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.