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    

Lot Of 4 Flutes- Armstrong, Bundy, Lj Hutchens- Adjustments Needed Vintage Bundy Selmer Silver Plated Flute Model # 254460 W/ Case Great ConditionBeautiful Vintage I. Lot Paris France Boehm FluteVintage Gebr. Moennig Wooden Flute,boehm System 440 Hz, Overhauled,ex. ConditionSterling Silver Armstrong 80 Flute Low B Thin Wall Head JointYamaha 385ii Flute Sterling Silver Mouth Piece (3a)Gemeinhardt M2s Flute Solid Silver Body & Head Joint W/ Case Woodwind InstrumentYamaha Yfl-481ii Solid Sterling Silver Open Hole B-foot - Gorgeous Tone ! Yamaha Sterling Silver Flute Head Joint Gorgeous Arom. Cedar, Native American Flute, F# Minor "golden Eagle", + Case/cdYamaha FluteGemeinhardt 3sb Open Hole Flute, Solid Silver, B Foot, W.cases, Plugs, Exc. !!Gemeinhardt Intermediate Flute 30shbYamaha Yfl-211sii FluteJack Leff (jacques Lefevre) #930 Paris Solid Silver FluteTrevor J James FluteWooden Flute 11 Keys, 6 HolesGemeinhart Custom 50 Series 53shb Silver Flute With CaseWm. S. Haynes Professional Flute C. 1920 - Lovely Condition & Plays Great !Gemeinhardt 3sb Solid Silver Open Hole Concert Flute - Excellent CondiitionGemeinhardt Flute W/case! **m**Japanese Shakuhachi Bamboo Flute In D (1.8 ) With Maker's Signature.Gemeinhardt 3shb Solid Silver Head Intermediate Open Hole Flute Yamaha 225sii (225s2) Silver Plated Flute 3 Part In Hard Case Made In JapanGemeinhardt Open Hole Flute With B Foot JointJupiter Capital Edition Flute Model Cef 510...exc CondArtley Flute, Sterling Silver Head, Symphony Model, Professionally Restored LqqkGemeinhardt 3b Open Holed FluteYamaha Flute 225s Gemeinhardt M2 FluteNative American Style Flute 452 Walnut Key Of F#m Made By Cm FlutesYamaha Flute 265s Antique Rosewood & Nickel Boehm System Flute With Case - Langlois, LondonYamaha 225s Silver-plated FluteYamaha Allegro 371 FluteArmstrong 104 Silver Plated Flute, Great Condition, Certificate, One OwnerGemeinhardt 2sp Flute Silver / Chrome Finish, With Case, Cleaning Rod, Nice!Professional Native American Style Mahogany Quena Flute Tuned In (g)Yamaha Yfl 24s Flute W/ Soft CaseJupiter Jfl-507 Ii Silver Plate Flute W/ Hard Case #1Bc Buffet Crampon Paris Flute Cooper Scale 228 W/ CaseGemeinhardt 2sp Flute With Hard CaseExcellent Rare Vintage Silver Plated Toyama Japan Flute In CaseAntique Boxwood Flute - London Improved - Cr 1850Flute With Case - Great Beginner FluteArmstrong Piccolo With Case For Sale- Good ConditionBuescher Bu-1 Flute Silver With CaseUsed Emerson Flute For Beginner Or Intermediate Vintage Wooden Flute, Simple System*unique Bamboo Wood Walking Stick*cane*pole*compass & Flute*rubber Tip*strap*nr*Pre-owned Walnut Wood Native American 19" Flute High Spirits "a" Handmade In UsaGemeinhardt 3 Solid Silver Open Hole Flute Excellent Condition!!Silver Plated Gemeinhardt Flute 2sp J25562 (1998) W/hard CaseArmstrong Flute With Hard Case.Gemeinhardt 2sp Flute - F73092Artley U.s.a. 18-0 Flute With Hard Case.Bundy Flute With Hard Case.Bundy Flute With Hard Case.Native American Style Flute Cherry Squirrel Totem Key Of GSilver Flute, Bundy