From Young Composers
Jump to: navigation, search
The C Flute.
Fr. Flûte (traversière) ; It. Flauto ; Ger. Flöte ; Sp. Flauta

A flute is a type of woodwind instrument. The term, alone, most commonly refers to the Western concert flute in C, although other variants such as the piccolo, alto flute in G, and bass flute exist. Early flutes were constructed entirely of wood, with the exception of metal keys that would later be added. Theobald Boehm revolutionized the construction of the concert flute when he began implementing a 23-key design on a metal body, which is the usual construction today. Modern concert flutes are made of any of several metals, including nickel-silver and Sterling silver, and can be plated in nickel, silver, gold, or even platinum. The more precious metals are thought to yield a darker, warmer tone than less expensive materials.

This article is primarily concerned with the concert flute in C. Unless otherwise mentioned, flute refers to this type of flute.

Score Placement

In orchestral and wind band scoring, the flute is placed on the top stave of the score, except in the presence of a piccolo part which would be placed above it. The flutes have several auxiliary instruments, most notably the piccolo. Players of lower chair will usually play auxiliary parts while the principal flutist remains on the standard orchestral C flute, where their expertise is most needed.

In a standard modern orchestra, three C flutes are used, with the third flutist playing the piccolo. In the wind ensemble or concert band, however, there may be many flutists on each part. In band music it is common for the flutes to be divided into up to two or three parts, in addition to a separate piccolo part. It is usual practice to have only one piccolo player (rarely, two), even if there are many flutists. Thus, balance can be a problem and should be considered when composing unison lines for the flute in band music.

Timbre and Range

The flute has essentially three registers: low, middle, and high, each with a unique timbral quality.

The lowest register of the flute (from B3 or C4 to C#5) is the weakest as far as volume is concerned. However, it is also a very rich and colourful part of the flute's range. The entire lower octave can be considered as belonging to this timbral area. In this range, the flute has difficulty competing aurally with other instruments. Particular care should be exercised when scoring accompaniment for the flute in this range.

The middle register (from D5 to G6) has considerably more carrying power.Here the tone quality is bright and vibrant, with enough carrying power to carry its own weight in the proper orchestral setting. This octave also is very rich in overtones, giving the flute its unique timbre.

The upper register of the flute (above G6) has a shrill and piercing but brilliant quality to it. The majority of Orchestral music places the Flute in this register. Due to the somewhat awkward fingerings in this register, the flute loses a small fraction of its agility, in addition to becoming a bit more difficult to control in very soft nuances; with a good musician this is not an issue. In loud passages, this range is an excellent doubling of upper partials to solidify an orchestral mass. Notes above the highest 'C' on the flute should only be written in consultation with a competent flutist, as all notes above C7 are somewhat difficult for beginners.
Illustration of written range for the flute.
Impossible/awkward trills or tremolos on the flute.

Auxiliary instruments


The piccolo, the most commonly seen auxiliary instrument of the flute family, extends the flute family's range up by another octave. Written to sound one octave higher, its most common use is to brighten and strengthen the upper partials of an orchestration; however, it should not be totally relegated to this position. Care must be exercised when writing extensive passages in the piccolo's upper octave, as the high-pitched and penetrating sound quickly becomes tiresome to the ear. The piccolo's lower octave (its lowest note is a D, unlike the flute) has a very special "dry" quality to it. Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing John Williams’ score to E.T. The Extraterrestrial might have noticed the piccolo solo in the very opening measures of the film score.

Illustration of written range of the piccolo.

Alto Flute in G, Bass Flute in C, and lower flutes

The alto flute in G and the bass flute in C are both extensions of the flute family into the lower range. Both the alto and bass flute are constructed so as to emphasize the lower two octaves of the instrument's range (written C4 to C6), at the expense of not having a truly balanced upper register. It is for this reason that the majority of music written for these instruments is written in the lower register. While the alto and bass flute can both play and effectively produce the entire range of the instrument, the most characteristic sound for each of these instruments is in the lower two octaves. Also, because these instruments are much heavier and require much more air than the standard flute, extended passages without ample opportunities for breaths are not idiomatic and should be avoided.

The alto flute in G is a transposing instrument sounding a perfect fourth below written pitch. The alto flute brings more carrying power and a richer sound to its lower register in comparison to flute. In a comparable pitch range, the alto flute is much less easily covered and can project more effectively. Caution must still be taken, however, in providing accompaniment to the alto flute in the low register.

Illustration of written range of the Alto Flute in G.

The bass flute in C is pitched one octave below the concert C flute. It is a soft instrument and is easily covered in all registers if the accompaniment is not carefully considered. The bass flute is not often heard in the orchestra or concert band; in fact it is typically heard primarily on recordings, or when played live, amplified.

Illustration of written range of the Bass Flute in C.

The composer and orchestrator must be wary in using these instruments as they are not always available to orchestras and bands. The alto flute can be uncommonly found, but the bass flute and other, larger flutes are quite rare. The major use for the lower flutes is for filling the lower harmonies in flute choirs, outside of which they are rarely, if ever, seen. Occasionally, when a contrabass flute is not available, it will be substituted with a double bass in the flute choir.

Extended techniques

<music>{\relative c' {\meterOff \cadenzaOn s2^\markup{w.t.} \harmonicOn c8 (e d f) e2 } } </music>

Whistle tones

Whistle tones are very weak and quiet, and only particularly effective in the third octave of the flute's range, the easiest to play being from C6 to B6. The proper fingerings are used and the air stream is slower and broader. They are indicted by diamond noteheads with the marking, "w.t." Because they are so quiet, they benefit from electronic amplification and will never carry through any orchestral texture acoustically.

Bisbigliando or "hollow tones"

Hollow tones are produced by bending an out of tune note (such as a microtone) into the correct pitch. In order to do this with accurate intonation special fingering must be used (like with any microtones) and may sometimes vary from flute to flute. Close and personal consultation with an experienced flautist is almost necessary if the composer is not already a flautist. These are also usually indicating by a combination of diamond noteheads and textual instruction such as "bisbigl." or "hollow tone", sometimes "h.t.". It is usually customary to provide the appropriate fingering above each unique hollow note in the part.

Singing while playing

Singing while playing is sometimes used by flutists as low note tone-exercise, although is occasionally used in flute repertoire. It produces a coarse, almost grinding sound, sometimes used to imitate animal effects or create artificial harmony/polyphony. When written, it should be notated on the same staff, in different noteheads. (Since there is no standard notation, different composers do what is easiest for them in terms of notation)


Flutes are capable of producing multiple stops anywhere from two to five notes. Every fingering on flute has at least one multiphonic; it's just a matter of how that fingering is blown. For example, underblowing the normal high D may produce the C an octave below, thus creating a ninth. When writing multiphonics, always be sure to a) consult a flutist, b) find a multiphonics chart (like those in Robert Dick's "The Other Flute"), or c) understand what you're doing! Multiphonics are NOT agile; it is not possible to play extremely fast runs with multiphonics, and without proper practice it is very hard to sustain some multiphonics. Always write in the score the fingering of the multiphonic.

Works for Further Listening/Study


  • Débussy, C.: Syrinx


  • Shostakovich, D.: Symphony No. 10
  • Pierné, G.: Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied: L'École des Ægipans

Alto Flute

  • Ravel, M.: Daphnis et Chloé
  • Varèse, E.: Ameriques

Bass Flute

  • Widmann, J.: Flûte en suite
  • Ligeti, G.: Double Concerto

External links

Instruments and Voices
Woodwinds Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass)RecorderOboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone)Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass)

Bassoon (Contrabassoon)SaxophoneBagpipes

Brass HornCornetTrumpetTromboneEuphoniumTubaSaxhorns
Keyboards PianoOrganHarmoniumHarpsichordClavichordCelestaAccordion
Percussion Tuned: TimpaniGlockenspielChimesVibraphoneXylophoneMarimbaCrotalesMusical sawHammered Dulcimer

Untuned: Snare drumBass drumTriangleCymbalsGongsTom-tomsShakersDrumset

Electronic ThereminOndes MartenotSynthesizerElectronic Wind Instrument
Stringed Bowed: ViolinViolaVioloncelloContrabass

Plucked: HarpGuitarMandolinBanjo

Voices Female: SopranoMezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto)Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)

Male: TrebleCountertenorTenorBaritoneBass-baritoneBass