Though quality of construction is generally related to brand name and to position in the flute “hierarchy,” the sound and playing properties of a flute don’t necessarily follow the hierarchical pattern.
These properties are determined mainly at the mouth hole, and the dimensions of this part of the flute are so critical that no two flutes ever sound or play exactly alike. So, while it’s a good idea to buy according to name and hierarchy, you should also choose on the basis of the individual flute.
I should state here that a beginner does not need a top-quality flute. The respect due a superior instrument demands that it be reserved for someone with a developed skill and a deep commitment. Generally, you are ready for a finer flute when you find it makes a difference in your playing.
Plateau Model, French Model
Two models of the modern flute are manufactured today: the plateau model and the French model. (In Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe, the French model is not generally available; in France, it is practically the only one used.) The main difference between the two is that the French, or open-hole, model has holes in the centers of five of the keys.
There are several advantages to this: the holes are said to give a very slightly clearer, louder sound, because the air vibrations are less muffled; some of the third octave notes have slightly better tuning; and on some notes, extra effects can be achieved by half-holing—covering only half the hole of a depressed key, in order to bend the note sharp. These effects are especially useful in some styles of jazz or in imitating various kinds of foreign music.
On the open-hole flute, when you press down one of the open keys, you must also close off the center hole with your finger so that no air can escape. This requires more strictness in the holding position, which you might consider either an advantage or a disadvantage.
Another difference between the two models is that the French model usually has a G key in line with the rest of the keys, while the G key on the plateau model is “offset” slightly. (Compare the illustration above with the Parts Chart at the beginning of this article). Though the in-line G has the advantage of “forcing” the left hand into a proper, vertical position, it is actually a somewhat clumsy arrangement; the offset G fits the hand much better.
The French model flute is slightly more expensive, both in initial purchase price and in maintenance costs.
Other Options and Variations
B foot joint. This style, available in most countries, has an extra key on the foot joint, enabling the flutist to play one note lower in the first octave.
Thin-wall construction (metal flute). The thinner walls give a higher, thinner sound that is more responsive but somewhat harder to control.
Open G-sharp key. This key arrangement is commonly found in Eastern Europe.
The lever played by the left little finger closes its hole when pressed, rather than opening the hole, as on most current-day flutes. This is the form of the mechanism that originally appeared on the modern flute, and a good case can be made for its superiority.
Find out more for your new or used flute here.