Orchestration and Arranging Wiki
A Selection of flutes
Other Names Concert Flute,Transverse flute, Boehm flute, C flute
Range B3-F7
Clefs Treble
Transposition Sounds as Written

The flute is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. 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, a flautist, a flutist, or less commonly a fluter.

Pitch Range[]

The standard concert flute is pitched in C and has a range of about three and a half octaves starting from the musical note C4 (middle C). In most cases the flute's highest pitch is C7, however more experienced flautists are able to reach up to F7 (and, in some cases, even C8). Modern flutes may have a longer foot joint (a B-foot), with an extra key to reach B3.

Alto flutes, pitched a fourth below the standard flute, and bass flutes, an octave below, are also used occasionally.


The standard pitch has varied widely over history, and this has affected how flutes are made. Although the standard concert pitch today is A4=440 Hz, many manufacturers optimize the tone hole size/spacings for a higher pitch options such as A4=442 Hz or A4=444 Hz. (As noted above, adjustments to the pitch of one note, usually the A4 fingering, can be made by moving the headjoint in and out of the headjoint tenon, but the point here is that the mechanical relationship of A4 to all other pitches is set when the tone holes are cut. However, small deviations from the objective 'mechanical' pitch (which is related to acoustic impedance of a given fingering) can be made on the fly by embouchure adjustments.)

Timbre and Tone[]

The flute has essentially three registers: low, middle, and high, each with a unique timbral quality.

The lowest register of the flute (from B3 or C4 to C#5) is the weakest as far as volume is concerned. However, it is also a very rich and colourful part of the flute's range. The entire lower octave can be considered as belonging to this timbral area. In this range, the flute has difficulty competing aurally with other instruments. Particular care should be exercised when scoring accompaniment for the flute in this range.

The middle register (from D5 to G6) has considerably more carrying power.Here the tone quality is bright and vibrant, with enough carrying power to carry its own weight in the proper orchestral setting. This octave also is very rich in overtones, giving the flute its unique timbre.

The upper register of the flute (above G6) has a shrill and piercing but brilliant quality to it. The majority of Orchestral music places the Flute in this register. Due to the somewhat awkward fingerings in this register, the flute loses a small fraction of its agility, in addition to becoming a bit more difficult to control in very soft nuances; with a good musician this is not an issue. In loud passages, this range is an excellent doubling of upper partials to solidify an orchestral mass. Notes above the highest 'C' on the flute should only be written in consultation with a competent flutist, as all notes above C7 are somewhat difficult for beginners.


A selection of Flutes

Aside from the Piccolo , there are a number of less common relatives of the concert flute:

  • Treble flute in G
  • Soprano flute in E♭
  • Concert flute (also called C flute, Boehm flute, silver flute, or simply flute)
  • Flûte d'amour (also called tenor flute) in B♭ 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 (also called double contra-alto flute) or C (also called double contrabass flute)
  • Double contrabass flute in C (also called octocontrabass flute or subcontrabass flute)
  • Hyperbass flute in C

Each of the above instruments has its own range. 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 flûte d'amour in B♭ 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, which 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.


Flutter Tonguing[]

Flutter-tonguing is one of the oldest and most widely-used extended techniques, dating back to the works of Richard Strauss. Flutists should be familiar with and be able to execute the two different types: one produced by rolling the tongue; the other by vibrating the throat. Composers notate flutter-tonguing in one of two ways: through use of three slashes through a note stem, or by writing “flatterzunge” (or flatt.). Composers are more and more commonly choosing to specify the type of flutter-tonguing to be used in a given passage, indicating “rrrr” for the throat version. The technique has many uses beyond the mere “special effect.”

Whistle tones[]

Whistle tones are very weak and quiet, and only particularly effective in the third octave of the flute's range, the easiest to play being from C6 to B6. The proper fingerings are used and the air stream is slower and broader. They are indicted by diamond noteheads with the marking, "w.t." Because they are so quiet, they benefit from electronic amplification and will never carry through any orchestral texture acoustically.

Bisbigliando or "hollow tones"[]

Hollow tones are produced by bending an out of tune note (such as a microtone) into the correct pitch. In order to do this with accurate intonation special fingering must be used (like with any microtones) and may sometimes vary from flute to flute. Close and personal consultation with an experienced flautist is almost necessary if the composer is not already a flautist. These are also usually indicating by a combination of diamond noteheads and textual instruction such as "bisbigl." or "hollow tone", sometimes "h.t.". It is usually customary to provide the appropriate fingering above each unique hollow note in the part.

Singing while playing[]

Singing while playing is sometimes used by flutists as low note tone-exercise, although is occasionally used in flute repertoire. It produces a coarse, almost grinding sound, sometimes used to imitate animal effects or create artificial harmony/polyphony. When written, it should be notated on the same staff, in different noteheads. (Since there is no standard notation, different composers do what is easiest for them in terms of notation)


Flutes are capable of producing multiple stops anywhere from two to five notes. Every fingering on flute has at least one multiphonic; it's just a matter of how that fingering is blown. For example, underblowing the normal high D may produce the C an octave below, thus creating a ninth. When writing multiphonics, always be sure to a) consult a flutist, b) find a multiphonics chart (like those in Robert Dick's "The Other Flute"), or c) understand what you're doing! Multiphonics are NOT agile; it is not possible to play extremely fast runs with multiphonics, and without proper practice it is very hard to sustain some multiphonics. Always write in the score the fingering of the multiphonic.


Intervals smaller than a semitone. Notation methods vary, but these examples are typical of quartertones and raised & lowered inflections. Microtones are especially difficult on the piccolo, where the holes are entirely covered by keys. They are mostly produced using lip inflection.

Key Clicks[]

During the Twentieth Century, composers expanded the available sounds of the flute to include percussion-like effects. The most common of these is the key-click, pioneered by Edgard Varèse in his famous work for solo flute of 1938, Density 21.5. Key clicks can be performed by themselves; the flutist fingers a specific pitch and slaps a key without blowing (usually notated with an x notehead), or in combination with regular notes.

Alternative Fingerings[]

Different ways of fingering notes. A verbal instruction in the music and a fingering diagram. There is no need to specify fingerings normally, so the use of alternative fingerings is generally left to the player. Occasionally a composer will require a specific alternative fingering because of its timbral characteristics.

Pitch Bends[]

Can be done in two ways:

  • The lip gliss has a smaller pitch range than the fingered variety, but is more versatile because just about every note on the flute can be bent to a certain extent (though pitches in the first two octaves are much easier to bend than third-octave notes).
  • Fingered glissandi are only possible on certain notes of a French model (open-hole) flute, so it is best for a composer to consult a performer before using them.

A glissando is notated as a straight line from the note head, up or down depending on its direction.


The flute can be found in clasical music ranging from the baroque to the cutting edge of 21st century modernism. It's versatility and longevity means that it is found throughout the classical music genres.

They are also found in jazz and popular music. Drummer and bandleader Chick Webb was among the first to use flutes in jazz, beginning in the late 1930s. Frank Wess was among the first noteworthy flautists in jazz, in the 1940s. Since Boehm's fingering is used in saxophones as well as in concert flutes, many flute players "double" on saxophone for jazz and small ensembles and vice versa.

Jethro Tull is probably the best-known rock group to make regular use of the flute (played by Ian Anderson).[33] The flute has a cameo role on You've Got to Hide Your Love Away by The Beatles (played by John Scott) and Supper's Ready by Genesis (Peter Gabriel).

Other groups that have used the flute in their pop/rock songs include the The Moody Blues, Australian group Men At Work, the Canadian Prog-Rock group Harmonium, and the British groups Traffic and Van der Graaf Generator.