Renaissance flute

Also:       German flute      transverse flute      flûte      Flöte      flauto      Querpfeiffen      

Title: Bright Day Star: Music for the Yuletide Season--Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen, by Michael Praetorius; Chris Norman, Renaissance flute. Label: Dorian. Format: CD. Catalogue#: DOR-90198. Track: 12.

Contextual Associations

This transverse/side-blown flute aerophone is a replica modeled on surviving instruments from sixteenth century Europe. Though often referred to as the ‘German flute,’ the Renaissance flute was played throughout Western Europe and was perhaps most popular in France. Taking into account evidence from the period (iconographic sources, treatises, published music, surviving instruments, inventories, and written accounts of events), it would appear that the Renaissance flute was played in military, civic, royal, and domestic settings by, depending on the setting, professional and amateur, male and female musicians in a variety of ensemble combinations: for outdoor military and processional performance with drums; for court and domestic performance in either homogeneous consorts (it was made in three different sizes) or heterogeneous, “broken” consorts. The instrument fell into disuse by the end of the 17th century, only to be revived in the latter half of the 20th century as part of the ‘Early Music’ movement. The flute pictured here is part of a collection used to perform Renaissance music on replicas of period instruments.


This flute is made entirely of wood with both a cylindrical exterior and bore. A blowhole and six equal-sized and roughly equidistantly-positioned fingerholes are drilled in a line on one side of the single-piece body; there is no thumbhole on the opposite side. The bore is stopped with a plug less than an inch to the left (as seen in the image) of the blowhole.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, whether sitting or standing, holds the flute roughly horizontally to either their right or left with the fingerholes facing up and the blowhole positioned in front of their lips. The first three fingers of one hand operate the top three fingerholes, the same fingers on the other hand the bottom three; both thumbs are touching the bottom side and are 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 fundamental pitch of this flute (with all fingerholes covered) is D4, and by successively opening fingerholes from the bottom to the top produces a D Major diatonic scale. It has an effective range of about two octaves, from D4 - D6. Over this range the instrument is nearly chromatic, but only with cross-fingerings that make some passages awkward to play. Also, the higher octave is noticeably shriller in tone quality than the lower one.


Little is known with certainty about transverse flute design prior to about 1500 CE, but the replica instrument pictured here reflects the features of the few extant 16th century instruments. In addition to flutes pitched in D such as the one pictured here, a larger/longer/lower-pitched model tuned to G3 and a smaller/shorter/higher-pitched model tuned to A4 were in use during this century and well into the following one. Two design modifications were introduced to the model pictured here probably in the early 17th century: some flutes from this time were made in two sections, a head joint and the body, connected by a sliding tuning joint; and a spacing gap between the top three and bottom three fingerholes was added. By the end of the 17th century the Renaissance flute was being superseded by flutes displaying new design innovations, such as a tapering conical bore and a seventh fingerhole operated by a single key (see Baroque flute).

Bibliographic Citations

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

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 - tapering 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


24.6 in. length

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter

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