Some woodwinds are hardly made of wood nowadays, even though they were designed to be built initially with that material. Flutes are a prominent example of these. Despite this, they're still classified under the woodwind category due to tradition and their sound profile.
With that said, are flutes made of brass? Some flutes are made of alloys that may contain brass, such as the gold-brass flutes manufactured by Yamaha. However, traditionally, silver alloys have been employed for the most part. Some student flutes are made of nickel silver, which is lighter than most other alloys.
In this article, we'll be discussing the different build materials for flutes, including some examples of brass flutes.
Why Are Most Flutes Made Of Metal Nowadays?
Until the early 20th century, most flutes were made with wooden tubes. The baroque flute had a wooden chassis with a keyless configuration, meaning that the players had to manually cover the tone holes drilled across the wall, numbering from six to eight.
Theobald Boehm – a 19th-century Bavarian musician and inventor – devised a complex keywork mechanism that would later be coined the term “Boehm system”, consisting of a series of keys connected through rods, capable of closing and opening remote tone holes. By doing this, flutists would not need to employ complex fingering techniques in order to play the instrument at any key.
Related article: How Many Holes Does A Flute Have? (Different Flute Types)
More importantly (at least for the context of this article), Boehm also designed the first metal flutes. These were built with a silver tube, at times with a wooden head joint adapted. These metal flute models would prove to be highly unpopular in their early days, with some players complaining that their sound lost its distinctive woodwind qualities.
Nonetheless, manufacturers soon learned that they could build flutes of more consistent quality by using metal alloys. One of the most persistent challenges of wooden flutes is that wood is not precisely smooth, and wooden pieces differ greatly between them owing to their organic nature.
Mass-produced wooden flutes, for this reason, were prone to present tonal issues more often than mass-produced metal flutes because of the varying porosity. According to many experts, porosity is the most important variable for assessing the acoustic properties of wind instruments.
The material of choice for metal flutes is silver. Silver is known to be very malleable, contrary to popular opinion. Sterling silver and pure silver flutes are the preferred types among professional musicians due to the powerful sound they deliver. Lighter materials tend to be more responsive, but on the flip side, they also render duller notes.
Why Is Brass Not Commonly Used For Modern Flutes?
As said earlier, brass flutes are extant, albeit not as common as those made of other metals.
Brass is an alloy composed of roughly 67% copper and 33% zinc, with some small traces of lead, phosphorus, manganese, aluminum, and even silicon oftentimes added as reinforcements.
Brass has been used for various instruments since at least the middle ages. Early prototypes of Brass instruments (from which instruments like the French horn, trumpet, trombone, cornet, or tuba came) existed since ancient times, although the alloy itself was not always utilized.
Apart from the usual brass instruments, the saxophone (originally conceived as a type of clarinet) adopted brass as its main build material over time, posing as a bridge between woodwind and brass instruments.
Flutes didn't follow the same trend as the saxophone because of the diverging traditions of both instruments. From the moment metal flutes were designed, brass was not considered due to Boehm's preference for silver in general. This would not impede brass flutes from being developed later on.
Related article: The Differences Between Saxophones & Flutes
As said at the beginning of our discourse, some flute makers have incorporated brass into their manufacturing processes. Yamaha is known to produce flutes with alloys containing brass, such as the Yamaha YFL-A421 (link to check the price at Music & Arts). Swiss maker Inderbinen is another example of a company that experiments with brass flutes.
According to these manufacturers, the sound of the brass flute is halfway between wood and silver, with a darker tonal character than its silver counterparts.
Nevertheless, the subject of the build material's influence on tone is hotly debated among those in the know. Some insist that differences are not linked to the material's innate properties but to the material's density, which is heavily determined by the manufacturing process.
In the case of wooden flutes, the subject of build material acquires more relevance, for not every type of wood is deemed an “adequate container” due to their varying degrees of smoothness and strength. In other words, some types of wood are unsuitable due to their generally austere acoustic properties.
Types Of Metal Alloys Utilized For Flute Construction
Returning to the subject of metal flutes, let's go over some well-known examples of alloys utilized for metal flutes:
- Sterling Silver: One of the purest forms of silver, comprising 92.5% of the precious metal.
- Nickel Silver: Despite its name, it doesn't contain any trace of silver, though it's usually called “German silver”.
- Platinum Enhanced Silver: Composed of 5% pure platinum and 95% silver.
- 5% Gold: As the name suggests, this alloy contains 5% gold and 95% silver.
- Aurumite: Patented by Powell. It's an amalgamation of various precious metals formed in layers. Some variants of aurumite contain 14k rose gold on the inner layers of the tube with sterling silver on the outside, while others would contain 9k rose gold on the outer layer fused with a silver inner layer.
- Gold-Brass Alloy: Referenced many times in the course of this article. It's a fusion of 10% gold and 90% brass.
Apart from the alloys utilized for the build material, there are also plating materials, which are basically the metals that coat the instrument's outer surface. Common plating metals include silver, gold, and nickel.
For more information, check out my article What Are Flutes Made Of?