We Know: All About Buying a Flute

What is a flute?
A flute is a musical instrument in which sounds are made by blowing over open holes, just like when you blow over the top of a bottle.

What are the different types of flutes?
As true instruments, there are several classes of flute. The recorder is one of the most basic types, and requires the player to blow into the end. It's classed with the tin whistle, whistle, and ocarina, which are all fipple flutes.

The most common concert flute is the transverse, or side blown flute, like the western concert flute, piccolo, fife, or bansuri. In this type of flute, the player blows over a hole in the mouthpiece from the side, and the holes covered to the side determine the tone played.

There are several other types of flute, like the pan pipes, but these are not often used.

Besides where the player blows, the largest difference between types of flutes is whether the end is closed or open. Pan pipes and the different whistles are closed; concert flutes and recorders are open ended and have more harmonics.

What should I know when I buy a used flute?
For a beginner, a used flute can be a very good choice; it allows the young musician to try out playing the flute without committing to spending large sums of money. New student flutes can go for $500 and up, and professional flutes generally cost over a thousand dollars. Used student flutes can be a real bargain.

Look for flutes with high shine and few dents, particularly on the mouthpiece. Put the flute together once before deciding, and inspect the keys and their mountings carefully to make sure there are no loose wires or places where the padding beneath the keys is coming apart. Also, smell the padding; a flute that has been improperly cared for may have a mild mold or mildew problem that you can smell.

For professional flutes, used flutes are fine if the padding has been replaced and all the wires checked by a technician.

What materials are flutes made from?
Flutes are typically made of metal, wood, or bamboo. Recorders played by elementary school children are often made of plastic, but the tone on them is terrible. The best tones come from flutes made of silver or gold because they vibrate well, creating more resonance.

Wood has what is called a "dead" tone because it does not resonate well, and it is much harder to take care of. Student flutes are often made of nickel-silver alloy or silver-plated brass (the alloy has a better sound but is more expensive) and this is fine for a beginner.

Professional flutes also may have an extra key at the end to reach the B below middle C. Open-hole flutes, with holes through many of the fingering keys, are preferred by concert flautists because of the louder and clearer sound in low ranges and for special advanced tones. If a younger flautist is using an open-hole flute, he or she can get plugs to put in the holes until they master the exact finger placement.

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