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    

Wm. S. Haynes Closed Hole Solid Silver Flute Serial # 15263Yamaha Flute Yfl211 And Additional Curved End Junior Mouth Piece & Leather CaseVtg. Wms Haynes Co. Boston Mass. Usa #3663 Pat. Silver Flute In Orig. Case Look!Yamaha 200ad Flute In CaseBoosey And Hawkes Emperor Flute: Serial No 492788Coyote Oldman Flute, Dark Cedar, Classic Blue Fire Cicada, Key Of F# 2014Antique Selmer Signet Special Coin Silver Flute Case Made In Usa 39788 ##nice##Rare Vintage German FluteNative American Style Fliute Low A Wood Sounds Brent Haines Large BoreFmc Musical Instruments Cased FluteWindsor Flute In Carry CaseVintage Haynes-schwelm Co. Flute-professional Model-#978-sn18978- W/case-1947Rudall Carte Bass Flute #7618 Yamaha Flute Yfl-221s Mk2 With Hard/soft Case Excellent Condition! From JapanAntique Rosewood French Recorder Made By Couesnon Of Paris Yamaha 365 Ii B Foot Flute With Sterling Silver Head .925(#361) Wooden / Wood Aralikatti Colorful, One Of A Kind Kingwood Flute HeadjointVintage Flute Silver Plated Gemeinhardt 2sp Usa Made In Case Musical 3 Piece Gemeinhardt 2sp Silver-plated Flute, Elkhart Ind Usa Armstrong 104 Silver Plated Flute: All New Pads-bumpers-head CorkFlute Powell Sonare Sf 6000 Sterling SilverGemeinhardt Flute 30sb Solid Silver W/ Hard Case & Carry BagYamaha Flute 451Yamaha 221 Silver-plated Open Hole Flute , C-foot W/caseSankyo Flute Silver Sonic Ring Key ModelBuffet Crampon Cooper Scale FluteVintage Hardwood Three Piece Flute Miller Wicks LondonMaestro Bass FluteYamaha Yfl-281 Silver-plated Flute & Case *used*Yamaha 225nii Concert Flute 225n2 With Case!!Vintage Antique Gemeinhardt Flute Elk Hart Ind. Musical Instrument In Case Jupiter Jfl-507 Offset G Silver-plated Student Flute W/ Case - 854414753Gemeinhardt Flute 2sp Student Model Standard And Reliable Woodwind Instrument Armstrong Model 103 Open Hole Flute. Very Nice ConditionGeimenhardt 2sp Flute Silver-plated With Hard Case & Cleaning RodArmstrong 104 Flute In Case - Made In Usa Tenon Repair NeededYamaha 221 Closed Hole Flute Nice Condition Made In JapanVito Usa Model 111r Flute Made In Kenosha Wi !noreserve!Gemeinhardt M2 Vintage FluteYamaha 371 Allegro Flute High End Intermediate Flute Sterling Silver Head Joint Flute Open Holed Armstong 80bYamaha Flute Open Hole With Offset GArmstrong 103 Open Hole FluteW T Armstrong Flute 104 Elkhart Silver Plated With Hardshell CaseYamaha 225nii Flute With Hard CaseYamaha Ypc- 61 Grenadilla Wood Professional Piccolo Case Cleaning Rod GreaseYamaha Flute Yfl-265-s ***silver***Armstrong 102 Student FluteHigh Spirits One Heart Native American Style 17.5" Wooden Flute Key Of AVintage Antique Rosewood Wood A. Fontaine Clarinet Musical Instrument In Case Yamaha 225sii Student Flute Flute"used" Fe Olds Flute W/ Case -pick Up Only!Gemeinhardt Flute 3 Open HoleGemeinhardt Flute 2spGemeinhardt 2sp Student Flute G58491 W/ Hard CaseJupiter Cf-50 Carnegie Xl Closed Hole Flute Gold Mouth Piece Yamaha FluteEmerson Silver Plate Flute, Open Hole B Foot, Clean Condition, No ReserveGemeinhardt 50 Series 52sp Silver Plated Flute With Case