Combinations of flutes with other instruments should be studied through perusal of scores.


The grouping of woodwinds by threes quite often includes three flutes instead of two flutes and piccolo. The more homogeneous color is preferred for purposes like the following.
A larger orchestra may call for four flutes. The following illustration is taken from the final measures of Berg's Wozzeck. In the score, the flutes are doubled at the unison by the celesta.



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