A Short History of the Flute

history of the flute

The history of musical instruments is a long and misty story. Often, the origins of an instrument are not clear but are based on folklore and unproven stories. 

Without a doubt, the oldest instrument in the world is either the human voice or an untuned percussion instrument like the drum. The voice is the only organic instrument, as well as the first instrument to which nearly all human beings have access. Percussion, given how its sounds are created, would probably have been developed next in human history, as basic percussive sounds require little special equipment or knowledge--mostly a beater and a surface to beat.

The flute is probably the oldest of what today we call “woodwind” instruments. The most basic flute is a hollow tube that the player blows through, using no reed, creating sounds as the air inside the tube vibrates. Drilled holes have been added to change the length of the vibrating air column, creating different pitches. Flutes can be vertical, like the recorder, with the player blowing air directly through the end of the tube, or transverse, like the concert flute found in Western orchestras, with the player holding the instrument horizontally and blowing across a hole cut close to one end of the tube. All the history of woodwind instruments begins with this simple idea,

The Early History of the Flute

Throughout history, civilizations all over the world have created variations of this instrument. But when was the first flute made? There has been a vertical flute made of bone found in Germany that is between 35,000 to 43,000 years old. This delicate instrument seems to be the first flute ever made that has survived the centuries. Discovered in 2012, this flute was made of a vulture wing bone and had three finger holes cut in it, making it capable of playing fairly complex melodies. 

Some very delicate flutes were discovered in 1999 in central China, made of the wing bones of cranes. They date from about 9000 years ago and are called “gudi” or “bone flutes.” Five to eight holes drilled in the bones were determined to have been put there to tune them for music. The discoverers were actually able to play one of the flutes, which had seven holes. It could roughly play an octave scale starting on the A above middle C. More evidence that the flute had been tuned was that a smaller hole had been added next to the seventh hole that had the effect of raising the tone about a half step, allowing the scale to sound complete.

history of the flute, old version

The earliest transverse flute was also created in China. Made of bamboo, the “chi” was held horizontally across the right side of the body. The oldest example dates from about the 5th century BC. It had closed ends and five holes on the side.

Various flutes continued to be developed throughout Asia and the Middle East, even reaching into Europe through Greece. Interestingly, the Greeks saw the flute as the instrument of the common man rather than the cultured man, and not much development was made in its construction or use. This seems to be why most of the Greek woodwind instruments were the ancestors of the modern oboe, with a reed construction creating its characteristic nasal sound. 

Moving farther west to the northern Italian peninsula, archaeologists have discovered Etruscan art dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC that unmistakably depicts musicians playing a type of transverse flute. There is quite a bit of ancient Roman wall art (mosaics and paintings) that show flautists playing both vertical and transverse style flutes. Strangely, the history of the flute in Europe seems to disappear around the fall of Rome in the 5th century AD, and the flute does not reappear in the historical record until the 10th and 11th centuries. 

The History of the Flute: Middle Ages Through the Baroque Period

It appears that the closest ancestor of the present-day concert flute was introduced into Germany around 1000 AD, probably through traders from Byzantium (modern Istanbul). The Byzantium empire carried on extensive trade with the Orient, and it is not much of a stretch to imagine that one of the main instruments of the Far East made its way west on the Silk Road. 

The flute was widely used in the courtly music of the time and even saw use as a signaling and marching tool in military campaigns of the Middle Ages, due to its higher, piercing sounds which could be heard over the sounds of battle in the field. Amateur musicians created small musical groups that played “consort music” in cultured European homes. Flutes were important components of these groups, which later included plucked and bowed string instruments during the 1600s. 

In the 17th century, instrument makers began making important changes in flute construction, mostly dealing with improving the instrument’s tuning, portability, and sweet sound. Flute makers in Italy and the Netherlands began increasing the diameter of the flute’s long tube, called the bore. This mellowed its sound. It was divided into sections to make storage and travel easier. Finally, the instrument makers bored smaller tone holes to allow for more cross fingerings, increasing the number of playable pitches.

young boy holding flute

Another milestone in the history of the flute came about in the 17th and 18th centuries when a solo flute repertoire began to appear. Composers such as Bach and Handel began writing music that used the lower end of the flute’s range as well as its usual high range, which called for more skilled playing. Flute virtuosos began to appear, traveling from country to country performing concerts on what we now call the baroque flute. 

The baroque flute (in use between 1650 and 1750) was the immediate ancestor of our modern flute. Some of the greatest problems baroque flautists had in this early period of the history of the flute involved playing certain pitches and, as well, playing all pitches in tune. In the early part of the 1600s, flautists found they couldn’t compete with the newly popular violin in playing the expressive music of the period. The changes made to tone holes to allow for cross fingerings allowed the flute to produce more of the chromatic pitches found more and more often in its repertoire. However, these fingerings were very difficult for the ordinary player to reproduce.  

In the mid-1700s, English instrument makers were among the first to improve the playing and the tuning of the flute by adding a system of keys to the finger holes. These keys, combined with slightly larger tone holes, made the cross fingerings easier to play.  By the end of the century, the keyed flute had become the standard in modern flute design, with each country touting its own style. Some traveling flautists even created their own designs to show off their skills and repertoire. 

The Emergence of the Modern Concert Flute

In the early 19th century, a German flautist/goldsmith/jeweler, Theobald Boehm, had set up a workshop for building musical instruments. He attended a flute concert in 1831 by Charles Nicholson who had an instrument with unusually large tone holes that produced a beautiful, fine tone. Boehm recognized that producing that sort of sound (which was taking over as the standard) would require tone holes spaced for good intonation, not for the comfort and convenience of the player's fingers. With that in mind, Boehm set to work in his shop.

flute resting on music stand

He came up with a new mechanism that acted as extenders for the flautist’s fingers, thus allowing the player to more easily play the new flutes well and in tune. Boehm released the new flute in 1832, and it quickly became accepted by the important players of the time. However, he was not content to rest on his laurels and continued to improve his new design.

Fifteen years after he introduced his new key mechanism, Boehm released the flute that is still in use today, largely unchanged after more than 150 years. This version has even larger tone holes and has added padded cups for each hole. Except for a few small changes, Boehm’s flute is still the world’s standard, which says a lot for his knowledge and skill.

The Future of the Flute

The present-day concert flute has come a long way from the hollow bones and bamboo stalks of our ancestors. The history of the flute has seen it move from making simple and somewhat limited melodies to creating quite complex and far-ranging music.  It is capable of great range, both in pitch and expression, and requires a certain amount of training and finesse to play it well. Will there be more changes in the construction of the flute? No one can know, but you can be sure that flute makers will always be on the lookout for better quality of sound and intonation, making the flute’s future as a beloved instrument a secure one.