A Complete Guide to Flute
The flute, with its fluid music that hits the high and low notes with equal ease transport the hearer to a place that is magical and surreal. A lot of us may identify it with Lord Krishna, who played the flute melodiously in order to entice the ‘Gopikas’ (Damsels) of his village. The flute belongs to the woodwind group of musical instruments; however, the difference is that it does not have reeds.
The flute is a reed less wind instrument and is also known as the ‘aerophone’ and relies on the sound emanating from the air that flows from the openings. Flutes, according to Hornbostel-Sachs instrumental classification are placed in the category of ‘edge-blown aerophones’. A musician who plays the flute is also known as a flautist, flute player, fluter, flutenist or flutist.
Flutes date back to the early times and many have been discovered in the Swabian Alb region of Germany that date back to around 35,000 to 43,000 years. This proves that flutes have been present in Europe since times immemorial and from there began a musical tradition of the flute which has now acquired a modernised look.
In India, the flute also known as the ‘bansuri’ has been an integral component of Indian classical music since 1500 BC. Lord Krishna, a Hindu God, has been depicted playing the flute. There are a number of famous Indian flautists such as Sri T R Mahalingam, Sri Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, Dr. N Ramani, Sri Harprasad Chaurasia, Sri Pannall Ghosh and Sri Ronu Majumdar amongst many others.
History of the Flute and its origin
- It has been discovered that the oldest flute having just 2-5 holes might have been made from the femur bone of a young cave bear. This flute has been discovered at the Divje Babe in Slovenia and dates back to 43 thousand years.
- There was another flute that has been found in the Hohle Fels Cave near Ulm, Germany and dates back to 35,000 years ago. This V-shaped flute had five holes and is made out of a vulture’s wing bone.
- Scientists also state that the discovery of the flute is useful to help determine the probable cognitive and behavioural differences between the Neanderthals and the early human.
- Another flute, having three holes and made out of a mammoth tusk has been discovered from the Geißenklösterle cave, near Ulm, in the southern German Swabian Alb and dates back to to 30,000 to 37,000 years ago. The same cave was also the place of discovery of two flutes that were made out of swan bones.
- The modern day flute was developed in the 16th century. It was made in one single piece and did not have keys at that point. The flute gained more popularity around 1670 and it was then that the flute comprised of three pieces and also had a key – the D-sharp. This flute is known as the ‘baroque flute’.
- Earlier, the flute had various intonation issues which differed from city to city and from country to country.
- After 1720, the flute came in four pieces – the longer pieces were for playing flat or lower pitches while the shorter ones were used for playing higher or sharp pitches.
- Since people only used a single key on the flute, playing the instrument was complicated as fingerings or fork fingerings were used whose tones did not sound good.
- By 1775, the flute had four keys – the d sharp (which was already there), b flat key, f key and g sharp key.
- It was Charles Nicholson (1795-1837), a popular English flautist, who introduced bigger holes for the fingers and a much bigger hole for the mouth piece to produce better sound.
- Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) was a popular flute maker who was so impressed watching Charles Nicholson play at a concert that he came up with a key mechanism for the flute in 1832.
- Boehm’s first flute was called ‘Ringklappeflote”. This flute was much easier to play and also sounded better. This invention was a blessing for orchestras and flautists.
- Modern day flute uses the same mechanism that was invented by Boehm, the only difference was that the outer structure was no longer made out of wood.
- In China there was a working flute dating back to 9 thousand years that was discovered from a tomb in Jiahu, China called Gudi. This flute was made out of the bones of a red-crowned crane.
- The flute has also been mentioned on a cuneiform tablet from ancient Sumer dating back to circa 2600-2700 BCE and is the earliest known written reference to this instrument. It is also mentioned in the tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
- In the Bible there is a reference to some wind instrument in the Genesis 4:21 called ‘Jubal’ in Hebrew, who is also known as the inventor of the flute. In other parts of the Bible the flute has been referred to as ‘chalil’.
- In India, flutes have formed an intrinsic part of Indian mythology and culture and it is found that the early flutes were constructed out of tibia bones.
- Vague references have been made to the flute in Indian literature dating as far back as 1500 BCE.
Fun Facts of The Flute
Flutes are available in various sizes such as the contrabass, bass, tenor, alto and piccolo flutes.
The pitch of a Standard Concert Flute is in the C key and has a range of nearly 3 octaves.
Flutes in history have been made from difference kinds of materials such as wood, ivory, bone, glass, resin, plastic, nickel, brass, silver, platinum and gold.
Leonardo da Vinci, James Madison and George Washington are three famous personalities who played the flute.
A lot of cultures have their own flute version, for instance, ‘Shakukachi’ is the Japanese flute.
The word ‘flute’ was formally introduced in the 14th century.
Construction and Components of The Flute
There are three main components that make up the flute:
- Head Joint
This is that segment of the flute that has no keys and touches the mouth. The Tuning Cork is also located on the Head Joint which helps to adjust the flute’s intonation. The Embouchure Plate or the Lip Plate is also located here as this is where the musician places his lower lip for playing the flute. It is much easier to blow into a curved Lip Plate than a straight one.
- The Mouth Hole or the Blow Hole is also found on the Head Joint and is the part where the musician blows air to make sound. It could have a rounded rectangular or oval shape. The larger Mouth Hole is good for low notes while a smaller Mouth Hole is good for high notes.
- Body Joint
The Body Joint contains mostly all the keys and is also the largest segment of the flute. It is that part which connects the foot and the head joints together. The keys on the Body Joint are pressed to arrive at a particular pitch. Hence, it is important to ensure that the springs and the key pads are in good condition to avoid impacting the sound quality. The Tenons and the Tuning Slide are also located on the Body Joint.
- Foot Joint
This part of the flute is the shortest and also has very few keys. It actually contains a rod which is to be aligned with the center of the keys that are located on the flute’s body.
Types of The Flute
There are certain types or models of flute that are available:
- If you observe closely, the flute is an open tube that produces sound as you use controlled airstream to blow through the head joint. There are various classes of flutes based on the mouthpiece.
- The Fipple Flutes such as the whistle, recorder, gemshorm, tin whistle, fujara, tonette and ocarina all have a duct that gives them a distinct sound. The drawback is that the music is less-controlled, although it is easier to play these flutes.
- The Transverse Flutes or side-blown flutes such as the piccolo, dizi, bansuri, and western concert flute and the end-blown flutes such as kaval, shakuhachi, danso, ney, Anasazi, xiao and quena all come under this category. The musician makes use of a hole located on the side of the tube to produce the sound in these flutes.
- There are open-ended and closed ended flutes as well. For instance, the pan pipes and acarina are close-ended while the concert flutes are open-ended. However, the latter have brighter timbres, better harmonics and offer more flexibility to the player.
- In Europe, the Western Transverse Flutes were a part of European classical music from the 18-19th centuries. These are often termed as ‘baroque flutes’.
- The Western concert flute has been derived from the medieval German flute, with circular tone holes that are larger than the finger holes of earlier flutes. These were evolved by Boehm and had a more dynamic intonation and range owing to certain refinements. They had wooden bodies with gold or silver key-work. The piccolo, soprano, G alto and C bass are variants of the Western concert flutes.
- Indian flutes made out of bamboo have formed an essential element of Indian classical music and have evolved differently as compared to the western flute. These are simpler and do not contain keys.
- There are two different types of Indian flutes – the Bansuri which is used in Northern Indian Hindustani Music and the Venu/Pullanguzhal that is used in Southern Indian Carnatic Music.
- The sound quality of a bamboo flute depends upon the kind of bamboo it is made out of. The best bamboo is grown in the Nagercoil region of Southern India.
- In China, the Dizi flute has many variants that differ in structure, size, intonations and number of holes. They are usually made out of bamboo but can also be crafted out of iron, bone, jade and wood.
- The resonance membrane is a distinguishing quality of the Chinese flute which gives it a bright sound.
- In Japan, the flute is called Fue and there are various flutes such as the Hotchiku, Shakuhachi, Komabue, Shinobue, Minteki, Ryuteki and Kagurabue.
- In Madagascar, the Sodina is a flute which is also one of the oldest instruments found in that country. It bears a striking similarity to the Suling Flute of Indonesia.
- The Sring is another flute that has been found in the Caucasus region of Eastern Armenia and is made of wood or cane.
- Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia: He is a renowned Indian classical flutist who was born on 1st July, 1938 in Uttar Pradesh, India. Chaurasia is known internationally and is also the greatest master of the Bansuri, or flute. He has done a lot to bring the bansuri in the Hindustani classical music tradition to the masses and popularise it.Being a wrestler, Chaurasia’s father wanted him to follow suit, but that was not to happen. Chaurasia initially took training in vocal music at the age of 15 and then started learning the flute for eight years. He later went on to work for All India Radio.Chaurasia has also made a mark as a music director and has also collaborated on cross-cultural performances.At present, he is the artistic direction of the World Music Department at the Rotterdam Music Conservatory in the Netherlands. He is the found of two academies that train children in Hindustani bansuri. Chaurasia has also collaborated with various international artistes such as Jean-Pierre Rampa, The Beatles.
- Ronu Majumdar: He is a popular Indian flautist in the Hindustani Classical tradition. He was born on 28th July, 1965 in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Majumdar was trained under his father and it was Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao who motivated Ronu to become a concert flautist.Ronu Majumdar specialises in the Shank Bansuri which is 3 feet in length and is designed by him. This special bansuri adds special intonations into the lower scales. Majumdar has a lot of awards and nominations to his credit. He has been bestowed the President’s Gold Medal, the Aditya Vikram Birla Award as well as the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. He also was nominated in the Grammy’s during 1996 for his work on the album Tabula Rasa. Majumdar also has released more than 30 audio tracks. He is particularly popular amongst the youth due to his modern improvisations.
Important Flute Events and Festivals in India
- SwaraZankar Music Festival: Held in Pune.
- Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav: Held in Pune, Maharashtra since 1953 during the month of December. It is a one day event.
- Teen Prahar: Held in Mumbai which is organised by the Banyan Tree since 2007. It is a one day event.
- Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan: Held in Mumbai since 1952.
- Qutub Festival: Held in Delhi
- Piccolo Flag
- Case Closed Flute Cases
- Altieri Flute and Laptop Bag
- Zonda Woodwind Drying Papers
- Spearheaded by the noted flautist Pandit Ronu Mazumdar and organised by The Art of Living, a concert took place on the banks of the river Godavari in Nashik where happened a unique symphony called Venunaad. This symphony was organised to make a Guinness record wherein 4000 flautists would be performing together on one stage.This unique attempt by Mazumdar required immense efforts as he had to scour through music schools from across the country to find suitable flautists. In the concert, there were 800 professional instrumentalists. The entire training process took two and a half months to complete. All the bansuris were sourced from Bansuri Nagari in Uttar Pradesh. The chief guest of the event was the legendary Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.
- Bharat Sinh Parmar, Charunsudan Atri Jay Bhayani, and 5 Navtanpuri Dham have created the largest flute, which is playable. It stands at 3.63 meters in length and was used to play the Indian national anthem in a performance.
- Murali Naraynan broke the Guinness World Record in January 2016 for playing the flute in a 27 hour long marathon.
The flute is a part of our heritage in India in the form of the ‘Bansuri’. If you know some interesting facts about the flute or have a question about this musical instrument, then do feel free to ask us in the comment section below! At YoGems, we have experts who can counsel you on this instrument and provide you with trainers and instructors who can guide you in playing the flute.