bass flute

Contextual Associations

The bass flute is a side-blown/transverse edge aerophone (flute) originating in Europe that is today found sparingly distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. Though basically an enlarged version of the standard concert flute, it does possess, especially in its low register, a distinctive rich tone quality. Its primary usage is found in works for mixed flute ensemble. There is only a very small repertoire of solo works (unaccompanied or accompanied) for the instrument, and a few parts written for it (or precursors of it) in a very few operatic works. The bass flute is thought of as an auxiliary instrument.


The bass flute has a cylindrical bore, a metal body and an elaborate key-and-pad fingering system derived from the design efforts of the German scientist Theobald Boehm in the mid-nineteenth century. Made from nickel silver, it is built in four interlocking sections (head joint, U-shaped joint, body joint, and foot joint) connected with tenon-and-socket joints. The head joint has a hole (blowhole or embouchure hole) drilled into its side that is surrounded by a raised plate. One end of this joint is closed. The body joint has fifteen of the tube’s eighteen vent holes drilled into its wall, the other three are located on the foot joint. These holes are variously sized and located at acoustically optimal positions, but do not take into consideration the physiology of the human hands that operate them. An elaborate system of spring activated keys with pads, horizontal rod-axles, and levers compensates for this.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, whether sitting or standing, holds the bass flute 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 and foot joints of the instrument; 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 bass 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 fundamental pitch of this bass flute (with all vent holes covered) is C3, and by successively opening these holes from the bottom to the top produces a one-octave chromatic scale. The bass flute overblows at the first few harmonic partials (the octave, 12th, 15th, 17th, and 19th). It has an effective range of a little under three octaves from C3 - A5 and is fully chromatic.


Though bass-register flutes have been built since the Renaissance, the modern bass flute in C with its cylindrical bore, metal body, large vent holes located in acoustically optimal positions, and elaborate Boehm key-and-pad system to facilitate covering and uncovering those holes, came into existence only in the 1930s.

Bibliographic Citations

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

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


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

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


37.4 in. length

Primary Materials

spring - flat and/or needle





Entry Author

Roger Vetter