Where did your Flute Come From?

Are you a flute player? (I am!) Do you know anything about the flute’s history? Where it came from? The flute certainly didn’t start out looking like it does today! Let’s explore a little bit about where your instrument came from – the history of the flute.

Names to know:

There are a few names that stand out in the history of the flute. Here are four of these important names:

  •         Hotteterre
  •         Quantz
  •         Tomlitz
  •         Boehm

Ever heard of any of them? If you keep studying you will probably play some music written by Johann Quantz (1697–1773) . He was a flute player, a flute maker, and a flute composer. Quantz also wrote some important ideas about playing the instrument and using different fingerings for making the flutes of his time sound better. He even gave flute lessons to Frederick the Great of Prussia!

You also need to know the name of Theobald Boehm. Your flute is patterned after his design ideas. You can be very thankful for Boehm’s brilliant ideas about making this instrument easier to finger, easier to keep in tune, and easier to play.

Facts to know:

What should you call a person who plays the flute? Flute player, flutist, flautist, flutenist – they all work. Although I have never heard anyone use the term flutenist before.

The flute is the oldest kind of wind instrument. Historians say a form of flute easily dates back 40,000 years. But I’m not sure we would enjoy playing the flutes from that era!

It takes more air to play a flute than any other instrument. There is some debate about whether a tuba might require more air for some notes. How can such a small instrument require more air than a tuba? Easy – all the air for playing a tuba goes right into the instrument. When you blow air to play a flute the air is split – only some of it goes into the instrument to produce sound. The rest just blows over the embouchure plate.

Flutes are woodwind instruments. Even though it is made of metal. And even though it is the only woodwind instrument that does not use a reed.

There are twelve instruments in the flute family. The most common ones are the flute and the piccolo. The lowest and most massive member of the family is the hyperbass flute. It sounds four octaves lower than a regular flute. Its lowest note is a C that is one octave lower than the lowest C on a piano! And the hyperbass flute is over 8 meters long – that’s over 25 feet long!

Now for some history:

An Old Instrument

The flute is the oldest wind instrument that historians have found evidence for. Originally the word flute referred to instruments that were either blown from the end (like a recorder) or blown across (like today’s flutes). The first evidence for blown-across flutes, or side-blown flutes, comes from the 1st to 4th centuries B. C. Blown-across is a bit awkward to say, so these flutes became known as transverse flutes.

By the Middle Ages these early flutes were often made of wood, were made with just one piece, and had 6 finger holes. Traveling minstrels carried and used them throughout Europe. By the 1500s groups of players with different-sized flutes often played together in ensembles called consorts.

Problems. Solutions?

But there were problems with these flutes. Most of the flutes were made to play in the key of D major. The main problem these flutes had? Intonation! They did not play in tune very well. Not in tune with themselves, and not in tune with others. And there wasn’t really any way to fix the problem.

By the 1600s people were trying to find ways to solve the problems. One of the first changes was to separate the instrument into three different pieces – like your instrument today. They made a head joint, a body piece, and a foot joint. That may not have solved any sound or intonation problems, but it made it easier to pack and carry the instrument!

The flute made its first appearance in an opera orchestra in the 1600s. That was a big deal because it showed that composers were willing to write parts for the flute. The flute was competing with the recorder for acceptance and importance. The main problems for the flute were intonation (still!) and consistent sound. Do you ever hear those things talked about by your teacher? I think the problems were much worse back then.

Progress?

Another solution people tried was to make interchangeable body parts. So, if your flute was built in the key of D, and the music was in the key of F, you would exchange the body part of your instrument for a shorter one, in order to get a higher sound. Interesting idea. But people didn’t think this through well enough. No one adjusted the key holes on the longer or shorter parts for more accurate sounds. Intonation was still a problem.

People and Potential Solutions

Along came some key people trying to make improvements. The Jean Hotteterre family, Pierre Gabriel Buffardin, Johann Quantz, Johann Tromlitz, and Theobald Boehm. Many of these were accomplished flutists themselves, and understood the problems with their instruments. They were looking to solve the problems.

Jean Hotteterre and his family were the ones responsible for redesigning the flute from 1 piece to three. They also made the tone holes of the instrument smaller and added a key for E♭(D♯).

Pierre Gabriel Buffardin introduced the concept of interchangeable body parts.

Johann Quantz adjusted the shape and size of the tone holes and introduced a tuning slide. He wrote a long explanation about playing and teaching the flute, “An Essay on Instruction in the Art of Playing the Transverse Flute.” Doesn’t that sound impressive? He also wrote about 400 pieces of music for the flute. That did a lot to boost the instrument’s popularity.

One Step Forward, Another Step Back

By this time the flute was pretty well established as a part of the orchestra but was losing on the solo scene. There were still intonation problems. And the sound of the instrument was not powerful enough for the larger concert halls in use. More work needed for the flute.

Sometimes it seemed that the more people tried to improve the flute, the more problems it had. By the 1800s it was standard for a flute to have 8 keys, thanks to Johann Tromlitz. But more keys didn’t solve all the problems. And more keys made the fingering more complicated. Who wants to deal with that?

The Beginning of the End (of the Problems)

Finally, by the 1830s we get to the beginning of the end of the flute problems. Theobald Boehm, a flute player and a flute maker, started to study all the problems of the instrument and all the things people had done to try and solve the problems. He started to collect and implement the ideas of others. He added ring keys to the instrument – idea of Frederick Nolan. And he studied the idea of larger tone holes for a more powerful sound and added that to his flutes. (Idea compliments of Tromlitz.)

Boehm decided to arrange the tone holes for the best sound, not for the easiest fingering. This did a lot to help with intonation problems. He also added new key works, linking keys together with moveable rods. And he developed new fingering, which was less complicated than the old fingerings. Many people were impressed with his new ideas. But he kept studying, looking for ways to make the flute even better.

Hello, Modern Flute!

In 1847 he presented a new instrument to the world. The New and Improved Boehm Flute. This instrument had cylindrical tubing, an evolutionary new design for the head joint, improved key mechanisms.  He used pin springs (idea of Louis-Auguste Buffet), felt pads for the key cups to prevent air from escaping, changed the shape of the embouchure hole, and added a slightly raised lip plate to make the instrument easier to play. All these ideas are still part of your instrument today. In fact, very little has been changed on the flute since Boehm introduced his new design.

How was this instrument received? How well did people like it? Most people were quite enthusiastic about this new flute. But, of course, not all. Boehm’s new flute required players to learn new fingerings. There were some people who just didn’t want to do that. (Stubborn?) After 20 years or so, Boehm’s new design was the standard in the flute world.

From D to C

At some point in the redesign process, flutes were built to play in the key of C. That means that when you play a C, it matches the C on a piano. Flutes have a range of three octaves – from middle C up to the C above the 5th leger line above the treble staff. If you get really, really good, you can get a couple notes higher than that. And some flutes are made so you can get a note below middle C. But most music does not require those notes.

Now you know a little bit more about your flute. Be thankful for all the design modifications! You have a wonderful instrument. Where are you in your flute-playing life? Book 1? Advanced? I would love to hear your flute stories! Tell me one of your stories, and I will tell you one of mine. Leave your story in the comments!

If you are interested in more about the history of the flute you can read more information here:

Interested in the history of the violin? Check out this post!

Where did your flute come from?

Where Did your Violin Come From?

You should know something about the instrument you play. Like a little bit of its history. So, where did your instrument come from? Did it just appear one day? Did some guy wake up one morning and decide that he was going to make a violin that day? What led to the development of today’s violin?

Bowed Instruments

Violins are instruments that have strings. There have been instruments with strings for thousands of years! But violins have strings that are played with a bow – that’s different from instruments with strings that are played by plucking the strings. References exist to bowed string instruments at least as early as the 9th Century A.D. And these references come from all over! There were bowed string instruments in Mongolia, Persia, Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, Finland, France, China, and India. But none of these early instruments were really like the violin.

Which instrument provided the direct link to the violin? Good question – and there is not a definite answer. The two most likely answers are the viol (viola de gamba) or the lira de brascia. Neither of these groups of instruments were shaped like a violin, but they were based on some similar ideas. Viola de gambas were played in upright positions, sometimes even between the legs. (“gamba” means “leg). Lira de brascia instruments were held in the arms (“brascia” means “arm”).  For that reason, some think the lira de brascia was the direct link to the violin.

The Big Three of Violin Makers

Enter the Amati family in northern Italy in the 1500’s. Andrea Amati was a luthier. (Originally a luthier was a lute maker, or lute repairman. Today that is the term used for those who make violins.) He was the one responsible for making the first known four-string violin. He was commissioned by a member of the famous (and wealthy) Medici family to build a four-string violin. He must have done a good job because he and his family went on to make a name for themselves building many famous violins.

The Amati family of violin makers were responsible for establishing the basic proportions of the violin – very similar to the instrument you have today. At some point he started using a mold, or a form, for his violins. This allowed him to be even more precise in his measurements. Quality control for his violins. The most famous violin maker in the Amati family was Andrea’s grandson, Nicolo.

The Amati family also taught others to make violins through an apprenticeship program. Two other famous violin makers learned under the teaching of Nicolo Amati – Giuseppe Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari. Ever heard of either of them? I hope so! A few of their violins are still in use today – and they are worth millions! Many violins made since them are patterned after the designs and techniques of either Guarneri, Stradivari, or Amati. The label on the inside of your instrument might have one of their names on it – meaning your instrument was made in the style of one of those former makers.

Changes in Perception

Let’s play a little word association game for a minute. What are the first things that come to your mind when you hear the word “violin?” Instrument? Practice? Expensive concert? Exclusive? Lovely sound? To our minds today, violins are associated with concert halls, high class performances, etc. But it wasn’t always that way. Originally the instrument was associated with the lower classes. It started out as an instrument for professional street musicians. Other performers who used the violin were servants, folk musicians, performers of dance music. Over time the violin became more accepted by the upper classes. By the early 1600s the violin was being used in orchestras. Claudio Monteverdi was one of the first composers to include the violin in his scores.

Changes in Violins

Has your violin teacher ever said anything to you about your posture? Like, maybe, every week? Good thing your teacher didn’t have to deal with early violins and violinists! No good posture solutions existed then! During the time of Bach (Baroque era), chin rests and shoulder rests did not exist. Violinists held the instrument angled toward the floor. That limited the use of the arm holding the violin, so no one could play in any of the upper positions. The bows of the time were shorter and lighter, limiting the sound of the instrument. Early violins produced a sound that was soft, rough, and muddy. Baroque violins did not sound like the violins we are used to hearing today.

Bow Innovations

Innovation to the rescue! How did we get the violins that we hear today? What caused the sound to change, the technique to improve, the comfort level and posture to become bearable? In 1726 Francoise Tourte redesigned the violin bow. He changed the bend of the bow, so it arched backwards. He also standardized the length and weight of the bow. These changes in weight, length, and balance allowed the violin to sound with more power and brilliance, especially in the upper ranges.

Addition of a Chin Rest

Another great improvement came in 1820 when Louis Spohr invented the chin rest. Can you imagine playing your instrument without a chin rest? The addition of a chin rest allowed players much more comfort in holding and playing the instrument. It also allowed for a great advancement of playing technique – the left arm was much freer, so the fingers were freer to move up and down the fingerboard. The sore necks of violinists have been thanking him ever since!

Change the Instrument, Change the Sound

And then there were changes to the instrument itself. In the 1800s the fingerboards were lengthened, which allowed players to use more of the E string. The bridge was raised, and the fingerboard was tilted and raised, giving a greater volume and brightness to the sound of the violin.

While we’re at it, Change the Strings

Even the strings got in on the improvement action. Originally violin strings were made of sheep or lamb gut. As early as the late 1600s, though, violin makers started using G-strings of gut wound with silver or copper. By the late 1800s violinists were experimenting with steel strings. This was especially true with the E-strings. They were the thinnest strings and, therefore, the most easily broken.

The two World Wars had an impact on violin strings. The wars caused great disruption to the animal trade – not so much sheep gut available for strings. Also, the wars brought about advances in the steel industry, so it was easier to produce the thin strings needed for violin. But many players didn’t like the sounds produced by steel strings.

By the middle of the 1900s players were beginning to use, and like, synthetic strings. Dominant strings made by Thomastik were the first big players in the synthetic string market. D’Addario began marketing strings for violins made of the same material as the strings used for tennis rackets. Now, most violinists use synthetic strings.

Does your own violin have its own story?

Do you appreciate your violin more, now that you know a bit more of its story? Aren’t you glad you have the more modern version of the instrument? And the help of a chin rest? Do you know anything more specific about your instrument? Sometimes the label inside the violin will give you some clues. (Look inside one of the f-holes to look for a label.) When one of my daughter’s bought her bow, she was told that it was made from wood that used to be a Brazilian fence post. I’d love to hear anything you know about your instrument! Tell me your stories! (Use the Comments Section.)

To read more about the history of violins and their strings, you might enjoy these sources:

Where did your violin come from?
Where did your violin come from?

Band vs. Orchestra

Band or Orchestra?

The question music students have been debating for ages. Which one is better? Ask any band student, and he will say that band is better. Ask any orchestra student, and he will say that orchestra is better. Some might say that orchestra members are more serious about their music, but band members are more fun.

Guess what? There is no right answer! There are great orchestras. There are great bands. But because they are different, you can’t really say one is “better” than the other. Just different.

So how are they different?

Do you know the difference between a band and an orchestra? If not, read on. To be as simple as possible, an orchestra has string instruments. A band does not.

Orchestra

Chamber Orchestra

A chamber orchestra has only string instruments – violins, violas, cellos, basses. Chamber orchestras typically have 40-50 members.

Full Orchestra

A full orchestra, or a symphonic orchestra, is usually a much larger group of musicians. A full orchestra has all the string instruments, but also includes a representation of all the band instruments, including percussion. A symphony orchestra can have as many as 100 members, with probably 25 or so belonging to the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections.

Band

Concert Band

A concert band is a group of woodwind, brass, and percussion players with several musicians playing each part. It might have 6 or 7 first flutes, 6 or 7 second flutes, 6 or 7 first clarinets, and so on.

Wind Ensemble

A smaller group, but similar to a concert band, is the wind ensemble. This group has the same instruments represented as the concert band, but on a smaller scale. A wind ensemble usually has only 1 or 2 players on each part. 

Marching Band

A marching band is a band that plays while marching. This could be at the halftime show of a football game or at a parade.  I recently watched the Rose Bowl Parade, and many of the marching bands there had between 150-200 members!

Jazz Band

Jazz bands are another member of the band family. Instrumentation for jazz bands varies a lot – depending on the venue, the music, the style. Most have much smaller ensembles than the other bands mentioned, but usually include percussion, a couple different saxophones, possibly a clarinet or a trumpet, a bass, and trombone.

And which one came first?

Good question. And no easy answer! It depends on your definition of band and orchestra. Flutes are the earliest instruments archaeologists have discovered, dating back many thousands of years. Trumpet-like instruments have been around since at least 1500 B.C. (Score for band.) And the Bible speaks of King David being skilled with a harp. He lived around 1000 B.C. (Score for orchestra.) Also, if you believe the Bible, Genesis 4:21 speaks of a man named Jubal who was the “father of all such that handle to harp and organ.” (Score for both.)

Early Orchestras

In Medieval and early Renaissance times, an orchestra referred to any group of musicians playing together. “Modern” string orchestras started to form in the mid-1500’s. These had instruments similar to our current violins, violas, cellos, and basses. In the early 1600’s composers began to specify which instruments they wanted to play which parts. By the mid-1600’s orchestras used strings with some wind or percussion instruments.

Modern Orchestras

Modern string instruments were developed earlier than the modern woodwind and brass instruments.  As our modern wind and brass instruments were developed, they were added to the orchestra. By the middle of the 1800’s orchestras often had the same instrumentation that orchestras have today.

Your Opinion?

So, which came first? Bands or orchestras? Which is better? Band or orchestra? Your answer may be based on definition. And it may be based on personal preference! Which one do you like better? Which one do you think is better? I would love to hear your thoughts! Leave your ideas in the comments.

Band vs. Orchestra
Band vs. Orchestra
Band vs. Orchestra - Which one is Better?
Band vs. Orchestra