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Q & A: How do flutes work?

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
What are the range of notes and frequencies of a flute, and how are these notes produced?
- Konrad (age 17)
Konrad -

One question at a time... There are actually a number of different types of flutes, and they all produce a different range of notes. For example, a traditional Native American flute would make different notes than a classical European one. (Even though they both work the same way.) The flutes that you're most used to are probably the European flutes, so that's what I'll address. Your basic European flute has a range from a low C (middle C on a piano) to a high E flat. The entire range is a little more than 3 octaves. There are also some European flutes with extra keys that allow the flautist (the flute player) to go as far down as a B or as far up as an F. However, these extreme notes are very difficult to play and there aren't very many pieces that require anything above a high C.

The frequency of a low B is 247 Hz, and the frequency of a high F is 2792 Hz. The smaller range, low C to high E flat goes from 262 Hz to 2488 Hz. (As the notes get higher, the differences in the frequency from one note to the next gets bigger.)

Now to your second question.... When the flautist plays the flute, they blow a thin stream of air flat across a hole. When the air reaches the other side of the hole, it hits the hole's sharp metal edge. The next part is the weird part. Instead of the air spliting into two streams, one above and one below the metal, it alternates. In other words, it goes back and forth between going above the metal and below the metal. The part that goes below the metal goes into the flute, causing the air in the flute to oscillate. The air oscillates along the length of the flute, and the locations of open holes changes its oscillation, changing the notes produced.


(published on 10/22/2007)

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