The flute isn’t just the ancestor of all other woodwinds: As far as we know, the oldest musical instrument ever crafted by man was a form of flute. This hollow segment of bear femur, found in a Slovenian archaeological dig and dated at more 40,000 years old, was carved with two complete and two partial holes. While it is unknown exactly how this instrument was used, it was likely intended for religious rituals or communication.

Other early flute-like artifacts, made from mammoth tusks or bird bones, date to the slightly more recent Ice Age period. Eventually, cultures all over the world began making flutes out of wood or bamboo in two primary forms, the transverse and the duct flute.

The duct or fipple flute is held in front of the body pointed towards the ground, utilizing a carved, end-blown mouthpiece along with various finger holes spaced along the windway. Such instruments include the recorder, flageolet, and penny whistle.

The most familiar flute design is the transverse or side-blown flute, held in a horizontal manner and played by blowing air perpendicular to the body of the instrument, across its embouchure hole. Because the flute was popularized in the Germanic lands of the Holy Roman Empire, many referred to transverse flutes as German flutes. Besides classical Western flutes, high-pitched piccolos, and fifes, the transverse style also includes Indian flutes like the bansuri and venu, as well as the Chinese dizi and Japanese fue.

The earliest known transverse flutes came from China, and have been dated to 7,000 BC, while in Europe, the first Etruscan reliefs depicting flute players are between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, flutes were made as cylindrical wood tubes of varying lengths and hole positions. Eventually, the body was adjusted to a slightly tapered, conical shape allowing for a larger range of playable notes.

The first true steps towards the modern flute occurred in France during the 18th century, when the Hotteterre family split the flute into three pieces, commonly referred to as the head joint, body, and foot joint. The Hotteterres also introduced a new E-flat key, and soon many manufacturers were inspired to add keys for easier fingerings.

By the end of the century, the standard transverse flute had a full eight keys, and major composers like Mozart and Haydn began incorporating the instrument into their musical pi...

But the real magic happened in the early 19th century, when a German watchmaker and goldsmith named Theobald Boehm began redesigning the standard flute. Boehm was already a skilled flute player, and split his time between goldsmithing and performing with the German royal court in Munich. But in the 1830s, after attending a concert by the famous flutist Charles Nicholson, Boehm started tinkering with the instrument.

Boehm noticed that Nicholson’s flute had much larger holes than standard conical flutes, so he reworked the size, number, and placement of the finger holes, and added a keyed system, included padded closures, to extend the reach of a player’s hand and improve the instrument’s tone. Boehm’s design established the modern fingering method, and his ingenious key mechanism was eventually adapted for all other woodwind instruments.

The Boehm system, which is still used today, was pitched in the key of C with a 3-octave range, beginning at middle C. This makes the concert flute one of the highest orchestral instruments (along with the miniature flute called the piccolo, which plays one octave higher).

In the following years, the Parisian instrument maker Auguste Buffet updated Boehm’s design by adjusting the hole placements and various fittings, while Boehm continued experimenting with various materials, settling on silver for its tone quality and light weight. By the mid-1800s, Boehm-style flutes were being made by companies like Rudall & Rose in London and Clair Godfroy in Paris, and in 1877, Boehm released his updated “Macauley Flute” with its gold embouchure and silver body.

Boehm’s many technical improvements allowed flutists to play much more complex material, spurring a shift in flute composition; Brahms, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky all began incorporating melodies featuring the instrument during the 19th century.

When jazz fever hit during the 1920s, the flute wasn’t typically part of such ensembles because it lacked proper amplification to compete with instruments like the trumpet and saxophone. Saxophone player Wayman Carver is considered the first jazz flutist, as he recorded with many big bands, like Chick Webb’s, during the 1930s. By the end of the 1940s, microphone capabilities had improved enough that flute solos were commonly heard in jazz clubs, especially as part of the West Coast or “cool jazz” style.

Flute design was updated again in the 1960s, when Albert Cooper re-scaled the instrument to match the universal concert tuning pitch established a decade prior. Cooper also tweaked the embouchure hole, and his modifications are now standard among the major global flute manufacturers.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Music Museum

National Music Museum

The National Music Museum, which is located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, features 15,000 instru… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Yamaha Silver Plated 211s Ii FluteYamaha Flute 225ssii With Zippered CaseYamaha Flute 221 Hard Case Great Condition Orchestra Band Marching BandYamaha 211 Flute5 Flutes Deford Silver-gemeinhardt-reynolds-bettoney-vito !noreserve!Moeck Steinkopf # Bass Flute # Traverso # Vintage # Baroque # Renaissance(#2) Yamaha 2255ii Student Flute Sn 330026a W/ Hard CaseSterling Silver Yamaha Silver 481ii 925 Flute With Case Excellent Buffet Crampon Flute Great Condition Buffet Flute Paris + Carry CaseFlute Old Ebonite Flute High Pitch 6 Keys Good Condition.Gemeinhardt 3ssb Solid Silver Open Hole Flute B Footjoint With Case & Cover Antique FluteWoodsounds Native American Flute By Brent HainesYamaha Flute Yfl-211Ⅱ Good Condition With CaseJupiter Jfl-507 Closed Hole Flute & CaseSilver Jupiter Flute Loft Rare FindThunder Horse "custom" Native American Style Flute Curly Cherry Wood EmYamaha Flute 225niiYamaha Yfl 674 925 Sterling Silver Professional Flute BeautifulAntique FluteNative American Style Flute / Brown Malee Burl / Buckeye BurlSelmer Bundy Flute In Hard Case 503963 Yamaha Yfl 225s Flute With Hard Case ~ Silver Plated ~ Good Condition ~ PlaysSweetheart 4-key Irish FluteGemeinhardt 3shb Intermediate Flute - Silver Headjoint & B Footjoint - 900564471Yamaha Flute Yfl63 Solid Silver Excellent With CaseYamaha 225sii Flute In Original CaseGemeinhardt M2 Flute Gemeinhardt Open-hole FlutePearl Flute 700rb (900?) Open Hole, Made In JapanPre-owned Yamaha Flute Yfl-311Yamaha Flute3 Flutes For Repair-2 Armstrong And A GemeinhardtGemeinhardt 2sp Flute & Hard CaseSelmer Bundy Flute In Hard CaseBundy Selmar Closed Holed Student Flute Usa - Complete In Hard CaseJupiter Jfl711rbso FluteGemeinhardt Silver Student Flute - Excel. Cond. - Professionally RefurbishedYamaha Intermediate Flute Yfl 361. Excellent ConditionSolid Silver Gemeinhardt 3sb Open Hole Flute, Inline "g", B Foot, Gold LipYamaha Yfl-281 Open Hole FluteNative American Made Cedar Wood FluteYamaha 225n Flute With Case **used**Armstrong 102 Flute With Case Made In The UsaEb Flute - Wood With Silver Plated Keys - Kirkley - MiamiGemeinhardt M3s Solid Silver Open Hole Flute ( Missing Small Part)Antique FluteGemeinhardt 2 Sp Flute With Case And MusicOxford FluteArtley Flute , Model 18-0. Sn#471091Gemeinhardt Solid Silver Open Hole Flute 3sb With CaseFlute ArtleyNatural Macassar Ebony Wood Alto Flute Key Of D Irish (bansuri) .Used W.t. Armstrong FluteWood Native American Style Flute Bird Leather Wrap Wooden Recorder 18 InchesConn Closed Hole Silver Flute W/ Case Needs RepairsFirst Act Flute With Hard CaseYamaha 461h FluteYamaha 281 Silver Plated Flute W/ Case