Flutes have undergone several developments throughout the centuries. One of these developments relates to the implementation of the Boehm keywork system, which replaces the traditional layout of the flute with a very intricate one, requiring more holes to increase playability.
With that said, how many holes does a flute have? The modern standard C flute (with C foot joint) for students has 15 holes, whereas a professional flute with a B foot joint has 16 to 17 holes, not including the embouchure and end holes. A standard piccolo has 13 holes, but you may count the end-hole as the 14th hole for certain fingerings.
Throughout this article, we will be exploring the subject of flute tone holes, their evolution, and the reasoning behind their present configuration.
Why Do Modern Flutes Have More Holes Than Old Flutes?
As said before, modern flutes have from 13/14 to 17 tone holes, depending on the type of flute we speak of.
Related article: What Are The Different Types Of Flutes? (4 Main Flute Types)
We cover these holes with our fingers, either directly or via keys, to shape the air column formed as we blow inside the instrument. The more keys we cover in a row, the lower the pitch gets, as we are effectively “lengthening” the pipe area wherein the air particles interact.
Originally, before the advent of the Boehm system, flutes were made with six to eight holes drilled into the hollow wooden tube, not counting the embouchure and end-holes. This configuration allowed players to cover the holes so that the flute plays seven different pitches, albeit in a specific key.
Playing in another key was possible, in theory, with a basic flute. This could be done by half-covering some holes. The issues stemmed mostly from the complexity of adding half-coverings into the pattern, which would demand a great degree of accuracy that most flutists couldn't attain. The eight-holed flutes did not provide flutists with easier playing, only increasing the range of the woodwind.
Theobald Boehm – a 19th-century German musician and inventor – in response to this and other limitations, devised a system of interconnected keys and rods in 1831, aimed at facilitating delivery in different keys via fingering combinations that would, in turn, cover remote holes.
For this purpose, the flute would have additional holes that opened and closed accordingly to prompt notes that were typically delivered through half-coverings, streamlining the process. The additional holes allowed players to deliver G#, low C#, and Bb by simply lifting or pressing the corresponding keys. Two additional keys would also be incorporated to extend the range of the traditional flute at the higher end – to wit, high B and High Bb.
Adding more tone holes to the flute allowed players to play a chromatic scale more easily. In addition, they could play at any key with far more ease without relying on fingering “tricks”. The recorder, which was the standard flute before Boehm's time, is still extant and retains the keyless format, relying on half-covering, albeit some larger models introduced specific keys (such as a C/C# key) so as to make them easier to cope with.
For the record, Boehm was also responsible for changing the flute's shape from conical to cylindrical; following criticisms, his invention made the flute sound more like a trumpet. He also introduced a metal tube instead of a wooden one. However, Boehm flutes would still be manufactured mostly with wooden builds throughout the latter part of the 19th century until the early 20th century.
Numbers Of Tone Holes Per Flute Type
By default, all modern “Boehm flutes” can play 3 exact octaves. With the addition of a larger foot joint, we could extend the range on the lower end by one tone. Nevertheless, owing to the different tube sizes, piccolo flutes harbour a lower number of holes on their wall, yet without sacrificing their default range.
Let's delve into each flute type for further illustration.
Standard Student C Flute (With C Foot Joint)
The standard student flute is normally made with a lighter body, so notes are more easily rendered, though they will often sound much duller than those delivered with professional flutes.
Student flutes have 13 holes on the body joint, with two more holes on the foot joint. Most of them carry a C foot joint containing two additional tone holes for low C. Nevertheless, in theory, B foot joints can be adapted, though rarely by default.
Professional C Flute (With B Foot Joint)
The professional flute can carry from 16 to 17 holes. The difference between student C flutes and their professional counterparts is that the professional C flute has an additional C# trill key apart from the standard three trill keys found on the student models,
More modern B foot joints attached to professional flutes also have the gizmo key, responsible for closing the low B hole without closing low C or C#. This would facilitate a fourth octave C.
Gizmo keys, which are small extra paddles on top of low B, were introduced by Verne Q. Powell. They were meant to address the difficulty of achieving notes on the higher register following the introduction of larger foot joints.
Piccolos initially have only 13 keys, all contained across the body. The piccolo doesn't have a foot joint like the standard flute, so it doesn't carry those extra keys. However, covering the hole at the tail end can produce an additional pitch, which is why this part is often deemed the 14th tone hole.
Bass And Alto Flutes
Bass and alto flutes have largely the same number of keys as the C flute, though the foot joint configurations follow a different norm.
Bass flutes, just like student C flutes, come with C foot joints by default due to the fact that these meet less acoustic resistance than the larger B foot joints, especially considering the instrument's bulky size.
Standard mass-produced alto flutes also usually come with a C foot joint (absolute G pitch), with B foot joints being more unusual, though hand-made open-hole altos often come with those included.