You’re probably familiar with the distinctively soothing sound of the flute, however, can you tell the difference between the different types of flutes?
There are at least five different types of flutes in total. These are the C flute, the Piccolo, the Alto flute, the Eb Soprano flute, and the Bass flute. While these flutes may sound different, they’re played in the same way, so one flutist may play several flutes.
The C flute is one of the most popular types of flutes and is also known as the Western concert flute. It is usually tuned to the key of C, and played by a solo artist, or as a part of an orchestra.
In this article, we’re going to explore the various flutes, their names, and their distinct sounds.
The C Flute
As we said above, this is one of the most popular types of flutes and is played by most flutists. It’s also considered the most suitable flute for beginners.
The C flute is primarily played in orchestras, concert bands, marching bands, and occasionally jazz bands. It blends well with other band instruments, aside from the oboe, as both instruments produce similar smooth, soothing sounds that are octaves apart.
However, while oboes increase in strength in the low range, flutes grow weaker. In contrast, as flutes grow bolder in the higher ranges, oboes get timider.
Flutes will be more inconsonant with the bassoon, in unison, or an octave. Their similar timbers always produce soothing and relaxing sounds.
However, the sound of the C flute is also ideal for solo performances. The famous flutist, James Galway, played his melancholy music using a C flute.
The Piccolo Flute
In appearance, the Piccolo resembles the C flute, but it’s a lot smaller - about half as long. It produces notes that are one octave higher than the C flute.
The same fingering techniques are used when playing the Piccolo as the C flute, so again, it’s unsurprising for a C flutist to also play the Piccolo.
However, the two differ in the materials they’re made from. While most flutes are made of metal, piccolos are usually made of wood. This is due to their sound, as being of high register,
Piccolos would produce high, piercing sounds if made from metal - which wouldn’t blend well with the other orchestra instruments.
Another difference between the piccolo and C flute is that a typical piccolo doesn’t have a lip plate in the embouchure hole like the typical C flute has.
The Piccolo is also conical in shape as opposed to straight. The classic flute originally had the same conical shape, but later, a straight body was adopted and established in the 19th century. The tapered shape of the Piccolo is better equipped for its higher pitch.
The Piccolo is played as part of orchestras, flute ensembles, marching bands, and concert bands. In marching bands, the silver or metal Piccolo can usually be seen. However, in symphony orchestras and concerts you’re more likely to see a wooden or plastic Piccolo.
The Alto Flute
The Alto flute has a distinctively mellow tone that has a lower pitch range. This sound is created by the longer and thicker body of the Alto flute. It also requires significant lung power to play it.
The Alto flute enhances the dynamic presence of the lower notes.
It underwent many developments before it was able to produce this kind of sound quality. In its developmental stages, flute makers tried to develop a flute that could produce the lower notes Bb, A, Ab, G, F, Eb, and C.
Broadening the range of notes means extending the distance between each keyhole, as well as the embouchure hole, and this made it difficult for flutists to play the instrument at first.
Eventually, Theobald Boehm managed to develop and create a flute that achieved this range of notes but was also in precise proportion to the C flute; its typical length is 34 inches.
It’s not so easy to do a rapid fingering style on the Alto flute because of the slightly spread apart large keys. However, the Alto flute makes up for this with its powerful and deep colors of tones, which sounds far more mellow and mysterious compared with the sounds of the classic C flute.
The Bass Flute
The bass flute is the least popular of the flute family. It’s used to produce full, round sounds and is capable of notes that are one full octave lower than the C flute.
Its large size makes it challenging to play, and you can find bass flutes that are 50 inches, or even 60 inches, in length. Over time, different methods of accommodating its considerably large size and weight have been devised, and most of these flutes have a U-bend head joint.
This allows the embouchure to be nearer to the finger holes. You can also find bass flutes have two bends in the head joint with finger holes that extend vertically.
This makes some bass flutes resemble a saxophone, but unlike saxophones, a flutist can create sound by blowing air across the embouchure hole rather than directly into the instrument.
The Eb Soprano Flute
The Eb or E-flat Soprano flute is also known as a Third or Tierce flute. This instrument is pitched in Eb, a minor third above the C flute or concert flute. This flute is distinctive as it’s the only one that is not pitched in G or C.
Jazz saxophone players sometimes use this flute because it is similar to the baritone or alto saxophones in its pitched key. The sound of the flute is somewhat similar to that produced by the C flute, so the fingering techniques are pretty much the same.
However, this kind of flute is rare today and is not really produced anymore, so the Eb Soprano flutes in existence are quickly aging.
Flutes are a diverse family, with some providing high notes, and others providing lower ones.
It’s not uncommon for a flutist to play multiple types of flutes depending on the music they’re playing, and the situation they are playing in.