Along with recorder instruments, the flute family does not use a to create sound. Instead, the player blows air across a hole in the mouthpiece . The air rapidly alternates between going in the hole and across and above it, creating a vibration within the body of the instrument. The effect is similar when air is blown across the top of a bottle.

Flutes are ancient instruments.  The oldest known flutes were made of bone and date back to at least 35,000 years ago! Since then flutes have changed a lot but the method of playing them remains the same.

Flutes come in a variety of sizes, including the standard size flute in C, as well as alto , tenor, and bass instruments.   Flutes have been made from a variety of materials including bone, wood, metal, ivory, glass, and , but the material has little effect on the sound.

Early European flutes were simple instruments made of a cylindrical tube in one piece with six finger holes.  During the baroque period flutes became more conical and were made in three, and then four sections.  An important development during this time was the addition of a key from around 1680.  One-keyed flutes were used throughout the 18th century and even into the 19th century.

During the late 18th century instrument makers began adding additional keys to the flute.  These keys helped flute players play better in tune.  In the 19th century many makers experimenting with adding keys and key systems.  One of the most important of these makers was Theobald Boehm.  Boehm worked on improving the flute from 1828-1848.  During this time he changed the shape of the instrument to cylindrical and drilled tone holes that were much too large for a person’s fingers to cover and spaced them according to acoustic properties, not the position of a players hand.  To make the instrument playable, Boehm added a complicated keywork mechanism which covered the tone holes with pads.  Today, almost all flutes are made based on Boehm’s designs, called the ‘Boehm system.’  His key system is even used on other instruments, such as the clarinet.

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Video: Edwina Smith plays and discusses the flute in C, 1 key by Villars, 1741 – 76 (15).

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There are two commonly played small instruments in the flute family.  The fife is an instrument that has more in common to early flutes than today’s modern instruments.  It often made in one piece, has no keys, and has a cylindrical , much like the keyless forerunner of the baroque flute.  Piccolos, on the other hand, are small flutes, mostly pitched one above the standard flute.  Today piccolos are commonly played in orchestral and band music, whereas fifes have a long history of playing alongside drums in military music, spanning back to the Middle Ages.

Video: Edwina Smith plays and discusses the F piccolo in Eb, 1 key, by Wood & Ivy, London, 1837-47.