An Overview of Flute History

Did you know there are major differences between older and newer flutes?

Theobald Böehm invented the modern scale of both the flute and the clarinet in the late 19th century. Scale in this case refers directly to the engineering of the instrument and what pitch it will play. However, pitch hasn’t remained constant. The note A was roughly 430-435 Hz in Böehm’s time. It’s pushing 445-447 Hz in Europe and Japan now. Most flutes in the US are pitched around A-442, and tune between 440 and 444 Hz. (Hz – Hertz is a measurement of sound equaling the number of vibrations per second.)

While older instruments are not impossible to play, it may be a challenge to play in tune and will likely require a sacrifice of a lot of technique to do that. Another issue with older flutes is that the embouchure hole cuts and materials used before the 1970s have changed. The Cooper Scale, invented by Albert Cooper, gave exact positions and sizes for the flute’s current intonation. On top of that, the flute’s pitch changes depending on mouth position to play.

Early in the 20th century, flutes were preferred to have a smaller, sweeter sound in orchestras. As ensembles enlarged, so did the need for a bigger, more resonant sound. This brought the embouchure holes to be cut larger and included more precise undercutting. Risers that attach to lip plates to head joints started being made with gold or platinum to sound more vibrant. Despite the many beautifully crafted older flutes out there, if you want to play in a modern ensemble, you need a modern instrument.

Thanks, Clay Hammond, for this explanation of the flute and its construction.

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