Eight different sizes of the modern Boehm flute.
Who’s in the family on Flute Street?
piccolo / treble flute / flute / alto flute / bass flute
contr’alto flute / contrabass flute / double contrabass flute
We start with the most common, the standard concert flute, aka C flute, transverse flute, Boehm flute, or simply flute. The flute appears widely as a solo instrument and is included in many ensembles such as orchestras, concert bands, flute choirs, chamber music groupings and occasionally jazz and big bands.
The instrument is pitched in C and has a range of just over three octaves starting from the musical note C4 (corresponding to middle C on the piano). Many professional flutes have a longer B-foot joint, which can reach B3 (a semi-tone lower). The common practice use of the flute is B3 to C7.
The piccolo is half the size of the flute and has most the same fingerings as its larger sibling. In Italian the word means small. It may be small, but the sound is mighty; they have a penetrating sound that was historically used in military situations since it could be heard over the roar of battle.
It is characterized by its rich, mellow tone in the lower portion of its range. It is a transposing instrument in G (a perfect fourth below written C), and uses the same fingerings as the C flute. The bore of the alto flute is considerably larger in diameter and longer than a C flute. Its range is from G3 (the G below middle C) to G6 (4 ledger lines above the treble clef staff) plus an altissimo register stretching to D♭7.
Alto flute headjoints are built in ‘curved’ and ‘straight’ versions. The curved headjoint is frequently preferred by smaller players because it requires less of a stretch for the arms, and makes the instrument feel lighter by moving the center of gravity nearer to the player. However, the straight version is more commonly used for better overall intonation.
The embouchure for alto flute is similar to that for C flute, but in proportion to the size of the instrument. Hence the embouchure-hole sits lower on the lower lip, and the lip-aperture is wider.
It is in the key of C, pitched one octave below the concert flute. Despite its name, its playing range makes it the tenor member of the flute family. Because of the length of its tube (approximately 146 cm (57 in)), it is usually made with a J-shaped head joint, which brings the embouchure hole within reach of the player. It is usually only used in flute choirs, as it is easily drowned out by other instruments of comparable register, such as the clarinet.
The instrument’s sounding range is from C3, one octave below middle C, to C6, two octaves above middle C. Bass flute music sounds an octave lower than it is written, which is the typical concert flute range (C4 to C7). Notes written above A6 are not often used as they are difficult to produce and have inferior tone. Because manufacturers do not taper the flute body through the curve, intonation of all notes beginning with written D6 and higher tend to be sharp. The player can bend them in tune through blowing technique or use alternative fingerings.
The contra-alto flute is a large member of the flute family, pitched between the bass flute and the contrabass flute. It is a transposing instrument in G (a perfect fourth below the bass flute, one octave below the alto flute). The instrument’s body is held vertically with an adjustable floor peg. The instrument maker Eva Kingma calls her contra-alto flute a “contr’alto flute in G”. The contr’alto instrument in Flute Street was made by Eva Kingma.
The contrabass flute is one of the rarer members of the flute family. Typically seen in flute ensembles, it is sometimes also used in solo and chamber music situations. Its range is similar to that of the regular concert flute, except that it is pitched two octaves lower; the lowest performable note is two octaves below middle C (the lowest C on the cello). Many contrabass flutes in C are also equipped with a low B, (in the same manner as many modern standard sized flutes are.) Contrabass flutes are only available from select flute makers.
The ‘haunting’ low register (below G2) has similar qualities to the bassoon, and the low B1 (three octaves below middle C) can carry well with an experienced performer.
The contrabass flute requires much greater volume of air to produce sound than most other wind instruments, and composers who write for this instrument might consider more frequent breaks in phrasing than one would when writing for smaller flutes. The contribution that the addition of the contrabass flute has made to the composition of flute choirs is enormous, offering at last the grounding of a true and deep bass sound. A wider, slower air stream is needed to produce a solid tone.
double contrabass flute
The double contrabass flute 18 ft of tubing is the largest and lowest pitched metal flute in the world (the hyperbass flute has an even lower range, though it is made out of PVC pipes and wood). It is pitched in the key of C, three octaves below the concert flute (two octaves below the bass flute and one octave below the contrabass flute). Its lowest note is C1, one octave below the cello’s lowest C. This flute is relatively easy to play in comparison to most other large flutes. Despite the tendency of the larger sizes of flute to be softer than their higher pitched relatives, the double contrabass flute has a relatively powerful tone, although it usually benefits from amplification in ensembles. Their main use has been in large flute choirs and occasionally in film scores.
A double contrabass flute constructed of PVC, called a subcontrabass flute by its creator, the Dutch instrument maker Jelle Hogenhuis, has the tubing in a notably different arrangement from its metal counterpart.
Although the PVC instrument was designed to be an ensemble instrument it was soon discovered by various solo artists who saw the merits of the instrument for their musical purposes. The bore is wider than what one usually finds in a metal double contrabass flute. The instrument is comparatively light, weighing only 7 kg (15 lb) (compared to 15 kg (33 lb) for the brass version), and can be produced relatively quickly and inexpensively. In addition, the PVC appears to produce a broad tone.