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What Is a Transverse Flute?

A type of woodwind, a transverse flute is held horizontally by the musician.
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  • Written By: Page Coleman
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2014
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The transverse flute, a long, slender musical instrument, is a member of the woodwind family. It is held horizontally, and the flute player produces sound by blowing across the mouth hole. Today’s sophisticated varieties of transverse flutes evolved from simple one piece instruments. They are used in orchestras and marching bands, and in compositions ranging from the Baroque to Modern eras. Several professional flute players have become famous recording artists.

Modern transverse flutes evolved from Chinese bamboo flutes. They were brought to Germany through the Byzantine Empire around the time of the Crusades. In Europe, the transverse flute became known as the German flute or flute allemande. Before the introduction of this side-blown flute, recorders were a common flute-like instrument in Western Europe.

Early versions of the transverse flute were constructed in one piece, usually from wood. They had open holes over which the musician placed his fingers to produce different notes. The holes were positioned to fit hands rather than to produce accurate notes. This limited the flute’s usefulness.

Around 1830, Theobald Boehm, a German goldsmith and flutist, devised an arrangement of keys and springs to control opening and closing of holes. This increased the flexibility of the instrument, allowing a wide range of semitones to be played. The Boehm flute required that the musician learn a new fingering system, and it was not immediately popular. Modern transverse flutes, however, are usually made with this fingering arrangement.

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Today these flutes are usually constructed in three pieces, called the headjoint, body, and footjoint. The flutes are often made out of silver and nickel, while some professional models are made from gold. Transverse flutes may also be constructed from wood, bone, or glass. Materials may effect the sound quality.

The concert flute is the most well-known variation of the transverse flute. Another popular member of the flute family is the piccolo. Other variations are the soprano, alto, and bass flutes.

Transverse flutes are versatile instruments. Composers in the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras have used transverse flutes in their arrangements. The Baroque era Italian composer Vivaldi is especially noted for featuring flutes. They are frequently used in orchestras and marching bands, and occasionally in jazz and rock groups.

Famous transverse flute players include Jean-Pierre Rampal and Ian Anderson. Jean-Pierre Rampal recorded Claude Bollings “Suite for Flute & Jazz Piano Trio, no. 2,” which combined classical and jazz music. It was published in 1982 and became immensely popular. Ian Anderson, a member of the rock band Jethro Tull, is noted for playing flute in many of the group’s songs.

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