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Different types and makes of flute

Close up of flute keys

A ring-key flute

The flute has evolved significantly over the past 200 years into the modern instrument we're familiar with today. Here's how...

AT ITS MOST BASIC, the flute is a piece of wood with a lengthways hole bored through it, into which further holes are inserted at various places to alter the pitch. At the end of the 18th century – the era of Haydn and Beethoven – keys began to be added to replace the fingers covering the holes (as on the recorder), which made more notes reached more easily.

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I have a Louis Lott, a French flute, which is lovely for solo playing, a very deep sound, very expressive, lots of different tone qualities you can create...

Anna Pyne

In 1832 a German instrument-maker called Theobald Boehm (1793/4–1881) made a model known as a ‘ring-key’ flute while a member of the orchestra of the Court of Mannheim. This was a prototype for the instrument he made in 1847, which is still the basis of all modern flutes. His improvements were anticipated by an English flute-player, Charles Nicholson (1795–1837), whose flutes had greatly impressed Boehm with their power and consistency of tone.

To achieve this sound Boehm made the bore of the instrument cylindrical, and because he had to enlarge the holes (previously covered by the player's fingers) beyond what fingers could cover, he developed a series of padded covers. By and large, this is how flutes are still made. Not everyone liked Boehm’s flutes at first. France and England quickly took to them, but Germany was resistant for quite a while. Even Richard Wagner declared that he did not like them, as Boehm had altered the sound of the flute for the worse – or so Wagner said.

Boehm’s modifications of the flute were copied in the design of other instruments in the 19th century – some of which caught on better than others.

Choosing the right instrument – with the right sound and made of the right metal for you – can be difficult and expensive. Professional flute-player Anna Pyne explains what she prefers, and what she plays.

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