Quick comparison of four flute types

(I don't mean to imply that there are only four types of flutes. Other pages on this site illustrate the wide variety of European and American flutes used in especially the 19th and early 20th centuries.)

Renaissance flute

Heinrich Hondius, 16C, from the Goldberg collection

This type of flute was in use from circa 1500 to 1650 and beyond.

Construction (tenor flute): One piece; wood. Low note d'. Thin walls, narrow cylindrical bore. Small embouchure, six small finger holes.

Range and tuning: Large range (d' to a'''). Tuning tends to meantone. Can play in most or all of the renaissance modes (including the musica ficta), but prefers modes with B flat. E flat is awkward in the first two octaves.

Tone: Somewhat vocal sound, flexible and agile in the high notes. Blends well.

Baroque flute

The instrument commonly called a "baroque flute" came into being only in the middle of the baroque period (which, in music, was roughly 1600 to 1750).

Construction: Three or four sections; wood or ivory. Low note d'. Conical bore tapered toward the far end; cylindrical head joint. Small to medium embouchure; six finger holes and one extra tone hole with a closed-standing key, which when opened produces D# / Eb.

Range and tuning: Designed for a lower tessitura than the renaissance flute. Tuning approximates so-called "1/6 comma meantone" with more than 12 notes to the octave (enharmonic notes like G flat and F sharp having different fingerings). Easiest in keys with one or two sharps, but was sometimes expected to play with as many as five sharps or four flats.

Tone: Responsive lower range with a round and resonant sound. High notes can be pure but colorful.

Viennese-style Romantic flute

Adolf Burose, b.1858.  
Photo from the Goldberg collection. By "romantic", we mean here roughly 1820 to 1900 or so.

Construction: Three sections; wood. Low note b, b flat, a, or g. Conical bore; metal lined cylindrical head joint (sometimes of ivory). Rectangular embouchure; six finger holes and from nine to 15 or more keys. Keys on the body are closed-standing and cover holes for notes outside D major, or are used for trills. Keys on the foot joint for notes below d' are open-standing.

Range and tuning: Tuning tends towards equal temperament, but numerous alternate fingerings allow "sensitive notes" and other intonation adjustments. Some keys are awkward. High notes b'''flat, b''', and c'''' are available, but sometimes quite difficult.

Tone: Colorful; focused. Can be liquid and sweet in the high range.

Cylindrical Boehm flute

Kathy Wilson

This instrument was invented in 1847. Modern versions differ from the earliest models in only a few, mostly minor, ways.

Construction: Three sections; metal or wood. Low note c' or b. Cylindrical bore; tapered head joint. 12 to 14 "scientifically placed" large holes and three smaller holes controlled by a mechanism of mostly open-standing keys.

Range and tuning: Relatively easy very high notes. Equally tempered scale; all keys usable.

Tone: Rich saxophone-like low range; ringing high notes.

* * *

The four types illustrated above represent huge and significant changes in the design of the flute. The biggest changes, I would say, are from the renaissance flute to the baroque flutes, and from the multi-keyed simple system instrument to the Boehm flute.

The big changes are, as a weak analogy, similar to the change from the candle to the electric light bulb. Both devices provide light, but in order to achieve certain goals, the designer of the light bulb threw out the fundamental design principles of the candle and started over. The light bulb did not replace the candle for general use immediately. The candle still has its uses today.

The Boehm flute should probably not be thought of as a direct descendent of the conical closed-key system instruments preceeding it chronologically. Boehm threw out the old ideas and replaced them. The net effect of the cylindrical Boehm flute was not an evolutionary change, but a revolutionary one. And the design of the baroque flute was a revolutionary change from the renaissance flute.

The change from the one-key flute to the multi-keyed simple system flute was more evolutionary. It took place over a longer period of time, and there were many intermediate stages, where conical flutes had few keys and they were regarded as supplemental rather than essential to the system. But there is a huge difference between the extremes. They are not the same system. The one-key flute relied on "forked fingerings" to produce semitones outside its basic scale, while the mature multi-keyed flutes required the use of the keys; the techniques are quite different.