Did you know the flute is the oldest instrument in the world?
The first specimens are dated to as old as 40,000 years ago.
Virtually every region in the world has its own variant of the flute, and you probably played it yourself at some point in school.
Remember these recorders?
Well, in this post I’ll be covering the Western Classical Flute, also known as transverse flute.
Why? Well mainly because:
So whether you always wanted to play the bird part in Peter and the Wolf, that smooth jazz from the 50s/60s, be the next Jethro Tull or play the punchy flute in that Salsa tune you like…
You’ve come to the right place as I’ve compiled in this post the most comprehensive piece of information you’ll need to get started on the flute…
As well as to upgrade your knowledge AND your flute if you already play it.
Sounds good? Then let’s start.
The transverse flute is a woodwind instrument from the transverse family. Transverse instruments are side-blown, which make them instantly identifiable thanks to their unique way of being hold.
They first appeared in central Asia during the middle-age.
They were then brought to Europe sometime during the 11th century where they got popular in France and Germany, therefore getting the name of “German flute”.
This name was given so as to distinguish it from the then ubiquitous recorder-likeflute format.
Alright, now that we’ve learned about the origins of transverse flute, let’s have a look at its anatomy.
The flute basically consists of 3 metal cylinders fitting into each others. These 3 parts are called:
So let’s see each one of these pieces in more details, shall we?
Funnily enough, by glancing at the headjoint you would never think it’s the most influential part of the whole flute in terms of sound.
After all it is essentially a tube with a whole in it, right?
Well, as you might have guessed there is more to the headjoint than just that and the fact is that advanced and professional flutists might spend years of experimenting before finding the right one.
Partly because a head joint has 6 varying factors:
Again, let’s take a closer look at each of these features, starting with…
Since the flute belongs to the “reedless” woodwind instruments family, sound is created not by a reed vibrating against a mouthpiece (like on the saxophone or the clarinet)…
Nor a reed vibrating against another reed (like on the oboe), nor even by the lips vibrating against each other (like on the trumpet).
But before we look into the varying factors of the embouchure hole, it’s important to understand basic acoustics; and specifically flute physics.
To create a sound on the flute you blow into the embouchure hole in a particular way:
The stream of air you create needs to be directed at the edge of the embouchure. As this happens the stream air is “sliced” in 2, with one half going into the hole and the other out of it.
This then creates waves that create the pitch depending on their length.
There are some characteristics to pay attention to when it comes to the embouchure hole. These are:
Take a look at the image on the right to get an idea of how undercutting is done, and what the result looks like.
So that’s about what you need to know about the embouchure hole.
The lip plate is the part of the flute where the lips rest when blowing in the embouchure.
The part that directly links the embouchure hole and the lip plate is called the riser,sometimes “chimney”.
The riser can vary in height and mostly affects the volume of the flute. And so, in the flute community it is generally agreed upon that:
As for the lip plate, some players say its material affects the tone of the flute but there is no real consensus on this matter in the flute community…
Except that some players have an intolerance to some lip plate materials and may have a skin reaction to them. Some flutists are only able to play on golden lip plates, for example.
One last thing: some customization options offer to engrave the lip plate, and the result can be quite beautiful and artistic.
But some players find the engraving to have an actual use, other than just an aesthetic one, and say it helps their lip stay in place, and not slip on the lip plate.
So there’s that.
You might not have noticed it, but the transverse flute is one of the few woodwinds that is not actually open on both ends.
That’s right, the end further away from the headjoint is open so as to let the sound come out, but the other end (nearest to the head joint) is closed with a small cap called the crown.
Sometimes referred to as “head crown” or “head screw”, the crown is called that way because it is often the most decorated part of the flute.
Now, attached to the crown is a screw that goes all the way to and through a cork.
The cork is there to perform exactly what you’d expect from a regular cork, — in a bottle of wine for example — that is, plugging up the flute.
Flute manufacturers generally agree that the quality of the cork does have someimpact on the sound of the flute, but there is very little actual information available on that matter.
However, we do know some manufacturers use and make plastic corks, or “head joint stoppers” as they call them, and some flutists say using a plastic stopper/cork increases response…
Which seems to be a highly sought after quality.
Right on the end of the cork is the reflective plate. This little metal disc’s purpose is self-explanatory: it reflects the sound, sending it all the way to the other end of the flute.
Headjoints arent’t actually perfectly straight tubes. In fact, they are tapered towards the top end (near the embouchure hole)
There are 3 types of taperings:
To help children (generally under 10 years old) play the flute without adding too much tension to their neck, manufacturers came up with an idea:
Bending the headjoint to 180°, so as to shorten the distance between the embouchure and the keys…
Thus greatly decreasing the strain on the body and even possible health issues such as neckand back problems.
In fact it is actually strongly discouraged to use straight headjoints with children, since — on top of health issues — it can lead to bad positioning and playing habits
A fun-looking alternative to the curved headjoint is the children’s flute from woodwinds manufacturer Jupiter.
Instead of a regular curved headjoint they offer their own variant, called “Jupiter WaveLine Technology” which is really just a different way they found to shorten to distance between the embouchure and the keys.
Pretty cool looking, huh?
So that’s it for the headjoint.
Now on to the second part of the flute…
The second part of the flute is the main tube. The main tube is the longest part of the flute and the one with most keys, 75% of the total to be precise.
And although a beginner won’t probably look into it very much, there are 2 important factors — or features — to know about the main tube, factors that will greatly affect your ease of play.
These factors are:
So let’s take a look at these features.
Probably the most noticeable difference at a glance between one flute and another is whether the keys are open or closed. And so:
Closed keys are the most popular among beginners since, no matter the size of your fingers or the strength you’ve manages to build, as long as you press the key, you’ll get the desired note.
And, in fact, most student flutes have plateau keys.
Playing on open keys however requires an extra step when learning since you’ll need to pay attention to obstruct the hole correctly when pressing a key.
Most intermediate and professional flutes have French keys.
And that is because there are some advanced playing technique that can ONLY be played on French keys. These techniques are:
Of course if you’re a beginner you won’t need to know about these techniques for a long time, but…
One last useful thing to know is that there are some little silicon plugs that you can purchase and that are made to plug the holes of your French keys flute, just like the ones on the image on the right…
Meaning that if you’re planning on sticking to the flute for some time, you can always get a French key flute as a beginner, plug the holes and unplug them when you’ve reached a more advanced level.
Here are some good ones:
The flute has special keys called the “trill” keys.
If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to a special technique meant to play 2 notes alternately very rapidly.
The effect created is called a trill.
So why does the flute have dedicated keys for this technique?
Well, simply put, it would be too difficult to play a trill using only the regular tone keys, as you’d need to quickly alternate between 2 keys, as opposed to only onewith the trill keys.
Which is why flute makers came up with dedicated trill keys.
Now, not all flutes are equal when it comes to trills:
The G key on a flute can either be:
This feature is pretty much a no-brainer really, because it is 100% a matter of comfort.
Offset G key flutes were created to ease up the playing position and generally make the playing position more comfortable.
On inline G flutes, the G key is harder to reach because our ring finger — which is the one we use to play the G key — is shorter then our middle finger (at least in most people).
Offset G key flutes also solve some serious physiological issues many flutist face playing inline G flutes, such as:
Of course some flutists only swear by inline G flutes, but honestly, unless you have a specific reason to play an inline G flute, just go with an offset G one, you’ll find it much more comfortable to play.
The E3 note — referred to as high E on the flute — is famous for being particularly hard to play…
Which is why flute manufacturers came up with specialized mechanisms made to make it easier to play. There are 2 types of “high E mechanisms”:
Ok but why do student flutes only get to have a split E mechanism if it only makes it easier to play the high E?
Well, because it also have drawbacks that — almost — never affect beginners, but are often a deal breaker for advanced and professional players. These are:
Moreover, the high E facilitator can be added to the flute at any moment, whereas the split E mechanism can’t if your flute didn’t come with one already.
In high end flutes you often find another upgrade: the rollers.
These are small self-rotating rods built into the D# and C# trill keys and meant to make moving your pinkie finger around the footjoint easier…
Since it is often one of the more difficultmovement to master on the flute.
You can choose to have a roller on your D# trill key only, or on both D# and C# keys.
And this concludes the Main Tube section.
Now, onto the last part of the flute…
At the bottom of the flute is the foot joint. There are 2 types of foot joints:
The B foot joint may have an extra key, called “Gizmo key” and meant to help playing the high C note.
Now, realistically speaking, the probability that you’ll ever need to play a low B is very low…
And unless you’re playing a symphony in an orchestra you can pretty much ignore B foot joint.
So knowing that, how come most advanced and professional flutists do use a B foot joint on their flute?
Well it seems a B foot joint greatly improves the sound of the flute and particularly the overtones.
And for professional players, anything that has the capacity to improve their tone, even by the slightest, is invaluable.
For some reasons, flute materials aren’t as big a deal as for other instruments, sound-wise. That is, it is agreed in the flute community that the various metals used in flute construction don’t make thatmuch of a difference…
As is the case with a lot of other instruments whose tones are highly dependent on the type of materials used in their construction.
Still, there are different types of metals used in flute manufacturing, depending on the range of your flute.
These metals are:
The flute requires regular care, and you actually need to clean it everytime you’re done playing.
Cleaning the flute is done by using a cleaning rod with a piece of cloth wrapped around it, inserting in inside the flute and moving it inside so as to dry the moisture.
On top of drying your flute everytime you’re done playing, you might need to oil its mechanisms from time to time.
Here are 2 popular choices of cleaning kits that include everything you’ll need to clean and maintain your flute:
Most beginners don’t think about it but the flute does have some accessories, some more useful than others.
And many cheap flutes actually come with these accessories as a pack.
But if you’ve purchased an intermediate or even professional flute, it most probably didn’t, which is why I wanted to list the most important ones.
So, among these accessories, 2 in particular are especially useful. These are
So let’s quickly take a look at these, starting with…
If you’re planning on taking your flute with you on the go, then you’ll need a case for it.
There are 3 types of cases:
So in most cases, people go for a gig bag because:
In terms of pricing they are not necessarily cheaper than hard cases and the high-end models can get pretty pricey;
Check out my rcommendations:
Hard cases are generally priced the same or even cheaper than gig bags and are generally made out of:
Typically if you get yourself a $10k flute you usually won’t mind spending another 200 for a decent case. On the other hand, the same case might seem overkill for a $100 flute.
Check out my recommendations:
So now for the last type of cases, handcrafted cases. These are generally very expensive, unique pieces of leatherwork.
However, they’re not only good looking as they also offer some decent level of protection.
If you care to check them out, here are 2 of the most renown case makers:
If you find yourself gigging a lot, you’ll need a stand, guaranteed.
And if you don’t gig a whole lot, you’ll need one too.
They might not seem that important at first, but you will soon realize not having a safe place to put down your flute is actually a big pain.
Stands allow you to quickly put down your flute WITHOUT risking damaging it. They’re especially useful in a stage setting if you need to quickly switch from one instrument to another for example.
Here are my recommendations:
Well, yeah, you kind of have to have a moustache to play the flute, don’t you?
And in case you don’t, here’s one that will definitely help you play better:
Brasstache-FluteStache – (Amazon)