When people think of the flute, they probably all picture the same thing. However, what many people don’t know is that there are several different types of flutes, each offering its own distinctive sound. In fact, all of them have their own history and are used in various music styles.
In this article, we will explore the different kinds of flutes and how they are usually used.
The Different Types of Flutes
1. Concert Flute
A concert flute (also known as the C flute) is an edge-tone instrument that has become quite popular in western cultures. As the name suggests, this flute features the C key, and unlike most other flutes, it is played horizontally.
The flutes body comprises three parts – the head joint with the mouth hole, the middle joint, and the foot joint. The holes are found in the flute’s body and foot joint.
The concert flute is commonly used in symphonic orchestras and usually leads the woodwind section as the descant. Moreover, since the flute can play fast passages, it’s also used to colorize passages such as cascades.
The standard range of the concert flute is from C3 to D6 or C4 to D7. When it is in the low register, the flute produces a warm, yet a little foggy, sound. In the middle register, the flute creates a clear sound, whereas the upper register offers a clear and light sound.
2. Piccolo Flute
Did you know piccolo is the smallest member of the flute family? In fact, the term piccolo actually means small in Italian. This flute is quite smaller in length as compared to the concert flute, measuring nearly half its length. Nevertheless, C flute players will use the same fingering techniques if they’re playing the piccolo.
The piccolo is the highest-pitched flute (in the C key), sounding an octave higher than the concert flute. Because of the flute’s acoustics, the piccolo, with a tone that can carry an additional distance, is generally the preferred choice in marching bands.
Piccolos are most commonly made with hardwood grenadilla. Being of high register, if they were made with metal, they would produce high-piercing and shrill sounds that are extremely irritating to the ears. Thus, the sound won’t be able to blend well with other orchestra instruments.
Today, you can see the piccolo as part of flute ensembles, concert bands, orchestras, and marching bands. The metal or silver piccolo is what you’ll generally see in marching bands. However, for concerts and symphony orchestras, the piccolos you see are the plastic or wood ones.
3. Alto Flute
If you hear a distinct, mellow tone in the lower pitch range, you are most probably listening to an alto flute. The alto flute produces such sound as its body is considerably thicker and longer than the concert flute. Moreover, some auto flutes come with curved head joints. This makes it easier for the player to reach the keys.
The alto flute is mostly found in orchestral music. Nevertheless, its use is quite rare even in orchestras as it’s used primarily for color. It can be found in the works of Ravel and Stravinsky. If you’ve heard Holst’s The Planets, the flute choir sound at the opening of Neptune is Two Concert Flutes and an Alto Flute.
While a contemporary orchestra is going to hire a dedicated piccolo player, it’s presumed that any repertoire requiring the alto flute is either going to be hired on an on-demand basis or would be played by one of the already existing flutists in the orchestra.
There are some fabulous solo pieces created by the instrument, most of which have been composed over the past five decades as flutists began exploring the complete range of the flute family.
4. Bass Flute
The Bass Flute is probably the least popular member of the flute family. It’s pitched in C and is an octave lower than a regular concert flute.
The bass flute is played with a curved head joint, and it’s the lowest flute in the family that’s played without being kept on the floor. The sizes of bass flutes also differ to some extent. For instance, you can find flutes that are 50 inches long. However, the longest is probably around 60 inches.
This flute is more about expanding the range for flutists than it’s about meeting an orchestral requirement. As a matter of fact, there are only a handful of bass flute parts in orchestral literature. However, compositions are going to start using it more and more as the instrument gains more popularity in chamber music circles.
The bass flute is used quite often in eastern-sounding and eastern pieces, as it’s a western flutist’s way of accessing the tone color and range we generally hear from eastern wind instruments.
5. Pan Flute
A Pan flute uses multiple pipes of different lengths to produce different notes. Pan flutes have a great history in multiple areas, including Greece, Africa, North and South America, parts of Asia, and more. A traditional Pan flute consists of different lengths of reeds. The pipes are also sometimes bamboo or giant cane. Less traditional Pan flutes use wood or metal in their construction.
Each pipe will vibrate when the player blows air across its respective end. The vibrations are what give the pipe a specific pitch. A player can control vibrations to an extent by stopping up one of the ends and using the direction and power of their breath. A player can achieve a different note or octave by attempting different angles of breath across the open end of the flute.
6. Wooden Flutes
There are several different types of wooden flutes. These flutes are also known as the Native American flutes. Wooden flutes have a sound that’s similar to a metal flute. It appears clean, focused, and sharp, just like the metal flute.
Wooden flutes produce an earthier, mellower and sound that’s slightly softer. This is because it used a wooden head joint instead of a metal head joint.
The types of wooden flutes you need to know include rim-blown flute, directly-blown flute, side-blown, and end-blown flute. The names of these flutes are based on the location of the opening, where you can blow wind into the instrument to produce sound.
7. Plastic Flute
Are you fond of playing the flute? If the answer is yes, it’s highly likely that your kids will also love to follow your steps. And the best way to make your kids learn how to play the flute is to give them their favorite flute – the plastic flute. This is a distinct type of flute that you should be familiar with, especially if you have children.
The plastic flute is the best one for kids because of its first note mouthpiece. The first note mouthpiece allows your child to produce nice sounds even if they’re just using it for the first time. It features interchangeable parts that allow beginner and even advanced flutists to play it easily.
Beginner flutists can easily use it and continue to improve their flute playing skills. Others feature plastic flutes that are fairly lightweight. They are budget-friendly and are available in many attractive colors. Plus, they’re very easy to clean and incredibly durable.
8. Eb Soprano Flute
The Eb Soprano flute is also called the tierce flute. It’s the only kind of flute that’s not pitched in C or G. This makes it a special member of the flute family. The Eb Soprano flute is pitched in Eb, which is a minor third above other kinds of flute such as concert flute. Plus, the pitch key is quite similar to alto saxophones and baritone. Thus, it can also be used by saxophone jazz players.
Getting your hands on this flute is fairly difficult, particularly today. This means that the ones in existence are already old. Eb Soprano flutes create a sound that’s similar to that of the c flute, which means the techniques used to produce sound are somewhat the same.
9. Irish Flutes
Irish flutes are basic instruments introduced in Ireland during the mid-1800s. These flutes are available in various designs and sizes, ranging from keyless Irish flutes to those with keys.
Nearly all Irish flutes are constructed with wood, and there are three primary components of the flute. The components of the flute include the body, head joint, and foot joint.
Irish flutes are available in the D range, and most flutists use them for producing high-pitched sounds.
10. Baroque Flute
Another type of flute that we want to mention is the Baroque flute. This flute sounds more like a recorder. Thus, it’s very different from the flutes we mentioned on our list.
Made with wood, baroque flutes are way simpler than their contemporary concert flute counterparts and have a much gentler sound. In addition, they have a smaller embouchure hole, which makes the tone a lot quieter and sweeter.
Another significant difference is regarding the number of finger holes. The baroque flute usually has 6 finger holes which means that flutists need to do a lot of cross-fingering to create various notes.
The word bansuri comes from two words — “bans,” meaning bamboo, and “sur,” meaning melody.
In general, a bansuri flute has a single blowing hole along with six finger holes, and it’s not composed of separate components for the head and foot piece. Several players also add one or more extra holes in the bansuri. However, that entirely depends on individual preferences. Usually, increasing the length of the bansuri allows the players to attain lower pitches more easily.
12. Native American Flute
Though there isn’t a standard for Native American flutes, there are some similarities between the instrument from different tribes and regions when it comes to design and sound. Native American flutes are often wooden and carved from tree branches.
They are also front-blown, meaning the player blows air into the mouthpiece itself instead of across it. In this way, they differ from Western concert flutes, acting similar to clarinets or recorders. They also frequently have two interior chambers. One collects the air, and the other produces the music. Their sound is comparable to the warbling of birds.
13. Irish Flute
Irish flutes are similar in appearance to the C flute. However, unlike the more common Western concert flutes, Irish flutes are typically wooden. Some are available with metal keys over the note holes.
Just like the Bansuri, these flutes only have six finger holes. Despite this lack, they use the same methods as a C flute to produce music. An Irish flute is a transverse instrument that uses air blown across the mouthpiece instead of into the instrument itself. Just like the C flute, the player holds it horizontally to play.
Irish flutes have a pitch in D major but typically hit the same range as a C flute. They are reedier sounding but still piercing, with the player reaching plenty of notes from higher octaves.
Although the Irish flute has a lot in common with a C flute, playing one is more similar to a tin whistle. Tin whistles are very popular in Irish music, so it makes sense that an Irish flute shares some abilities.
As you can see, there are several different kinds of flutes other than the ones that are most popular.
There are many others that we haven’t discussed here, but we hope this guide helped you learn about the many types of flutes along with their differences and similarities.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.