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The flute is classified as an edge-blown aerophone. Concert flutes are pitched in the key of C with a range of three octaves starting from Middle C making it one of the highest common orchestral instruments. Alto and bass flutes produce much lower tones but the piccolo is higher than the flute by an octave.
While the flute has been predominant in many cultures worldwide, it was less popular in the 12th and 13th century Medieval courts. There, the recorder was the primary woodwind until transverse flutes were brought over from Asia. Once they were adopted by the Europeans, they became known as German flutes and were used extensively in court music. The flute regained popularity around 1470 when the Swiss Army adopted it for signaling. Later in the 16th century, the flute was often the tenor voice in court and theater music and then in chamber ensembles. The Baroque era brought composers for the flute such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frideric Handel and with that the flute was featured in scores of operas and ballets. Though the Romantic Era saw a shift from woodwinds to brass and strings, the innovations created by Theobald Boehm in the mid 19th century set the precedent for most Western concert flutes.
Theobald Boehm was the German son of a goldsmith who made his own flute at a young age. His skill as a musician led him to become the First Flautist in the Royal Bavarian Orchestra. Boehm studied Acoustics at the University of Munich and then began to experiment with constructing flutes of different metals and woods and altering the position of the holes. He patented his first fingering system in 1847 and also published, “On the Construction of Flutes,” in the same year. His new flute was displayed at the London Exhibition in 1851. His flute and finger system did not take off immediately but it is now the basis for most other modifications and developments to Western concert flutes.
Flute music was rarely used in early jazz but has gradually found its place in Big Band music. Drummer and bandleader Chick Webb was among the first to incorporate the flute in the late 1930s. Since then, the flute has been integrated into Big Bands like the Count Basie Orchestra and the Tad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra to name a few. Flutes have also found their place in avante garde jazz and other musical movements. Jethro Tull is one of the only the well known rock groups to regularly incorporate flute music but flutes have managed to sneak their way into several songs by the Moody Blues, Men at Work, and The Beatles.
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