The Workings of the Flute

In 2008, a team of archaeologists excavating in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany
discovered a 43,000-year-old flute carved from the hollow wing bone of a griffon vulture — making the flute the oldest musical instrument ever discovered. It was originally 13-inches long and .3 inches wide.

We’ve come a long way since then. Modern flutes can trace their development back to Theobald Boehm’s experiments with the woodwind instrument between 1832 and 1847. He created a parabolic head joint connected to a cylindrical body, with open-standing keys and finger pads that covered large finger holes. Other small improvements were made since Boehm’s day, bringing us to the beautiful instruments of today’s renowned flautists.

The range of the modern flute commonly starts at middle C (C4), and goes up about three octaves. Let’s dive into the workings of this wonderful instrument:

Flute Construction

Flutes today are made from one of two materials: wood, and silver. European flutes are commonly made of wood, while in the United States, silver is usually used.

Every flute has two open ends: one at the end of the body cylinder, and one called the embouchure hole, which is where the player produces sound with his or her lips. Aside from the openings at each end, a flute also has 16 holes. Eleven of these are capable of being closed with the player’s fingers, and one can be closed by using the left thumb. The remaining four holes can be opened or closed, using keys.

Today’s flutes are about 26-inches long (about twice as long as the prehistoric bone version), with an inside diameter of about three-quarters of an inch. The outside of the flute includes about 150 levers, rollers, and springs.

Unlike with the recorder, a flute player can control the angle at which air from the lips hits the embouchure hole. Rolling the lips in or out, in relation to the edge, allows for a better range of expression and volume.

How to Play the Flute

This article on its own can’t teach you to play the flute; you’ll need a good teacher for that. But, we can give you an idea of how it’s done — especially if you’re still deciding whether you want to pick up the flute, or find a different instrument.

Assembling the Flute

There are four main parts to the flute:

  • The headjoint — the part with the mouthpiece
  • The body — the section where most of the keys are found
  • The barrel — the upper part of the body, attached to the headjoint
  • The footjoint — the part at the end

Before you can start playing, you must assemble your flute. Caution: When you assemble the flute, don’t grab the rods and keys. This can bend them and damage the instrument. Here are the basic steps to assembling a flute:

  1. Hold the barrel and attach the footjoint, by holding the end and applying a twist-and-push motion. Align the footjoint rods to the center of the body’s keys.
  2. Repeat this procedure with the headjoint — while avoiding grabbing the mouthpiece. Align the mouth hole (or bore) to the first key on the body.
  3. The top of the flute is known as the cap. It holds the cork, which adjusts the flute’s tuning. As a beginner, it’s wise to leave the cap alone until you understand how to use it.

Blowing Into Your Flute

Getting a sound out of your flute may be difficult at first. Playing the flute depends heavily on the way you blow air into the instrument. It’s a good idea to practice the proper technique for blowing, before you actually try to play any notes. Follow these basic tips for flute blowing:

  • Keep your head up, and relax your shoulders. Take deep breaths from your stomach.
  • Imagine you’re spitting out a small seed — now, freeze your mouth after you spit out the imaginary seed. This is the proper position for your mouth when blowing into your flute. Next, say the word “poo” and hold your expression. This is the proper position for your face. Combine those two positions, and you’re already on the right track.
  • To make a sound, blow across the mouthpiece the way you might blow into the opening of a bottle. Half of your breath should pass above the hole; the other half should pass through the flute.
  • Keep the corners of your lips firm. If the corners of your lips are sore after you practice, it’s a sign your lips are too tight. Remember, say “poo” to get the correct position for your face.

Now that you’ve learned a little about the parts of the flute, how to put them together, and how to make sounds, your next step is to learn to actually play! To do that, you need to find the right instructor, who’s a good fit for your learning style — and we’re happy to take the guesswork out for you. Feel free to reach out to California Music Studios, and we’ll match you with a qualified, independent teacher who can offer a personalized program to meet your needs.