The History of the Flute

Flute is a term used to refer to a massive number of wind instruments, from the art and folk instruments of many different cultures to the modern wind orchestral wood wind instruments (De et al, 45) However, generally, a flute is defined as any instrument having an air column restrained in a hollow body, whether vessel or tubular, and activated by an air striking against the edge of an opening, generating what is acoustically called an edge tone (Jeremy, 2).

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The oldest of the woodwind instruments is the category of the flute family. Throughout history the size of the tube along the length of the flute has advanced in reference to its bore shape. It was a simple cylindrical tube made of wood in the renaissance period with embouchure hole and finger holes which stopped at the end directly above the embouchure hole. To attain a greater range, the baroque flute bore was modified to a slightly tapered conical shape with the larger radius at the embouchure hole and the smaller radius at the bell end (De et al 56).

According to Jeremy (6), the flute was a simple instrument with an opening which was either at one end of the tube or in the side of the vessel. The air stream was shaped and directed by the player’s lip which is a similar feature to the modern orchestral flute. When the air encounters the edge it is divided, both inside and outside the instrument. The pitch produced is influenced mainly by the volume of the tube or by the length of the cylinder, even though other factors such as the shape as well as the diameter of the air body are also influential. If the distal end of the tube is closed, the length is successfully almost doubled, and the pitch created is almost an octave lower (Baines, 47).

There are various categories of the flute as they are classified in the Hornbostel and Sachs system by the way in which the sound is generated and then by a variety of other criteria. Examplse include aero phones, flutes without ducts, end-blown flutes, side-blown flutes, vessel flutes and wind instruments proper. More so, the flute with duct is further divided into two: flute with external duct and the one with internal duct (De et al, 67).

According to Baines (147), many years ago flutes were made of wood. They were played and common in countries such as ancient Egypt, Greece and China. They became very popular in Europe in the mid-1700s. The flute’s earliest probable history goes back to around 900 B.C. It was first discovered in walls of caves in China while pre-Christian representations of the early flute appeared on Roman artifacts (De et al, 90). Further works of art, together with two Etruscan reliefs which date from the third and second centuries B.C., clearly exhibited cross flute instrument being played. Theobald Boehm, a musician and a German flute maker, came up with the first cylindrical metal flute in 1832 (Baines, 56). This was the most extensively used model in the 20th century.

The cylindrical Boehm flute was made of wood or metal and had thirteen or more holes controlled by a system of padded keys which were created by Boehm. This flute consisted typically of a tube with a mouthpiece near one end that was oval. This flute was being held horizontally when playing and blown across the hole. At the same time the player pressed finger keys that were positioned along the tube. The keys opened and closed tone holes and made different sounds. Throughout the 16th century, the flutes were one of the most prevalent instruments of the Italian musical scene. Even King Henry VIII had a very great collection of flutes. Besides, Mozart and Hayden used to play the flute too in the 18th century (Librados, 178).

The nineteenth century marked numerous additional changes for the flute. In 1830, a German watchmaker, an amateur flutist and a goldsmith, Theobald Boehm developed the first modern flute. The modern flute regressed back to a cylindrical bore and realized the desired range and suitable intonation by elongating the end unit above the embouchure hole and modifying the position and size of the finger holes. Boehm also came up with the Boehm fingering system, which was a most significant improvement in the flute. History of the flute was as follows:

200 B.C.

Pre-Christian portrayals of the early flute appear on Roman/Greek artifacts. Further works of art, including two Etruscan reliefs which date from the second and third centuries B.C., clearly illustrated cross how the flutes were being played. In the 200 A.D, there were scarce developments in this era.

1000 A.D.

It is interesting to note that the flute seemed to have faded with the collapse of Rome and only began reappearing in the 10th and 11th centuries. It is possible that the instrument was introduced into Western Europe through Germany from Byzantium. By the 14th century, the flute began appearing in non-Germanic European states, which included France, Spain, and Flanders (Baines, 78). At the beginning of the 1400 A.D, pictures of the flute were shown in various parts of Western Europe.

1500 A.D.

During the 16th century, flutes were one of the most popular played instruments of the Italian musical scene. This popularity was also ricocheted in England as was noticeable from Henry VIII’s great collection of flutes. These instruments were very simple in construction, consisting of a cylindrical pipe with a stopper in one end, six finger holes and a blow hole. Their range was inadequate, as they were created in different sizes in order to handle the comprehensive range of the music being performed.

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1600 A.D.

It was the middle-sized instrument of the flute that was pitched in “D” that was similar to the modern concert flute. This flute went out of favor during the first half of the 17th century since it could not contest in playing the new impassive style which the violin had made popular. Woodwind makers reacted to this challenge by making several improvements to the flute during the second half of the 17th century.


Among the significant French players of this era was the Jean Hotteterre family who were employed by the royal court to play the flute. Their new advances included the following changes from the 17th century flute: the body of the flute changed from one piece to three piece: the body, foot joint besides the head joint, though the head joint of the flute remained cylindrical, the bore of the body converted to conical with the lower end of the flute having the smallest diameter. Finally, the foot joint which was conical with the bore became bigger at the bottom end. This type of plan for the bore of the instrument remained unaffected today in our modern piccolos.


By 1720, the body was separated into two parts and extra joints of differing lengths, allowed the artist to change the pitch of the instrument in order to be in tune with diverse orchestras. Conversely, as a result of the cross-fingerings, this new flute sounded best in keys of G- and D-Major. While there were many sloppy artistes of the period who played the flute poorly (out of tune), the then expert performers understood these challenges extremely well.


Flute makers prolonged the range of the instrument downward by adding low C and C-sharp keys to the foot joint. By the end of the 18th century, two more keys were introduced which rose to the 8-keyed flute. This instrument designed the basis of most “simple system” flutes which are still being frolicked today in various Celtic ensembles (Jeremy, 7).


Realizing that this tone would have to be counterfeited for a concert flutist to be fruitful, and understanding that the tone holes would have to be spaced for proper intonation rather than for the suitability of the fingers of the player, Boehm designed a new mechanism that worked as an extension of the fingers. This conical flute of 1832 was progressively accepted by the most important players of that time, besides by 1843 Boehm had given licenses flute makers in London and Paris to produce this new instrument (Jeremy, 10). In 1846, Boehm went on to perfect the flute while studying acoustics with Carl von Schafhautl at the University of Munich (Jeremy, 10).


According to Librado (62), in 1847, Boehm created a radically different instrument with a cylindrical body, a foot joint as well as a parabolic head joint. The instrument tone holes were larger than the 1832 instrument and Boehm had to design padded cups for each hole. This new instrument has had  only a few relatively unimportant modifications throughout the 20th century and it is a tribute to his genius that Boehm’s flute will remain unchanged into the 21st century.

In conclusion, flute has undergone a lot of changes since it was discovered. Initially, flutes were made of wood and most common in countries such as ancient Egypt, Greece and China. The present flute is made of metal with Theobald Boehm having contributed much to its development. Moreover, in the current word, flute is common and used in almost all parts of the globe.


De, Lorenzo L. My Complete Story of the Flute: The Instrument, the Performer, the Music. Lubbock, Tex: Texas Tech Univ. Press, 1992. Print.

Baines, Anthony. Woodwind Instruments and Their History. New York: Dover, 1991. Print.

Librado, Fernando, John P. Harrington, and Travis Hudson. The Eye of the Flute: Chumash Traditional History and Ritual. Santa Barbara, Calif: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 1977. Print.

Hotteterre, Jacques, and Paul M. Douglas. Principles of the Flute, Recorder & Oboe = Principes De La Flu?te. New York: Dover, 1983. Print.

Jeremy Montagu, et al. “Flute.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.,. ‘History Of The Flute’. N.p., 2015. Web. 3 Apr. 2015.

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