flute, in music, generic term for such wind instruments as the fife, the flageolet, the panpipes, the piccolo, and the recorder. The tone of all flutes is produced by an airstream directed against an edge, producing eddies that set up vibrations in the air enclosed in the attached tube. In the transverse flute, the principal orchestral flute today, the edge is on the mouth hole on the side of the instrument, over which the player blows. The oldest known archaeological remains of any musical instrument are those of flutes carved of bone and ivory that were found in SW Germany and are at least 42,000 years old. The oldest complete, playable flute is a nearly 9,000-year-old bone flute that was found in E central China. The transverse flute is also an extremely old instrument, universal in ancient and primitive cultures; it was known in Europe by the 9th cent. During the baroque period both the recorder and the transverse flute were used in the orchestra, the latter by Lully in 1672. In the classical period the transverse flute displaced the less-powerful recorder, which could not match its dynamic range. In the 19th cent. the transverse flute assumed substantially its present form after the improvements of Theobald Boehm (1794–1881), who ascertained the acoustically correct size and placement of the holes and devised an ingenious system of keys to cover them. The flute was originally made of wood but is now most often of silver. It is the most brilliant and agile of the orchestral woodwinds, and it also has a considerable solo and chamber-music literature. The transverse flute has been made in several keys, but the C flute has long been standard. The alto flute in G, a fourth below the regular flute, is notated as a transposing instrument.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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