When people talk about flutes, they usually mean just one specific type (the concert “C” flute). However, as of this writing, there are four main flute types on the market, classified according to their size, key, and pitch range.
But, what are the different types of flutes? The main flute types are the bass flute, the alto flute, the ordinary C flute, and the piccolo. The C flute (also known as the Western concert flute) is the most popular among the four. Other rarer flute types include the Eb soprano, contrabass, and subcontrabass flutes.
In this article, we'll uncover these flute types, their physical characteristics, keys, pitch range, and other data about them. However, before we move forward, I should clarify some concepts.
What Exactly Is A Flute?
As stated earlier, there are currently four main flute types. However, the types just mentioned are members of the same flute family.
Nevertheless, the term “flute” has both a broader and stricter meaning. In the broader sense, many woodwind instruments could be classified as flutes. In other languages, they're actually specifically designated with that term.
In Italian, for example, the recorder is named flauto dolce, meaning “sweet flute”. Until the 18th century, it was simply called flauto, while the flute we're currently analyzing was called the “flauto traverso” (transversal flute) to differentiate it from what we know today as the recorder. In Spanish, the recorder is also called flauta dulce.
Another ancient flute is the pan flute (or panpipe), consisting of a row of pipes of varying lengths. This one is used prominently in folk ensembles worldwide, from South America to Romania.
However, when the word “flute” is used in English musical terminology, it is in reference to the transversal flute. These flutes utilize the Boehm keywork system, consisting of a series of pads and keys linked together through rods.
An Overview Of The Different Flute Types
With that, we can turn our attention to the flute types noted at the beginning of this article. Again, I will be only referencing transversal flutes that sport the Boehm system. The other flute variants are beyond the scope of this analysis and may be assessed separately.
Let's consider the main criteria for differentiating the different types of flute: size, pitch range, and key, albeit some distinctions go beyond these three parameters. Minor differences may relate to their common build material or their shape, which may, in turn, affect their tonal profile.
All these types of flutes carry the same three-octave range, though they may start and end on a different pitch. For this reason, some flutes are transposing instruments. However, the majority are made in C. Examples of transposing flutes include the alto and the Eb soprano flute and some variants of the piccolo and bass flutes.
Transposing instruments, for those unaware, are instruments that play the notes written on a score at a different pitch than what's conventionally called “concert pitch” (as in, the default notes we hear on the piano). Thus, written C does not always sound like the real concert C note (as would be played on the piano, to keep with our example).
Transposition was meant to facilitate playing without instrumentalists having to learn different fingering patterns whenever they needed to switch between different horn sizes. The burden was on the arranger/composer having to learn the differences in pitch to account for the steeper learning curve associated with learning the instruments themselves.
Returning to the main subject, we have our four main flute types, though historically, there have been many more. I have excluded rarer types like the Eb soprano (which at one point was mass manufactured), the contrabass, and the subcontrabass flutes from the list due to their lack of availability.
What Are The Different Types Of Flutes?
Let's now uncover the four main types of flute in more detail. Let's start with the C flute and piccolo first since they're the most popular out of the four:
1. Concert (C) Flute
The C flute is the most prominent flute out of the four types of flutes recalled here. The reason for its popularity is three-fold.
The first and most obvious reason is that the C flute plays at concert pitch. This means that arrangers and composers don't need to figure out how to transpose it so that it plays in tandem with other “concert pitch” instruments. In addition, it's more suitable for practicing alongside other instruments using the same score.
But being pitched at C is not enough (after all, two other flutes on the “main flute type” list are also at concert pitch). The other factor is that it is one of the easiest transversal flutes to play, with a reputation of being friendly to beginners. Piccolos would require more effort in order to sustain notes, while flutes below alto are more challenging when it comes to fingering and air demand.
The third reason has to do with historical preference. Today, the C flute is known as the “standard flute” because it was conventionally used for both solos and accompaniment. The versatility of a concert flute is rarely matched by the other members of the flute family nowadays.
The concert flute gained particular notoriety in the middle to late part of the 20th century outside the typical academic setting. The first mainstream jazz flautist was Frank Wess, considered to be among the best of his time. Other jazz flautists of particular fame who made extensive use of the concert flute include Hubert Laws, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (famous for introducing the habit of humming/singing into the flute), Joe Farrell, Herbie Mann, and Charles Lloyd.
The concert flute has also been widely used in popular and rock music. One of the most famous examples of rock flautists who use the C flute is Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull. Other bands – like The Moody Blues, Genesis, King Crimson, Traffic, or Camel – consistently inserted flute lines into their themes.
The concert flute plays in the key of C, and its pitch range goes from C4 to C7.
2. Piccolo Flute
The piccolo is the smallest main flute in the flute family. It measures half the length of the ordinary C flute and produces notes one octave higher with the same fingerings.
The tone of the piccolo is quite strident, so flautists may often need to wear earplugs when playing this flute.
Related article: Top 11 Best Earplug Brands For Live Music & Jams/Rehearsals
In an attempt to reduce the piccolo's sharpness, manufacturers would build them with a tapered design, as opposed to the cylindrical chassis found in other flute types. This would ensure that the notes are delivered with a rounder tone while retaining their pitch.
Another difference between the piccolo and other types of flutes is the build material. Piccolos are mostly made of wood, whereas the C flute and the rest of the members of the flute family are largely made of metal. Wooden flutes are frequently described as being sweeter-sounding than metal flutes.
The piccolo is highly popular in Western music, especially Western folk and academic music. Several sonatas and pieces were composed with the piccolo as the lead instrument, such as those composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen or Miguel del Aguila. They're also quite prevalent in marching bands, owing especially to their loudness.
Their usage in other musical genres is more sparse, though they can be occasionally found in more popular forms of music. Some of the artists mentioned above occasionally make use of the piccolo as well as the concert flute.
The piccolo is made in the keys of C and Db, with a pitch range of D5-C8. Normally, piccolos are devoid of foot joints, though the C foot would extend the lower range to C5.
3. Bass Flute
The bass flute is the common flute in the family, aside from its larger, rarer counterparts. The reason for its lack of popularity resides in its hefty build and its difficulty, albeit both factors go hand in hand.
Most of these flutes would have a U-shape head joint adapted for ergonomic reasons. The idea behind this design is to enable players to have the embouchure closer to the tone holes for increased control.
Other designs would bend the head joint twice, with the tone holes positioned vertically, in the same manner as saxophones. The embouchure in these builds would still retain the typical features of regular flutes.
Related article: How Many Holes Does A Flute Have? (Different Flute Types)
Not many pieces have been written for bass flutes, though efforts have been made in recent times to incorporate bass flutes in academic pieces. Some modern composers – such as Bill Douglas or Katherine Hoover – have inserted bass flutes into their repertoires,
The bass flute is made in the key of C and has a pitch range from C3 to C6, one octave below the standard concert flute.
4. Alto Flute
The alto flute has a lower pitch range than the standard flute, with a rounder, more soothing sound. Its lower notes are peculiarly powerful. However, it has a steeper learning curve than the C flute because of the lung capacity it demands.
The other obstacle for beginners is the spacing between keys being much wider here than on the concert flute. To circumvent this added challenge, manufacturers often make this flute with a U-shaped head joint, just as with the bass flute described above.
Lots of academic themes were made with the alto flute in mind. Notable composers who wrote for the alto flute include Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky. Alto flautists have also emerged in the jazz scene as of late, with Christine Potter, Carla Rees, and Ali Ryerson coming to memory.
The alto flute is made in the key of G and has a pitch range that extends from G3 to G6. For the record, this is one of the few transposing flutes still readily available.