Altos and basses and contras, oh my!

Posted by
Erin Nichols
 September 19, 2017

If you ever thought that flutes and piccolos were the extent of the flute family, think again! From high to low, the flute family is a very full one, though some are much more common than the others. Here is a rundown of a couple of the most popular auxiliary members of the flute family.
The alto flute is the next extension downward of the C flute after the flûte d’amour. The Flute d’amour is much less common and is much more similar to a concert flute in size, just pitched in a lower key, making it more mellow in the low register. The alto flute is also characterized by its distinct, mellow tone in the lower portion of its range. It is a transposing instrument in G and, like the piccolo and bass flute, uses the same fingerings as the C flute. The tube of the alto flute is considerably thicker and longer than a C flute and requires more breath from the player. This gives it a greater dynamic presence in the bottom octave and a half of its range. The alto was the favorite flute variety of Theobald Boehm, who perfected its design, and is pitched in the key of G (sounding a perfect fourth lower than written). This is the only member of the flute family pitched in a key other than C (besides the flute d’amour). Its range is from G3 (the G below middle C) to G6 (4 ledger lines above the treble clef staff) plus an altissimo register stretching to D♭7. The headjoint may be straight or curved, depending on the size and preference of the player. In the classical literature, the alto flute is particularly associated with the scores of Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, both of whom used the instrument’s distinctive tone color in a variety of scores.

The bass flute is the tenor member of the flute family. It is in the key of C, pitched one octave below the concert flute. Because of the length of its tube, it is usually made with a J-shaped head joint, which brings the embouchure hole within reach of the player. The instrument’s sounding range is from C3, one octave below middle C, to C6, two octaves above middle C. Bass flute music sounds an octave lower than it is written, which is the typical concert flute range (C4 to C7). It is most commonly used in flute choirs, as it is easily drowned out by other instruments of comparable register, although some composers have written pieces that include bass flute, such as Claude Bolling’s suite for Flute and Jazz Trio, John Mackey’s Frozen Cathedral (a current favorite of high school programs), and Gary Schocker.

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