alto flute

Also:       flute in G      flûte alto      flûte en sol      Altflöte      flauto contralto      flauto en sol      flauto bajo      

Title: Toru Takemitsu: Works for Flute and Guitar—Toward the Sea; Mikael Helasvuo, alto flute, Jukka Savijokl, guitar. Label: Ondine. Format: CD. Catalogue#: ODE839-2. Track: 16.

Contextual Associations

The alto flute is a side-blown/transverse edge aerophone (flute) originating in Europe that is today found 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 contexts of use and repertoire of pieces are quite limited: the symphony orchestra repertoire includes only a small number of works calling for the alto flute, and these have been composed since 1890; as a solo recital instrument there exists a small but growing repertoire of solo works (unaccompanied and accompanied) for the instrument; and it is required for a number of recently composed works for mixed flute ensemble. The alto flute is thought of as an auxiliary instrument performed by symphonic flute players for restricted passages or by flute recitalists as a source of contrast in their programming.


The alto 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. It is built in three interlocking sections--head joint (this instrument has two interchangeable head joints, a U-shaped one seen in the first gallery photo, and a straight one seen in the second gallery photo), 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 by a cap that, when turned, operates a screw-mounted internal stopper used for fine-tuning. 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 alto 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 alto flute into modes of vibration. By controlling the force of the airstream and changing the acoustical length of the tube with the key work, the player produces different pitches. The fundamental pitch of this alto flute (with all vent holes covered) is G3 (a fourth lower than the modern concert flute), and by successively opening the vent holes from the bottom to the top produces a one-octave chromatic scale. The alto flute overblows at the first five harmonic partials (the octave, 12th, 15th, 17th, and 19th). It has an effective range of three octaves from G3 - G6 and is fully chromatic. During the latter half of the twentieth century, some composers and performers experimented with alternate playing techniques that allowed for the production of microtonal intervals and multiphonics; these new sounds have, however, remained peripheral and exceptional to the more standard tone production on the instrument.


The modern alto flute in G with its large cylindrical bore, metal body, large vent holes located in acoustically optimal positions, and elaborate key-and-pad system to facilitate covering and uncovering those holes, came into existence around 1855. This design was the work of the German flautist and scientist Theobald Boehm (1794-1881), who drew upon numerous innovations and experiments by other flute makers of the prior fifty-or-so years as well as his own studies of acoustics to produce a design that has endured to the present day with only minor modifications.

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.

Powell, Ardel. 2002. The Flute. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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


Instrument Information


Continent: 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


26.6 in. length with U-shaped head joint 33.9 in. length with straight head joint

Primary Materials

spring - flat and/or needle





Entry Author

Roger Vetter