Types of Flutes
Modern flutes are actually made in several different sizes.
The one with which we are most familiar— soprano or concert flutes—are considered musically the most versatile and satisfactory, and it is therefore by far the most commonly used. Other sizes, however, are useful for special purposes.
Sizes of Flutes
From top to bottom:
Bass, alto, soprano with B foot, soprano, E-flat, piccolo
Photo courtesy W. T. Armstrong Co.
Alto flutes are wider and longer than the soprano and starts a half octave below it, on G. Its tone is very rich and mellow. Because of the larger volume of air, it requires more breath and is slower to respond. (This size of flute was previously referred to as bass, and in Europe it is still sometimes mistakenly called by this name.)
Bass flutes start one more half octave below the alto, on C. It is so long that the head joint has to be curved a full 180 degrees to allow the flutist to reach the mouth hole. Its tone is extremely deep, and even more breath is required than on the alto.
F-flat flutes are a slightly smaller version of the soprano. Its main use is for children whose hands are not yet large enough for a standard flute.
The piccolo is a small flute with a high, shrill tone. Most piccolo flutes are made in the key of C, playing one octave higher than the concert flute; another type, the D-flat piccolo—formerly popular but now becoming obsolete—plays one note higher. There are two major models of the piccolo: the metal cylindrical-bore model, which is easier to blow and has more stable intonation; and the wooden, conical-bore model, which is less shrill. Various combinations are also available.
Playing the piccolo requires a very tight holding of the lips, and a careful attention to intonation; you will find it difficult to switch between piccolo and flute unless you regularly devote time to each. When buying a student model, make sure it has been designed so that you can close all keys without hitting others.
The fingerings for all these flutes are basically the same as on the concert flute, but transposition is necessary when reading music.