The flute is one of the most popular instruments worldwide and is used across a range of genres, from classical to jazz, to folk.
Flutes are also thought to be one of the earliest known musical instruments, as paleolithic examples with hand-bored holes have been found.
The flute in history
Several flutes found in the Swabian Jura region of present-day Germany were traced back 35,000 to 43,000 years, and have been used as proof of the significant role of musical tradition in some of the earliest human communities in Europe.
The flute isn’t isolated to historical Europe alone though, as Asia too has a long history with the instrument. In China, a playable bone flute was discovered and thought to be about 9000 years old.
Historical sources indicate that the Chinese were using the kuan (a reed instrument) and hsio (or xiao, an end-blown flute, often of bamboo) in the 12th-11th centuries b.c., followed by the chi (or ch'ih) in the 9th-century b.c. and the yüeh in the 8th-century b.c.
The chi is the oldest documented cross flute or transverse flute and was crafted from bamboo.
As well as this, North and South America were also home to ancient flute-like instruments, with instruments found in Caral, Peru, dating back 5000 years, as well in Labrador, Canada, dating back approximately 7500 years.
The modern flute
The earliest flutes, such as those described above were quite different from the ones we know today, as they did not feature keys.
In the Renaissance period, flutes were also of extremely simple construction, and featured a cylindrical body rather than a straight body, with an embouchure hole (mouthpiece) and seven finger holes. They could also only produce certain semitones.
It was in the latter half of the seventeenth century when flutes with a conical body and a single key attached to them began to appear. For the first time, this allowed players to play all semitones on the flute, and this instrument is today known as the "baroque flute."
The western concert flute
However, it was Theobald Boehm, the German wind instrument manufacturer, who created the modern-day Western Concert flute. At the Paris Exhibition of 1847, he unveiled a revolutionary new type of flute: it had a metal tube with numerous keys attached.
With earlier flutes, the intervals between the notes had been variable, which made the instruments difficult to play. Boehm's instrument on the other hand was a dramatic improvement and overcame these shortcomings.
In a modern western concert flute, an embouchure hole is positioned near the top, which is the part the flutist blows across and into. This flute features circular tone holes that are larger than the finger holes of its baroque predecessors.
The size and placement of these, along with the key mechanism, and fingering system used to produce the notes, were evolved between 1832 and 1847 by Boehm. These modifications are responsible for greatly improving the instrument's dynamic range and intonation.
Even today, western concert flutes typically conform to Boehm's design, which is known as the Boehm system. Beginner's flutes tend to be made of nickel, silver, or brass that is silver-plated, while professional flutists use solid silver, gold, and sometimes even platinum flutes.
You can also get modern wooden-bodied flutes which usually feature silver or gold key work, with the body often crafted from African Blackwood.
Where does the term “flute” come from?
It’s estimated that the word ‘flute’ first entered the English language during the Middle English period, written as ‘floute’ or else ‘flowte’, ‘flo(y)te.’ It’s thought that this term was possibly derived from the Old French term flaute and the from Old Provençal flaüt.
The English verb flout can be traced to the same linguistic root, and the modern Dutch verb fluiten still shares the two meanings.
It can be difficult to give a definitive answer as to who invented the flute, as instruments resembling a flute have been traced back to paleolithic times, and were usually crafted from animal bone.
Flute-like instruments have also been found all over the world, from Europe to Asia and the Americas, so there is no one single country that can claim responsibility for the flute’s creation.
That said, the flute as we know it today - the western concert flute - is a little easier to trace back in time.
Most historians will agree that it was Theobald Boehm who developed the modern-day flute from its Baroque predecessor, and his modifications, made in the 19th century, dramatically broadened the instrument's dynamic range and intonation.
Boehm’s modern-day flute is used all around the world today, and comes in a range of variations, from the classic C flute to the Piccolo, the Alto flute, and the Eb Soprano flute. These flutes all play different ranges of notes and offer high or low pitches, giving each one a distinctive sound.
So, ultimately, while flute-like instruments are an ancient invention, the flute as we know it today was invented by the German wind instrument manufacturer, Theobald Boehm.
However, it seems the word “flute” was in circulation in the English language long before this time and could have been derived from the old French language.