The Instruments: the Flute Family

The modern flute, as well as the other members of its family, come from an old flute imported from the Byzantine Empire known as the German flute. As with this ancestor all flutes used in the orchestra are played horizontally, but unlike the German flute, are built in metal, have a sophisticated set of keys, and are divided into three pieces: the head joint, the body, and the foot joint.



Flutes are most often found in pairs in the Baroque and Classical period, then were extended to three members (usually two regular flutes and one piccolo) from the middle of the 19th century, and finally getting up to four or five members in some of the 20th century’s scores, including auxiliary instruments like the piccolo or alto flute.


Flute

The flute is the main instrument of the flute family and also the agilest (with the piccolo) in the whole woodwind section. It is also the woodwind that uses the biggest amount of air (but less than its bigger siblings the alto or contrabass flute), so taking extra care about this issue is vital to get a successful performance.

Its register goes between B2 and D6 but where the flute really stands out is when it gets above the stave. The lowest octave is weaker –as well as more breathy and delicate– than the rest of the instrument’s range, so it is recommendable to accompany it with a very thin and soft background. At the opposite end the higher octave has a pretty shrill and bright sound where its almost impossible to get soft tones out of. In general, it would be wise to avoid as much as possible the highest and lowest 3rd or 4th and, when playing in the highest register, to reach these notes by steps.


Student flutes have a shorter foot joint, that instead of going down to B2, it only reaches C3, but in all professional and intermediate flutes, the composer and orchestrator should expect the longer one. The flute always reads in treble clef and, since they are very used to read ledger lines, it is rare to see 8va lines for the highest notes.

C and B foot joints


Typical functions of the flute are performing solos, counterpoints, doubling another instrument/s (often just to provide more body), doing runs together with other woodwinds or by itself, and being part of chordal textures with the rest of the woodwinds. A particular good doubling is when it is used with the violins, providing them with more body.


Other languages: FR


Piccolo

After the flute, the piccolo is the most commonly used instrument in this family. It is considerably smaller than the flute, and, as its bigger brother, is very agile and stands out in the register above the stave.

It transposes an octave higher than what is written having a register an octave higher than the regular flute (from D4 to C7). Like the flute, it sounds pretty weak in its lower octave and it is hard to play for long stretches in the upper extreme register, where it almost can cut through the entire orchestra if necessary. Again, reaching those upper notes is easier if done by steps instead of skips.


The piccolo is an excellent instrument for adding sharpness to runs or just by itself, doubling another instrument’s solo at the single or double octave, or for performing solos or counterpoints.

Piccolo

Other languages: FR



Alto Flute

A little bit bigger than the regular flute the alto flute extends the register of the flute a fourth below. Since it has a bigger size it also requires more air flow, so that should be considered when writing long notes or phrases.

It transposes a forth below having a register from G2 to G5. Unlike the regular flute its best register is below and inside the stave, where it gets warmer and fuller than the flute. In its higher register, it sounds correct, but it doesn’t have any advantage over a regular flute.


Great uses of the alto flute include performing solos or counterpoints with a light accompaniment, doubling other instrument/s (often just to add more body), or eventually contributing to runs.

Alto flute with curved headjoint
Alto flute with straight headjoint

Other languages: FR