Jake is a multi-instrumentalist in his fourth year at the University of Colorado Boulder. While focusing on a Bachelor’s Degree in Saxophone Performance with an Emphasis in Jazz, he has also studied clarinet, bass clarinet, and flute. Thanks to his diverse studies, he has had the distinct pleasure of performing with the University of Colorado’s top ensembles: Big Band One and the CU Wind Symphony. Over the past seven years he has enjoyed performing at many prestigious festivals, including the Sacramento Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festi... Read More
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Flute is considered to be one of the most beautiful sounding instruments. It is part of a family of musical instruments called “woodwinds.” Unlike most woodwinds that use a reed to produce a sound, flutes are aerophones. This means they produce sound from the flow of air across an opening. To be even more specific, they are technically edge-blown aerophones, which is why you see flutists blowing air in through the side of the instrument.
At age 7 students can begin learning to play the flute. It is an instrument that became popular all over the world in ancient times. From paleolithic Germany to neolithic China, flutes have been a beloved instrument. Most students want to learn the Western Concert Flute, which descends from the medieval German flute.
Let’s take a step back and see what qualifies as a flute. Technically, any instrument can be classified as a flute if the sound is generated by air being blown across an opening. Flutes can be side-blown like the orchestral flute, end-blown like pan pipes or make use of a fipple. A fipple channels air across an opening, as seen in recorders. This means that a common whistle could technically be classified as a flute as well… but everyone already knows how to play that.
In all these versions of a ‘flute,’ a stream of air is passed across an opening and directed onto the sharp edge on the other side. This splits the airstream, causing some of it to enter the flute. Interestingly the airstream doesn’t split evenly in half, but rather it oscillates alternating between entering the flute and going over the top. The oscillating airstream within the flute sets up a standing wave, causing resonance at the frequency dictated by the length of the air column. Longer tubes produce lower notes and shorter tubes produce higher notes. This is most obvious with pan pipes.
However, by drilling holes at specific lengths along a single tube, one can make the flute achieve multiple different notes by using their fingers to cover the holes. When leaving holes, open you can produce higher notes and as you cover the hole you achieve lower notes. Flutes are not just limited to one octave. Once we have reached the highest note, the next octave becomes available by fingering all the holes closed again and increasing the airflow across the embouchure hole. By increasing the airflow, we force the standing wave in the flute to double in frequency thus raising the pitch.
The flute as we know it has only been around since the 1800s, but flute history goes much further back than the 1800s… almost 43,000 years ago in Western Slovenia. This flute was made out of a cave bear’s femur, which the Neanderthals hunted. Many archaeologists argue that the flute could actually be 90,000 years old!
A curator at the Slovanian National History Museum had a replica of this flute made, and had a professional flutist play it. Believe it or not, the femur could play whole and half tones of a diatonic scale. The flutist was able to play selections of Beethoven, Verdi and Dvorzak. That’s unbelievable!
Moving forward we can watch the flute grow up. With the renaissance recorder in the 14th century. The flute was still not traversed like they are today. This came later in the 1600s, which is when the one-keyed flute came into fashion. Flute craftsmen at the time, most notably Tromlitz, extended the range of the flute and evened out its tonal consistency, making it more appealing than the recorder of the time. It was not until Theobald Boehm in the 1800s that things changed for the flute. It received an all-metal body and its scale was even more finely tuned. And that’s how it ended up becoming the flute we know and love.
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