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The Flute is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. Unlike other woodwind instruments, a flute produces its sound from the flow of air against an edge, instead of using a reed. A musician who plays the flute is generally referred to as either a flautist or a flutist.

Flute tones are sweet in character and blend well with other instruments. The flute's pitch, and various aspects of its timbre are flexible, allowing a very high degree of instantaneous expressive control.

An illustration of a flute
An illustration of a flute

Flute acoustics

A flute produces sound when a stream of air directed across the top of a hole bounces in and out of the hole. Some engineers have called this a fluidic multivibrator, because it forms a mechanical analogy to an electronic circuit called a multivibrator.

The stream beats against the air in a resonator, usually a tube. The player changes the pitch of the flute by changing the effective length of the resonator. This is done either by closing holes, or more rarely, with a slide similar to a trombone's slide.

Because the air-stream has a lower mass than most resonators used in musical instruments, it can beat faster, but with less momentum. As a result, flutes tend to be softer, but higher-pitched, than other sound generators of the same size.

To be louder, a flute must use a larger resonator and a wider air-stream. A flute can generally be made louder by making its resonator and tone-holes larger. This is why police whistles, a form of flute, are very wide for their pitch, and why organs can be far louder than concert flutes: an organ pipe's tone-hole may be several inches wide, while a concert flute's is a fraction of an inch.

The air-stream must be flat, and precisely aimed at the correct angle and velocity, or else it will not vibrate. In fippled flutes, a precisely machined slot extrudes the air. In organs, the air is supplied by a regulated blower.

In non-fipple flutes, especially the concert flute and piccolo, the player must form and direct the stream with his or her lips, which is called an embouchure. This allows the player a wide range of expressions in pitch, volume, and timbre, especially in comparison to fipple flutes. However, it also makes the transverse flute immensely more difficult for a beginner to get a full sound out of than fipple flutes such as the recorder. Transverse flutes also take more air to play, which requires deeper breathing and makes circular breathing trickier, but still not impossible.

Generally, the quality called "tone colour" or "timbre" varies because the flute produces harmonics in different intensities. A harmonic is a frequency that is a whole number multiple of a lower register, or "fundamental" tone of the flute. Generally the air-stream is thinner (to vibrate in more modes), faster (providing more energy to vibrate), and aimed across the hole more shallowly (permitting a more shallow deflection of the airstream to resonate).

Almost all flutes can be played in fundamental, octave, tierce, quatre and cinque modes simply by blowing harder and making the air-stream move more quickly and at a more shallow angle. Flute players select their instrument's resonant mode with embouchure and breath control, much as brass players do.

Many believe that the timbre is also affected by the material from which the instrument is made. For instance, instruments made of wood are usually less bright than metal instruments. Different metals are also thought to influence the tone. However, 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 by a significant fraction of the listeners. 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'. Physicists who study flutes usually agree that relatively small differences in shape are more important than differences in material, because the waves in the air couple only weakly to vibrations in the body. Wooden flutes usually have different shapes from metal instruments. For instance, the junction between the tone hole risers and the bore are usually sharper in wooden instruments, and these sharper edges are expected to have a substantial effect on sound. This does not mean that a gold flute is no better than, say, a brass one. The gold flute is likely to have been hand finished by the most proficient maker in the factory.

Categories of flute

Playing the zampona, an Inca instrument and type of pan pipes.
Playing the zampona, an Inca instrument and type of pan pipes.

At its most basic, a flute can be an open tube which is blown like a bottle. Over time, the increasing demands of musical performance have led to the development of what many people consider the flute, the Western concert flute, which has a complex array of keys and holes.

There are several broad classes of flutes. With most flutes, the musician blows directly onto the edge of the flute. However, some flutes, such as the recorder, tin whistle, whistle, fujara, and ocarina have a duct that directs the air onto the edge (an arrangement that is termed a "fipple"). This 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. Usually, fipple flutes are not referred to as flutes, even though the physics, technique and sound are similar.

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 recorder, ney, kaval, quena, shakuhachi and tonette. 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. The earliest transverse flute is a chi 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 of lacquered bamboo with closed ends. It has five stops that are at the flute's side instead of top. Chi flutes are mentioned in Shi Jing, compiled and edited by Confucius.

Flutes may be open on one or both of their ends. The ocarina, 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 can be played with several different air sources. Conventional flutes are blown with the mouth, although some cultures use nose flutes. Organs are blown by bellows or fans.

The Western concert flutes

A Modern, Closed hole ("Plateau") model flute
A Modern, Closed hole ("Plateau") model flute

The Western concert flute is a transverse flute which is closed at the top. Near the top is the embouchure hole, against which the player blows. The flute has circular finger-holes, various combinations of which can be opened or closed by the flautist, by means of a mechanism of keys, to produce the various notes in the flute's playing range. The note produced depends on which finger-holes are opened or closed by the flautist and on how the flute is blown by the flautist. With rare exceptions (i.e., flutes with custom-made fingering-systems), the Boehm system is the fingering-system in correspondence with which Western concert flutes are designed and manufactured.

The standard concert flute is pitched in C and has a range of about 3 and a half octaves starting from middle C. However, many professional flutes have an extra key to reach the B directly below middle C. This means that the concert flute is one of the highest orchestral instruments, with only the piccolo being higher. Also commonly used in orchestras is the piccolo, a small flute usually pitched one octave above the concert flute. Alto and bass flutes, respectively pitched a perfect fourth and an octave below the concert flute, are used occasionally. Parts for the alto flute are more common than for the bass. Many other sizes of flute and piccolo are used from time to time. A much-less common instrument of the current pitching system is the treble G flute. An older pitching system, used principally in older wind-band music, includes D-flat piccolos, E-flat soprano flutes (the primary instrument, equivalent to today's concert C flutes), F alto flutes, and B-flat bass flutes.

The modern professional concert flute is generally made of silver, gold, or combinations of the two. Student instruments are usually made of nickel silver, or silver-plated brass. Curved headjoints are also available for student flutes which make the flute shorter making it possible for children as young as 3 years old to play the flute. Wooden flutes and headjoints are more widely available than in the past.

The modern concert flute comes with various options. The B-flat key (invented and pioneered by Briccialdi) and the B foot joint (which extends the flute's range down one semitone) are practically standard.

Open hole flutes (where some keys have a circular hole through the middle that the player must cover with fingertips) are common among concert-level players, though some flautists (particularly students, but sometimes even professional flutists as well) select closed-hole "plateau" keys. Students often use temporary plugs to cover the holes in the keys until they master the more exact finger-placement that open-hole keys demand. Some people believe that open-hole keys permit louder and clearer sound projection in the flute's lower range. Open-hole keys are also needed for some modern "extended" avant garde pieces, including those requiring the player to play harmonic overtones, or to manipulate "breathy" sounds in addition to the traditional "pure" tone.

Open-hole keys are typical of French technique, championed by the Paris Conservatoire, which dominated in the 20th century. However, the century has changed, and the French school is under fire; specifically, the placement of the G-key (previously offset in student models and inline in professional models) may or may not be moving, depending on whom you ask. Less controversial options include the amusingly named "gizmo key", which facilitates C7.

To play the Western concert flute, one holds the flute in a transverse position, and blows across the hole in the mouthpiece. To distinguish separate notes, one pushes down the keys of the flute in distinct fingerings. However, there are a few alternate fingerings (called trill fingerings) that will assist one in playing difficult passages.

Members of the concert flute family

From high to low, the members of the concert flute family include:

  • Piccolo in C or D-flat
  • Treble flute in G
  • Soprano flute in Eb
  • Concert flute (also called C flute, boehm flute, silver flute, or simply flute)
  • Flute d'amour (also called tenor flute) in B-flat or A
  • Alto flute in G
  • Bass flute in C
  • Contra-alto flute in G
  • Contrabass flute in C (also called octobass flute)
  • Subcontrabass flute in G or C
  • Double contrabass flute in C (also called octobass flute)
  • Hyperbass flute in C (also spelled hyper-bass flute)

Each of the above instruments has its own range. The piccolo is an octave higher in pitch than the concert flute. Like the concert flute, it reads music in C, but sounds one octave higher. The alto flute is in the key of G, and extends the low register range of the flute to the G below middle C. Its highest note is a high G (4 ledger lines above the treble clef staff). The bass flute is an octave lower than the concert flute, and the contrabass flute is an octave lower than the bass flute.

Less commonly seen flutes include the treble flute in G, pitched one octave higher than the alto flute; the soprano flute, between the treble and concert; and the tenor flute or flute d'amour in B flat or A, pitched between the concert and alto.

The lowest sizes (larger than the bass flute) have all been developed in the 20th century; these include the sub-bass flute is pitched in F, between the bass and contrabass; the subcontrabass flute (pitched in G or C), the contra-alto flute (pitched in G, one octave below the alto), and the double contrabass flute in C, one octave lower than the contrabass. The flute sizes other than the concert flute and piccolo are sometimes called harmony flutes.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Document License
It uses material from the Wikipedia article - Flute