The flute is one of the oldest types of instrument and primitive variations were used in some of the earliest civilizations. In medieval times the word flute referred equally to the forebears of the modern instrument and also to recorders and whistles (flageolets). It is a cylindrical instrument blown transversely i.e. the player blows across the hole rather than down it as in, for example, the recorder.
The first key was added in 1677 and the instrument was revolutionized in 1832 by Theobald Boehm with his ‘ring key’ system. In 1847 Boehm produced what was effectively the modern instrument with a model that had 15 holes and 23 keys and levers.
It has three sections: Headjoint (incorporating the embouchure hole); main body section and footjoint. Only the main body and footjoint have any mechanism. It is the only non-reed member of the woodwind family. Due to the small key movements required to change the pitch, it is an instrument capable of great virtuosity. It is a non-transposing instrument and reads from the treble clef.
It has a family that consists of the piccolo, concert (or C) flute, alto and bass although contra and sub contra bass instruments are also found. Alto and bass flutes are not commonly used orchestrally, due to their rather limited dynamic range, but regularly feature in recorded music for film and TV music where there ethereal tones are often used to create mood effects.
Student flutes are generally made of nickel with a coating of silverplate. Some student flutes have a curved headjoint to allow smaller players comfort in terms of reach and a more balanced playing position.
More advanced models often incorporate exotic metals such as silver or gold, but flute is also been made from materials such as glass and, more recently, carbon fibre. Wooden flutes, although highly regarded for their warm tonal characteristics, are not widely used any more as they sometimes lack the power and projection required in a large ensemble.