Wonderful World of Flutes – Melanie Jones

Flutes are classified into two groups: fipple flutes and transverse flutes. A fipple flute is one held perpendicular to the floor and with the mouthpiece or blow hole at the very end of the instrument. Transverse flutes are held parallel to the floor to one side of the player’s body. The mouthpiece or blow hole is near one end of the instrument.

Regardless of type, both kinds of flutes are tubes with a blow hole and tone holes. Sound is produced by blowing into the blow hole. Air, then, passes through the body and out of the tone holes.

The difference is in the way air reaches the tone holes. With a fipple flute, air is blown into the mouthpiece and is split by a piece of wood, bone, plastic or metal (the fipple) located inside the body, thus being forced out of the tone holes and producing sound. Transverse flutes have a breath hole which is not inserted into the mouth, but instead is blown across. The far edge of the breath hole cuts the air stream, forcing a portion of it into the body and out of the tone holes.


Fipple Flutes – (from left to right) Angel Soprano, Susato Tabor Pipe, Thin Weasel D tin whistle, Clark C Penny Whistle, Moeck ondo Tenor Recorder, Howard low D Tin whistle

Typically used for Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music, the recorder is best suited to chamber music and solo pieces. Its volume was not loud enough for the concert halls being built during the nineteenth century and hence it fell out of favor. Well-known composers of recorder music include Bach, Telemann and Purcell.

The recorder comes in six sizes: sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, bass and contrabass. The soprano, tenor and contrabass are in the key of C, while the sopranino, alto and bass are in the key of F.

When choosing a recorder, material will have a significant impact on pricing. Plastic is suitable for an inexpensive instrument that is easy to play and care for. It clogs with moisture more than a wooden instrument but is much more durable. The sound is brighter than wood. Wooden recorders require more care in construction as well as in maintenance than plastic recorders. The choice of the wood does influence the tone to a certain extent. A softer wood, such as pear wood, olivewood or cherry wood, is usually less expensive and produces a warmer tone. Boxwood, rosewood or Blackwood are also commonly used but produce a stronger tone and are more expensive.

Some tenor recorders have a single or double key to help close the lowest tone hole. All bass and contrabass recorders will have this feature as well. Tenor recorders also come in either short or long bore models. The smaller bore models are usually keyless, while the longer bore models need the single or double key in order to reach the lowest tone hole. The smaller bore are also lighter and less expensive. Bass recorders may have a bocal (blowpipe) that allows the instrument to be held higher so that the right hand does not have to stretch as far to reach the lower keys.
The tin whistle is most commonly used for Irish traditional music and English country-dances. Tin, also called pennywhistles, and low whistles are another type of fipple flute that are commonly made of plastic, brass, aluminum, nickel and various woods. Wood is more expensive but great whistles do not necessarily have to be expensive. They are easier to care for and more durable than wood.

Whistles may have a conical or cylindrical bore, and if well constructed, the shape of the bore has no impact on the sound of the instrument. The material and spacing of the tone holes have a bigger influence on the sound. Bore shape is simply a matter of personal preference.

Many whistles, such as the Sweetone, Oak and Generation whistles, have metal bodies and plastic mouthpieces. They can be tuned by breaking the glue seal and sliding the mouthpiece away from the body, thereby lowering the pitch. Those that are one-piece metal instruments, such as the Clarke Pennywhistle, cannot be tuned. Others may even be constructed with a tuning slide or a mouthpiece that slides easily along the upper portion of the body.

Each instrument requires a different amount of air and will respond differently with an individual. Plastic whistles tend to have a more mellow, almost recorder-like sound that may be preferred for indoor solo playing or for English country dance music. Metal whistles tend to be louder and are more suitable for sessions.

Whistles are diatonic instruments that play in the major key for which they are named, with the lowest note of the scale starting with all the tone holes covered. D whistles are the most common key chosen for Irish dance music. Cross fingerings allow for certain accidentals when other keys are desired, but there comes a point when it makes more sense to choose a whistle of a different key. As the keys get lower, the instrument gets bigger and the spacing between tone holes spreads further. The cutoff point between whistles and low whistles is generally accepted at the key of G or A. Low whistles tend to be made of all plastic or all metal.

When choosing any type of whistle, the most important factors are materials and the amount of care needed to maintain the instrument, the type of sound desired, the instrument’s response with different amounts of air and whether or not it plays in tune throughout the range.


Tabor pipes are also fipple flutes, but have only three holes and can therefore be played with one hand. It was used in medieval times with a tabor (type of drum) that was played with the musician’s other hand. They are popular today for Renaissance music and Morris Dancing (English fold dance). Often made of plastic, such as those by Susato, are available in various keys and can be fairly loud. They may require a lot of air and breath control to hit the overtones. Brass tabor pipes are also common, as produced by Generation, and tend to have more of a shrill tone in comparison to the plastic Susato tabor pipes.


Transverse Flutes – (from left to right) Sweetheart Maple Bb Fife, Casey Burns Blackwood Low D flute, Sweetheart Cherry C Fife, Casey Bruns Mopane Low d flute, Sweetheart Cloos Bb Fife

Irish flutes, whistles and fifes are part of the simple-system flute family. They are usually conical-bore, diatonic instruments and have six tone holes that, when covered, play the lowest note of the scale in the key to which they are tuned. This type of flute is what was played before Boehm introduced the fully chromatic silver flute associated today with classical music.

Simple-system flutes are usually made of wood, such as cocus, Blackwood, rosewood, ebony and boxwood, and may have up to thirteen keys. Six keys are necessary for a fully chromatic flute. Most Irish musicians play in the key of D so the D flute, like the D whistle, is the standard, although flutes are available in a broad range of keys.

When searching for a flute, it is important to decide whether or not a tuning slide is needed. As the flute warms up, it becomes sharper, and a tuning slide is important when playing with other instruments. Some tuning slides actually provide a lining for the inside of the entire head joint. This can give a clearer tone, but it also increases the risk of cracking a wooden head joint since the metal does not give room for the wood to shrink.

Another important factor is the size of the tone holes. Larger tone holes, such as those on flutes based on Pratten or Rudall and Rose models, give a loud, reedy sound. However, the stretch may be difficult for beginners or players with small hands.

The embouchure hole shape also influences the sound. A more square shape requires more air and a more controlled lip shape in order to obtain the proper air stream angle. Some flute makers are adding a cutaway feature to the far side of the embouchure hole, and this may make it easier for a beginner to get a clearer tone from the instrument.

Where material types are concerned, blackwood and ebony give a darker tone, while boxwood is mellower. Polymer and bamboo are becoming very popular for their lower cost. Bamboo flutes are not available with keys. Polymer is an excellent material for those who have allergies to woods and it is cheaper and more durable than wood.

Keyless flutes may be in two or three sections. The advantage of three sections is the ability to rotate the right hand to a position that may be more comfortable to the player. Keyed flutes need this even more to allow for a more comfortable reach of the keys.

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