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Title: Songs of America—Stars and Strips Forever, by John Phillip Sousa; USAF Heritage of America Band, Major Larry H. Lang, conductor. Label: Department of the Air Force. Format: CD. Catalogue#: E.F.100-0. Track: 21.

Contextual Associations

The piccolo is a side-blown/transverse edge aerophone (flute) originated in Europe and is today found distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is in essence a half-size version of the modern flute that retains some vestigial design features of earlier Western flutes. Played both by professionals and amateurs, males and females, its primary contexts of use are the symphony orchestra, in which it has been included since the turn of the 19th century, and military, marching, and concert band and wind ensembles. It is also used in the more recently established flute ensemble. While there are flute players who specialize on the piccolo, it is more typically thought of as a doubling instrument performed by flute players as an auxiliary instrument for restricted passages. It is not an important recital instrument; it has only a small solo repertoire that is seldom heard even at tertiary educational institutions where most flute players earn their performance degrees.


The piccolo pictured here is made in two interlocking units (a head joint made from nickel silver and a resin/plastic body joint) connected with a tenon-and-socket joint, has a nearly cylindrical bore in its head joint and a tapering conical bore in its body joint, and uses the Boehm-system (see below) of key work and fingering. The head joint has a hole (blowhole or embouchure hole) drilled into its side that is surrounded by a raised embouchure plate. The far left end of this joint is closed by a cap that, when turned, operates a screw-mounted internal stopper used for fine-tuning. The body joint has fifteen vent holes of varying sizes drilled into it that are located at acoustically optimal positions and that are covered or opened by an elaborate system of spring activated keys with pads, horizontal rod-axles, and levers.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, whether sitting or standing, holds the piccolo roughly horizontally to their right with the embouchure plate positioned on the chin just below the lower lip. The thumb and all four fingers of the left hand along with the four fingers of the right hand are used to operate the keys and pads located on the body joint; the right hand thumb touches the bottom side of the body joint and is used to support the instrument. By exhaling and shaping and directing an airstream with their embouchure (tensed lips) against the edge at the far side of the blowhole, the performer sets the air column of the flute into modes of vibration. By controlling the force of the airstream and changing the acoustical length of the tube with the fingerholes, the player produces different pitches. The piccolo is pitched an octave higher than the concert flute but, because it lacks a foot joint, its lowest sounding pitch is a D5 rather than C5. It has a range of a little under three octaves, from D5 - C8, and it is fully chromatic over this range. The piccolo overblows at the first five harmonic partial overtones (the octave, 12th, 15th, 17th, and 19th). Various registers of its compass have distinctively different tone qualities: G5 to G7 is considered its optimal range; below that its sound is weak, and above it shrill. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the piccolo.


Francis Galpin states that the piccolo was introduced by Johann Georg Tromlitz in 1791 (p. 173). At that time it would have been a tapering conical bore instrument made of wood with its six main fingerholes stopped directly with the fingertips and a few additional holes reached with the aid of key-operated pads. By the end of the 19th century, the elaborate Boehm key-and-pad system for the concert flute was being applied to piccolo design; however, many piccolo makers continued to make instruments from wood with a tapering conical bore rather than changing to a metal cylindrical body, as was the case with Boehm flutes. Today, all piccolos use the Boehm system of key work, but both wood/plastic and combination wood/plastic and metal instruments with a tapering conical bore, and all-metal with a cylindrical bore instruments are manufactured (the latter are favored for outdoor use such as in marching bands).

Bibliographic Citations

Brown, Howard Mayer. 2004. “Flute [cross flute, German flute, transverse flute].” NGDMI v.1: 769-788.

Campbell, Murry, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Galpin, Francis W. 1937. A Textbook of European Musical Instruments: Their Origin, History, and Character. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

Toff, Nancy. 1996. The Flute Book. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Nation: Germany

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.121.12 aerophone--side-blown flute: the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled edge in wall of instrument, directly blown against

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


12.3 in. length

Primary Materials

spring - flat and/or needle





Entry Author

Roger Vetter