A selection of flutes from around the world

A selection of flutes from around the world

The flute is a family of musical instrument of the woodwind group. Unlike woodwind instruments with reeds, a flute is an aerophone or reedless wind instrument that produces its sound from the flow of air across an opening. According to the instrument classification of Hornbostel–Sachs, flutes are categorized as edge-blown aerophones.
A musician who plays the flute can be referred to as a flute player, flautist, flutist or, less commonly, fluter or flutenist. Aside from the voice, flutes are the earliest nown musical instruments. A number of flutes dating to about 43,000 to 35,000 years ago have been found in the Swabian Alb region of Germany. These flutes demonstrate hat a developed musical tradition existed from the earliest period of modern human presence in Europe.


The word flute first entered the English language during the Middle English period, as floute, or else flowte, flo(y)te, possibly from Old French flaute and from Old Provençal flaüt, or else from Old French fleüte, flaüte, flahute via Middle High German floite or Dutch fluit. The English verb flout has the same linguistic root, and the modern Dutch verb fluiten still shares the two meanings. Attempts to trace the word back to the Latin flare (to blow, inflate) have been pronounced “phonologically impossible” or “inadmissable”. The first known use of the word flute was in the 14th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Hous of Fame, c.1380.

Today, a musician who plays any instrument in the flute family can be called a flutist (pronounced “FLEW-tist”, most common in the US), or flautist (pronounced “FLAW-tist”, most common in the UK), or simply a flute player (more neutrally). Flutist dates back to at least 1603, the earliest quote cited by the Oxford English Dictionary. Flautist was used in 1860 by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Marble Faun, after being adopted during the 18th century from Italy (flautista, itself from flauto), like many musical terms in England since the Italian Renaissance. Other English terms, now virtually obsolete, are fluter and flutenist (17th–18th centuries).


Chinese women playing flutes, from the 12th-century Song Dynasty remake of the Night Revels of Han Xizai, originally by Gu Hongzhong (10th century)

Chinese women playing flutes, from the 12th-century Song Dynasty remake of the Night Revels of Han Xizai, originally by Gu Hongzhong (10th century)

The oldest flute ever discovered may be a fragment of the femur of a juvenile cave bear, with two to four holes, found at Divje Babe in Slovenia and dated to about 43,000 years ago. However, this has been disputed. In 2008 another flute dated back to at least 35,000 years ago was discovered in Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, Germany.The five-holed flute has a V-shaped mouthpiece and is made from a vulture wing bone. The researchers involved in the discovery officially published their findings in the journal Nature, in August 2009. The discovery was also the oldest confirmed find of any musical instrument in history, until a redating of flutes found in Geißenklösterle cave revealed them to be even older with an age of 42,000 to 43,000 years.

The flute, one of several found, was found in the Hohle Fels cavern next to the Venus of Hohle Fels and a short distance from the oldest known human carving. On announcing the discovery, scientists suggested that the “finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe”. Scientists have also suggested that the discovery of the flute may help to explain “the probable behavioural and cognitive gulf between”Neanderthals and early modern human.

Panflute players. Cantigas de Santa Maria, mid-13th century, Spain

Panflute players. Cantigas de Santa Maria, mid-13th century, Spain

A three-holed flute, 18.7 cm long, made from a mammoth tusk (from the Geißenklösterle cave, near Ulm, in the southern German Swabian Alb and dated to 30,000 to 37,000 years ago) was discovered in 2004, and two flutes made from swan bones excavated a decade earlier (from the same cave in Germany, dated to circa 36,000 years ago) are among the oldest known musical instruments.

A playable 9,000-year-old Gudi (literally, “bone flute”) was excavated from a tomb in Jiahu along with 29 defunct twins, made from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes with five to eight holes each, in the Central Chinese province of Henan. The earliest extant Chinese transverse flute is a chi (篪) flute discovered in the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng at the Suizhou site, Hubei province, China. It dates from 433 BC, of the later Zhou Dynasty. It is fashioned of lacquered bamboo with closed ends and has five stops that are at the flute’s side instead of the top. Chi flutes are mentioned in Shi Jing, compiled and edited by Confucius, according to tradition.

The earliest written reference to a flute is from a Sumerian-language cuneiform tablet dated to c. 2600–2700 BCE. Flutes are also mentioned in a recently translated tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem whose development spanned the period of approximately 2100–600 BCE. Additionally, a set of cuneiform tablets knows as the “musical texts” provide precise tuning instructions for seven scale of a stringed instrument (assumed to be a Babylonian lyre). One of those scales is named embūbum, which is an Akkadian word for “flute”.

Statue of Krishna playing a flute

Statue of Krishna playing a flute

The Bible, in Genesis 4:21, cites Jubal as being the “father of all those who play the ugab and the kinnor”. The former Hebrew term is believed by some to refer to some wind instrument, or wind instruments in general, the latter to a stringed instrument, or stringed instruments in general. As such, Judeo-Christian tradition as the inventor of the flute (a word used in some translations of this biblical passage). Elsewhere in the Bible, the flute is referred to as “chalil” (from the root word for “hollow”), in particular in 1 Samuel 10:5, 1 Kings 1:40, Isaiah 5:12 and 30:29, and Jeremiah 48:36.Archeological digs in the Holy Land have discovered flutes from both the Bronze Age (c. 4000-1200 BCE) and the Iron Age (1200-586 BCE), the latter era “witness[ing] the creation of the Israelite kingdom and its separation into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judea.”

Some early flutes were made out of tibias (shin bones). The flute has also always been an essential part of Indian culture and mythology, and the cross flute believed by several accounts to originate in India as Indian literature from 1500 BCE has made vague references to the cross flute.


A flute produces sound when a stream of air directed across a hole in the instrument creates a vibration of air at the hole. The air stream across this hole creates a Bernoulli, or siphon. This excites the air contained in the usually cylindrical resonant cavity within the flute. The player changes the pitch of the sound produced by opening and closing holes in the body of the instrument, thus changing the effective length of the resonator and its corresponding resonant frequency. By varying the air pressure, a flute player can also change the pitch of a note by causing the air in the flute to resonate at a harmonic rather than the fundamental frequency without opening or closing any holes.

To be louder, a flute must use a larger resonator, a larger air stream, or increased air stream velocity. A flute’s volume can generally be increased by making its resonator and tone holes larger. This is why a police whistle, a form of flute, is very wide for its pitch, and why a pipe organ can be far louder than a concert flute: a large organ pipe can contain several cubic feet of air, and its tone hole may be several inches wide, while a concert flute’s air stream measures a fraction of an inch across.

The air stream must be directed at the correct angle and velocity, or else the air in the flute will not vibrate. In fippled or ducted flutes, a precisely formed and placed windway will compress and channel the air to the labium ramp edge across the open window. In the pipe organ, this air is supplied by a regulated blower. In non-fipple flutes, the air stream is shaped and directed by the player’s lips, called the embouchure. This allows the player a wide range of expression in pitch, volume, and timbre, especially in comparison to fipple/ducted flutes. However, it also makes an end-blown flute or transverse flute considerably more difficult for a beginner to produce a full sound on than a ducted flute, such as the recorder. Transverse and end-blown flutes also take more air to play, which requires deeper breathing and makes circular breathing a considerably trickier proposition.

Generally, the quality called timbre or “tone colour” varies because the flute can produce harmonics in different proportions or intensities. The tone color can be modified by changing the internal shape of the bore, such as the conical taper, or the diameter-to-length ratio. A harmonic is a frequency that is a whole number multiple of a lower register, or “fundamental” note of the flute. Generally the air stream is thinner (vibrating in more modes), faster (providing more energy to excite the air’s resonance), and aimed across the hole less deeply (permitting a more shallow deflection of the air stream) in the production of higher harmonics or upper partials.

Head joint geometry appears particularly critical to acoustic performance and tone, but there is no clear consensus on a particular shape amongst manufacturers.

Acoustic impedance of the embouchure hole appears the most critical parameter. Critical variables affecting this acoustic impedance include: chimney length (hole between lip-plate and head tube), chimney diameter, and radii or curvature of the ends of the chimney and any designed restriction in the “throat” of the instrument, such as that in the Japanese Nohkan Flute.

A study in which professional players were blindfolded could find no significant differences between instruments made from a variety of different metals. In two different sets of blind listening, no instrument was correctly identified in a first listening, and in a second, only the silver instrument was identified. The study concluded that there was “no evidence that the wall material has any appreciable effect on the sound color or dynamic range of the instrument”.


In its most basic form, a flute can be an open tube which is blown like a bottle. There are several broad classes of flutes. With most flutes, the musician blows directly across the edge of the mouthpiece, with 1/4 of their bottom lip covering the embouchure hole. However, some flutes, such as the whistle, gemshorn, flageolet, recorder, tin whistle, tonette, fujara, and ocarina have a duct that directs the air onto the edge (an arrangement that is termed a “fipple”). These are known as fipple flutes. The fipple gives the instrument a distinct timbre which is different from non-fipple flutes and makes the instrument easier to play, but takes a degree of control away from the musician.

Another division is between side-blown (or transverse) flutes, such as the Western concert flute, piccolo, fife, dizi and bansuri; and end-blown flutes, such as the ney, xiao, kaval, danso, shakuhachi, Anasazi flute and quena. The player of a side-blown flute uses a hole on the side of the tube to produce a tone, instead of blowing on an end of the tube. End-blown flutes should not be confused with fipple flutes such as the recorder, which are also played vertically but have an internal duct to direct the air flow across the edge of the tone hole.

Flutes may be open at one or both ends. The ocarina, xun, pan pipes, police whistle, and bosun’s whistle are closed-ended. Open-ended flutes such as the concert flute and the recorder have more harmonics, and thus more flexibility for the player, and brighter timbres. An organ pipe may be either open or closed, depending on the sound desired.

Flutes may have any number of pipes or tubes, though one is the most common number. Flutes with multiple resonators may be played one resonator at a time (as is typical with pan pipes) or more than one at a time (as is typical with double flutes).

Flutes can be played with several different air sources. Conventional flutes are blown with the mouth, although some cultures use nose flutes. The flue pipes of organs, which are acoustically similar to duct flutes, are blown by bellows or fans.

Western concert flute

An illustration of a Western concert flute

An illustration of a Western concert flute

The Western concert flute, a descendant of the medieval German flute, is a transverse treble flute that is closed at the top. An embouchure hole is positioned near the top, across and into which the player blows. The flute has circular tone holes, larger than the finger holes of its baroque predecessors. The size and placement of tone holes, the key mechanism, and the fingering system used to produce the notes in the flute’s range were evolved from 1832 to 1847 by Theobald Boehm, and greatly improved the instrument’s dynamic range and intonation over those of its predecessors. With some refinements (and the rare exception of the Kingma system and other custom adapted fingering systems), Western concert flutes typically conform to Boehm’s design, known as the Boehm system. Beginner’s flutes are normally made of nickel, silver or brass that is silver plated, while professionals use solid silver, gold, and sometimes platinum instruments. There are also modern wooden bodies instruments usually with silver or gold keywork. The wood is usually African Blackwood.

The standard concert flute is pitched in the key of C and has a range of three octaves starting from middle C (or one half-step lower, when a B foot is attached to the instrument). This means that the concert flute is one of the highest common orchestra and concert band instruments.

Other sizes of modern flutes


Center-Piccolo. Right-larger flute

The piccolo plays an octave higher than the regular treble flute. Lower members of the flute family include the G alto and C bass flutes that are used occasionally, and are pitched a perfect fourth and an octave below the concert flute, respectively. Parts are written for alto flute more frequently than for bass. The contrabass, double contrabass, and hyperbass are other rare forms of the flute pitched two, three, and four octaves below middle C respectively.

Other sizes of flutes and piccolos are used from time to time. A rarer instrument of the modern pitching system is the treble G flute. Instruments made according to an older pitch standard, used principally in wind-band music, include D♭ piccolo, soprano flute (the primary instrument, equivalent to today’s concert C flute), F alto flute, and B♭ bass flute.

Indian flutes

An eight-holed classical Indian bamboo flute.

An eight-holed classical Indian bamboo flute.

The bamboo flute is an important instrument in Indian classical music, and developed independently of the Western flute. The Hindu God Lord Krishna is traditionally considered a master of the bamboo flute. The Indian flutes are very simple compared to the Western counterparts; they are made of bamboo and are key less.

Two main varieties of Indian flutes are currently used. The first, the Bansuri, has six finger holes and one embouchure hole, and is used predominantly in the Hindustani music of Northern India. The second, the Venu or Pullanguzhal, has eight finger holes, and is played predominantly in the Carnatic music of Southern India. Presently, the eight-holed flute with cross-fingering technique is common among many Carnatic flutists. Prior to this, the South Indian flute had only seven finger holes, with the fingering standard developed by Sharaba Shastri, of the Palladam school, at the beginning of the 20th century.The quality of the flute’s sound depends somewhat on the specific bamboo used to make it, and it is generally agreed that the best bamboo grows in the Nagercoil area in South India.

Chinese flutes

In China there are many varieties of dizi (笛子), or Chinese flute, with different sizes, structures (with or without a resonance membrane) and number of holes (from 6 to 11) and intonations (different keys). Most are made of bamboo, but can come in wood, jade, bone, and iron. One peculiar feature of the Chinese flute is the use of a resonance membrane mounted on one of the holes that vibrates with the air column inside the tube. It gives the flute a bright sound.Commonly seen flutes in the modern Chinese orchestra are the bangdi (梆笛), qudi (曲笛), xindi (新笛), and dadi (大笛). The bamboo flute played vertically is called the xiao (簫), which is a different category of wind instrument in China.

Japanese flutes

The Japanese flute, called the fue, 笛 (hiragana: ふえ), encompasses a large number of musical flutes from Japan, both of the end-blown and transverse varieties.

Sodina and suling

A sodina player in Madagascar

A sodina player in Madagascar

The sodina is an end-blown flute found throughout the island state of Madagascar, located in the Indian Ocean off southeastern Africa. One of the oldest instruments on the island, it bears close resemblance to end-blown flutes found in Southeast Asia and particularly Indonesia, where it is known as the suling, suggesting the predecessor to the sodina was carried to Madagascar in outrigger canoes by the island’s original settlers emigrating from Borneo. An image of the most celebrated contemporary sodina flutist, Rakoto Frah (d. 2001), was featured on the local currency.

The sring or blul is a relatively small, end-blown flute with a nasal tone quality found in the Caucasus region of Eastern Armenia. It is made of wood or cane, usually with seven finger holes and one thumb hole, producing a diatonic scale. One Armenian musicologist believes the sring to be the most characteristic of national Armenian instruments.