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.


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?

Buying a Woodwind Instrument

Planning on buying a woodwind instrument for someone for Christmas? Do you know what a woodwind instrument is? Here are some great ideas to help you in your search.

What is a woodwind instrument?

The main members of the woodwind family are the flute, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, and bassoon. The flute family will include the piccolo. There are also alto flutes and bass flutes, but most of your students won’t need those. Oboes and English horns are both in the oboe family. The clarinet family mainly includes clarinet and bass clarinet. Bassoons and contrabassoons make up the bassoon family. While the alto saxophone is the most common member of the saxophone family, and the one most beginners start with, there are several other saxophones. Soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone and baritone or bass saxophones complete the family. So, before you shop for an instrument you need to know exactly what instrument you are looking for!

General Woodwind Instrument Shopping Advice

Do Your Homework!

Research. Know the instrument you are shopping for. Get suggestions from a teacher or band director. Study the different makers and models of the instruments. Learn which ones have better reputations and tend to be more reliable. Learn the difference between student models, intermediate models, and professional models. Decide which of those you will be searching for.

Study the Condition of the Instrument

Whether you are buying new or used, always look at the condition of the instrument. Make sure all the keys operate the way they are supposed to. Make sure the instrument is straight. Look for major dents in the body of the instrument. Study instruments carefully for signs of cracks in the wood or plastic. Look at all the pads and corks on the instrument. Pads should always seal completely and should not be extremely dirty. A good way to check for solid seals on pads is to shine light down the inside of the instrument and look for leaks of light through the pads. Another option is to insert a light bar inside the instrument and look for leaks of light. Corks and pads should not be cracked.

How clean is the instrument? Wind instruments must be cleaned regularly, especially on the inside. Is it green or moldy? Does it smell bad? The cleanliness of the instrument can give a good idea of how well the instrument was taken care of. Also, look for visible make/model/serial numbers on instrument. If they appear to be scratched off, beware. That could be a sign of a stolen instrument. Make sure every part for the instrument is there, and that they all fit together well.

Ask Questions

Did the owner play the instrument? How long has he owned the instrument? Are there records of maintenance or repairs from technicians? Why is the owner selling the instrument? When is the last time the instrument was played?

Play the Instrument

Very important – play the instrument!! Or, if you can’t play, bring someone along with you who can play. Play more than just a few notes and longer than a couple minutes. Play loud, soft, high, low, and everything in between. Does every note play easily? Are the high notes and low notes all easy to play? Do all the keys function smoothly? Do any of the notes “stick out?” Bring along a tuner (or tuner app on your phone). Does the instrument play in tune? Is it terribly out of tune with itself?

Listen to the Sound

Even though an instrument might play well and be in good condition, it still might not give the sound you want. Listen to the instrument while someone else plays. Does it sound the way you want it to sound? Some instruments sound brighter or mellower than others. Listen for the sound you like.

Get Advice from Others

Finally, get the advice of others. Ask for a teacher’s advice or recommendations. Ask if you can let a teacher of band director look at the instrument for you. Take the instrument (especially a used instrument) to a reputable technician for advice. If there are repairs that need to be made, it is a good idea to get an estimate of what that would cost before buying the instrument. Is the instrument worth the money after you add in the cost of repair?

New or Used?

If you know what you are looking for, have done your homework, and have someone who can play the instrument, don’t be afraid of the used market. You can get some great deals on good used instruments if you are careful. One suggestion is to try several new instruments at music stores to find what you like, and then look for that exact instrument in the used market. Or look for an instrument that gives you the same sound you like. We found a fabulous French horn for my son in a pawn shop. It was a far better horn than we could have ever afforded new!

Most importantly, no matter how shiny it is, or how beautiful it looks, please don’t buy your instrument from a big box store or a warehouse club.

Here is a link to some very good thoughts about buying woodwind instruments – Read Here

All right – time to get a bit more specific.

Even though these instruments are all woodwinds and have some basic characteristics in common, they are also all quite different. Here are some instrument-specific things to look for.

Finding the perfect flute
Finding the perfect flute

Flute –

Beginner or student model flutes are usually nickel plated and look shiny, like chrome. Silver plating is a better option. A solid silver head joint is always a good investment.

Also, intermediate flutes give you the option of having a foot joint with 3 keys instead of 2. This does make the flute a little longer and a little heavier. Some argue that having the low B key helps make the lower register easier to play, others say it doesn’t matter. Most flute literature does not include the low B in the music.

Another option with intermediate flutes in the inline G key. Whether you choose inline G or offset G is primarily a matter of preference and comfort. Those with smaller hands might find it much easier to work with the offset G. Also, you can choose open hole or closed hole (plateau) keys. There is some debate concerning the benefits of either system. Occasionally flute literature will require some bending of the sound that can only be accomplished with open hole keys, but this is not very common.

When looking at used flutes, look at the overall condition and cleanliness of the flute. Silver can tarnish – that can be cleaned. But does it look as though the previous owner took good care of the flute? Carefully inspect the tubing of the instrument for severe dents, pitting, or corrosion.

Be sure the pads are clean, soft, and give a complete seal. Be sure all the little cork pieces are where they should be, and in good condition. Test all the keys to be sure each one moves easily and properly. Put the pieces of the flute together. Do the pieces go together easily and well? They should not be loose or wobbly.

Here is some more information about buying flutes: Read Here  and  Here

Concerning the Clarinet
Concerning the Clarinet

Clarinet –

Clarinets are made of a couple different materials. The student or beginner models are often made of plastic, which can be brittle and give a harsh sound. Better options would be those made of special thermoplastics, resin, or wood. Wood clarinets usually produce a warmer sound.

Also, the skill of “going over the break” is usually much easier on intermediate instruments than on student models. The keys of the clarinet should cover the holes completely. They should not stick at all, and there should be thick pads under the keys.

The joints of the instrument should come together smoothly and completely. The bore of the clarinet (what you see when you look down the inside) should be wooden, clean, dry, and smooth. There should not be any cracks in the bore. The bell of the instrument (where it flares out at the bottom) should also be free of any chips or cracks.

More information about buying clarinets: Read Here and Here

Searching for a Saxophone
Searching for a Saxophone

Saxophone –

The first thing you need to know when buying a saxophone is what kind you want. Soprano sax? Tenor? Alto sax? Baritone saxophone? Most beginners start with the alto saxophone. After you figure that out you can look at the options.

When buying a saxophone, you need to look carefully at the instrument. The rods on a saxophone are very important, so you need to make sure they are in good condition. These rods support and facilitate key motion and movement. They need to be straight and sturdy.

The pads need to completely cover the holes. They should be soft, light brown, and have metal or plastic discs on them (resonators). These resonators reflect sound back into the bore of the saxophone.

You should also be sure there are no excessive dents in the saxophone. Some people suggest that when trying a saxophone, you should use a tuner to test every single note to see if they play in tune, and in tune with each other.

This is a good source for more information: Read Here and Here

Obsessing over the Oboe
Obsessing over the Oboe

Oboe –

There are significant differences between the beginner oboes and intermediate oboes. Evidently, from what I learned, a student should only use a beginner oboe for one or two years before moving on to a better instrument. Even then, there are some disadvantages to using a beginner oboe at all. One of the main problems with beginner oboes is that they are missing two important keys, an F key and a B flat key. To compensate, students must learn ways to work around these missing keys, which they must later unlearn when they get a better oboe. If your student is serious about learning to play, it seems like starting with an intermediate level oboe would be the best option.

Oboes can be made of wood or plastic, and there are advantages or disadvantages for both. Wood gives a better sound, but costs more and requires more maintenance. Plastic is less expensive, but the sound will not be as warm.

If you are looking at a used oboe, the age and condition of the instrument is very important and should be well-documented. The condition of the bore of the oboe (what you see inside the “tube”) is very important. There should not be any cracks, grooves, dents, chips, divots, gouges at all! Also, as with all the other woodwind instruments, check the movement of the keys and the seal of the pads.

Oboes can have two different styles of mechanism – the German style or the French (Conservatoire) style. The French style is the main style in use today. Also, there are two types of key systems. Beginners should have an instrument with the semi-automatic system.

More information: Here and Here

Buying a Bassoon
Buying a Bassoon

Bassoons –

Size is an issue with bassoons. They are large instruments and require players to be able to reach both with arms and fingers. While there is such a thing as a short-reach bassoon, by the time a student is 10-13 years old, they should be able to handle a regular bassoon. The intermediate level instruments seem to be the best option for bassoon students.

Their instruments should be German system bassoons. The bore of the bassoon should be smooth, with no cracks or gouges. The keys should function smoothly and not make a lot of noise when they are played.

The bocal on a bassoon is the metal tube that connects the reed to the rest of the bassoon. It is very important that this piece does not have any dents or be bent out of shape at all.

For more information: Read Here and Here

The best advice I can give you for shopping for a new (or new-to-you) instrument is:

  •         Research
  •         Inspect
  •         Play
  •         Listen
  •         Seek a second opinion

Do all of these things and you should be able to find a good instrument for your student.

Buying a Woodwind Instrument
Buying a Woodwind Instrument