Flutes for Classical Music

A Brief History

The conical flute came into being in France around the middle of the 17th century, replacing the older cylindrical renaissance flute. The new flute had one key (for Eb) and very small holes which permitted cross-fingerings to be employed for all the other notes. It was a very quiet instrument, capable of great musical sensitivity, and perfectly at home with the harpsichords, viols, recorders and other instruments of the baroque.

A variant on the 1-key flute was introduced by Quantz. It featured two keys on the foot one for Eb, the second for D#. This illustrates how seriously good intonation was taken.

Subtle changes occurred to the 1-key flute as we approach the classical period. As the harpsichord gave way to the fortepiano, holes became bigger, giving stronger tone. But this made cross-fingering a little harder. None the less, this form of the 1-key flute lasted until the middle of the 19th century.

During the 18th century, more keys were added and the length of the flute was extended, so it was possible by the end of that century to obtain flutes from the same makers with:

  • 1 key - Eb, fully chromatic using cross-fingerings

  • 4 keys - Bb, G#, short F and Eb, fully chromatic using keys

  • 5 keys - all the above plus c (particularly popular in France)

  • 6 keys - all the above plus C# and C on the extended foot (popular in England)

  • 7 keys - all the above plus c

  • 8 keys - all the above plus Long F

  • 9 or more keys - either additional low notes, trill keys or double touches
    on some notes to facilitate difficult passages (popular in Germany).

Pitch was not standardised in the whole period of the conical flute, and it was common to have interchangeable upper bodies (corps de rechange) to permit tuning to different standards. Some flutes had up to 7 corps. By the start of the 19th century, the tuning slide began to supplant the corps. This had good points and bad. Using the slide to alter the pitch of the instrument by more than a few Hz introduced significant tuning errors (see my article on 19th century flute tuning) for the effects of tuning by slide. On the other hand, the tuning slide much facilitated fine tuning, as it was easier to adjust than the earlier wrapped tenon joint, and did not introduce serious gaps into the bore when opened.

During the 19th century other significant changes took place, particularly in England and Germany. While the many-keyed flute at the start of the century could still cross-finger like the 1-key flute, this soon came to an end. Charles Nicholson introduced massive finger holes which gave the flute undreamed-of power and the hope of better intonation, but which also meant the keys were now the only way to achieve chromaticism.

In 1832, Boehm introduced his new system of keying, but still with the conical bore. This prompted Abel Siccama to bring out a new design in 1847, wherein two additional keys were added to the 8-key flute to permit the third and sixth holes to be moved down to their acoustically correct position and made much larger. A few years later, Boehm was back with the new cylindrical bore and further sophistication of keying.

Boehm's new instrument was not an instant hit. Robert Sydney Pratten retaliated by taking the Siccama design back to an 8-key but keeping many of the other improvements to bore that Siccama's flute had brought. The Pratten's Perfected and the Siccama continued to sell well into the 20th century. Finally, a number of makers brought out 8-key designs based on Boehm's new bore. The writing was on the wall however - the day of the 8-key flute was over, until Irish musicians gave them a new lease of life in their music.

Choosing a Flute Type

It's easy to see from the above that choosing a flute for classical music is not a simple matter. In the hectic 250 years from the mid 17th to the end of the 19th century, the flute went through a series of massive changes, and in different ways at different times in different countries. Ideally one buys a different flute for every period and place where one has interest!

If forced to make decisions, it is probably valid to squeeze the options down to:

  • a baroque 1 key

  • a classical 1-8 key, or

  • a romantic period 8-key

depending on your favourite period.

There are dozens of possible models to follow, from England, Germany and France in all the variations of keys above. Tell me about the music you want to play and we'll work out what sort of instrument would suit you best.

Classical One-key flute after Noe Freres, grenadilla, artificial ivory and sterling silver key.  A440 Hz, small elliptical embouchure, screw stopper, Minimum Disruption Tenon.

Rudall & Rose style 8-key 

Granadilla & Sterling Silver
New Improved Tuning Slide Mk III
Angled G#
Revised C Foot



A French 5-key flute after Noe Freres. Grenadilla, artificial ivory, sterling slide and keys

Question of Pitch

As mentioned above, pitch was not standardised in the period, but ambled the range 390 to 460 Hz. These days we have standardised on A440 for general purpose, and agreed on A390 and A415 for "Historically Informed Performance" of early music, and A430 for "HIP" classical and romantic music. Before ordering an instrument, you need to decide which pitch(es) you wish to play at. Don't forget that corps de rechange can be revived to provide more than one pitch (eg A430/440)

A Question of Tuning

As can be seen from 19th century flute tuning, tuning of extant originals is not always what we might expect of an ideal instrument. Depending on the level of authenticity or the level of convenience desired, you have to decide whether to keep the original tuning or opt for something easier.

Tuning Slides

The tuning slides introduced in the 19th century are a great benefit to fine tuning, but have caused most of the instruments built in the period (and some since) to crack, because the natural movement of the wood with change in humidity is restricted by the slide. I have developed a new slide which avoids that problem entirely, but with no change to appearance. See The New Improved Tuning Slide for detailed information.

Key Shapes

The traditional key shapes are not necessarily the best. See Flutes for Irish Music for discussion on various keys including those on the foot joint.


Grenadilla, ebony and boxwood are available. Other timbers on request.

Talk to me

Now that you have seen all the options, let me know your musical interests, and together we'll work out which flute is the best one for you. You'll find my contact details on my home page: 

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