Types Of Flute Explained (Listening Examples Inside)

types of flute

When people think of the flute, they mostly imagine the same type, the soprano flute or C flute. 

But then, when they see a marching band or advanced ensemble, they may be shocked to see other types of different sizes. 

The flute family is interesting with all its different types; I brought all the info together for you to look at in one spot. 

There are 7 members of the modern flute family: piccolo, concert flute, alto, bass, contralto, contrabass, and subcontrabass. Of these, the piccolo, concert, alto, and bass make up the core 4. There are also specialty flutes, including recorders, Irish flutes, Bansuri, Dizi, Native American, and pan flutes. 

Read ahead if you want a little more detail about all these types of woodwind instruments. 

Direct Comparison Of The Modern Types Of Flutes

This table involves the 7 members of the modern family.

Type Of FluteLength (Inches or Feet)RangesAverage Cost**
Piccolo13 inD5-C8$1,000
Concert/Soprano/C26 inC4-C7$750
Alto34 inG3-G6$3,000
Bass57 inC3-C6$5,000
Contralto70 inG2-G5$7,500
Contrabass9 ftC2-C5$10,000
Subcontrabass15 ftC1-C4*Varies wildly; >$15,000

*The subcontrabass has a variety of ranges depending on the design. This is the expected range. 

**Cost is based on the intermediate level of flute where applicable. There aren’t intermediate-level bass and lower flutes. 

The Modern Flute Family

The modern family has been established since the early 1900s and is the most used today. If you’re a flute player, you probably play one of these (or all of them!). 

The first four we’ll talk about are the main members of a flute choir. 

All members of this family are transverse flutes, which means they’re held sideways instead of straight down or end-blown flute.

For more info on the lengths, check out our guide to how long a flute is

Concert Flute/ Soprano Flute

If you play music with a flute, you play this instrument. It’s known by several names, including: 

  • C flute
  • Concert flute
  • Western concert flute
  • Soprano flute
  • Standard flute

If someone says flute, they’re probably talking about this type. 

When a composer writes for it, this wind instrument often gets soaring melodies and flourishes as it soars higher than the rest of the band or orchestra. 

The body is made out of various metals (they all are nowadays), usually silver, Nickle-plating, gold, and, rarely, a hardwood such as grenadilla. 

The tone holes are covered with the keys, which change the sound when pressed with different fingerings. 

There are three main parts: the head joint, the middle joint (or body), and the foot joint. 

As with all of the modern family, you aim your air at the back lip plate of the embouchure hole. 

When the air hits the plate and splits, there is a vibration of air which causes the sound. 

Have a listen here to hear a pro. 

Piccolo

The piccolo is the second most common flute. While it was around in the 19th century, with the rise of marching bands in the early 20th century this tiny woodwind instrument rose in popularity. 

Most high schools will use this instrument with their best players, and collegiate-level marching bands use it exclusively. 

Most orchestras and bands at the highest level will often use one or two for certain pieces and at certain times. It’s not common in smaller chamber music, except for a flute ensemble. 

It’s not uncommon for a flute player to switch between the two during the middle of a piece. 

Have a listen to this famous piccolo feature. 

Alto Flute

Less common in most music groups is the alto. It still exists somewhat in the orchestra and high-level wind ensembles, but it’s mostly used in the flute-specific groups. 

A flutist plays and holds this one similar to the previous two.

Have a listen here: 

Bass Flute

The largest member of the flute family has a deep and airy tone quality and a much lower range. 

In traditional music, it’s not used very often, but it provides the bass voice in flute groups. 

You still hold it sideways to play this one, but there is always a curve to make it easier to hold. 

Have a listen here: 

Less Common Types

These three flutes are still members of the modern family, but they are only used in specialty music. 

Contralto Flute

This is an octave lower than the alto flute. This is a rare spot in the types of flute. 

The contrabass is much more common. 

Have a listen: 

Contrabass Flute

While more common, this is still unusual. The contrabass is another octave below the bass flute. 

Have a listen: 

Subcontrabass Flute

The subcontrabass or double contrabass flute is another octave still lower than the contrabass. 

It’s a specialty instrument and is quite expensive. 

Have a listen: 

Other Types Of Flutes Around The World

While the modern flute design gets a lot of love, there are other types out there as well. Here is a quick snapshot of some of the most common of these other ones. 

Recorders

The recorder (check out our whole recorder section at the menu above) is often called the plastic flute or the wooden flute. 

Actually, this was the precursor to the modern, transverse flute. It was only because the recorder was too soft for the growing groups in the 17th and 18th centuries that adjustments were made. 

The flow of air is straight down this type and is widely considered to be a lesser form. But in the hands of a good player and a good instrument, it can have a great tone. 

Irish Flute

Combining the modern flute and the recorder is the Irish flute. It’s essentially a transverse wooden flute with a simpler, more pure tone. 

It doesn’t use keys to cover the tone holes; this lets flute players use more sliding and half-hole techniques to get the distinctive Irish/Celtic sound. 

Bansuri

This is a bamboo flute hailing from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other nearby countries. 

Dizi Bamboo Flute

This is the Chinese version of the bamboo flute. It’s transverse and typically has a lighter sound. 

It’s featured in many traditional Chinese music and operas. 

Native American Flute

An end-blown flute usually made of wood, the keyless Native American flute is known for its haunting and beautifully airy tone. Its pitch-bending skills are insane and unique. 

Pan Flute

The pan flute is unique in that it features a different tube for each of the notes it plays. It’s unclear exactly where this instrument came from, but it’s established as a world music flute in every culture. 

FAQ

What are the two types of flutes? – The two types are transverse and end-blown flutes. 

In short, you’re looking for an instrument where the vibration of the air comes from splitting the air. This causes the vibration which makes the sound. 

Everything else, from materials to design, is secondary. 

On most transverse flutes, you blow across the lip plate to split the air. On end-blown flutes, there is a small wedge inside the mouthpiece that splits the air. 

What are the 4 members of the main flute family? – The four most common are the piccolo, concert, alto, and bass flutes. 

What is the most common type of flute? – The most common type of flute is the concert flute (see above for all of its different names). 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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