Alto flute

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Alto flute
Classification Woodwind (Aerophone)
Playing range
Related instruments

The alto flute is an instrument in the Western concert flute family, pitched below the standard C flute and the uncommon flûte d'amour. It is the third most common member of its family after the standard C flute and the piccolo. It is characterized by its rich, mellow tone in the lower portion of its range. The bore of the alto flute is considerably larger in diameter and longer than the C flute[1] and requires a larger column of air (volume of air) from the player, though it also requires a slower airspeed. This gives it a greater dynamic presence in the bottom octave and a half of its range. 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. It uses the same fingerings as the C flute and piccolo, but is a transposing instrument in G (sounding a perfect fourth lower than written).

British music that uses this instrument often refers to it as a bass flute, which can be confusing since there is a distinct instrument known by that name. This naming confusion originated in the fact that the modern flute in C is pitched in the same range as the Renaissance tenor flute; therefore, a lower pitched instrument would be called a bass.


While there is no exact date that the alto flute was created, large flutes have existed for several hundred years.[1] Some problems with early alto flute design included the long length of the tube, troublesome cross fingerings, inconsistent intonation, finger holes that were too wide across, and how far one’s arm had to be stretched in order to reach the finger holes, particularly in the left hand.[2] The greatest innovations to the alto flute were developed by Theobald Boehm in the 1850’s when he made the alto flute in G, and it was said to be his favorite flute. There is some research that shows this happened in the mid 1850’s, around 1854-55, when he was 60 years old.[3] The creation of this alto flute was to rid other lower pitch flutes of their current problems. The new flute design by Boehm had rational key systems and levers that were created in order to shorten the length that fingers needed to stretch. New changes were also made in modification to the bore size of the flute in order to support the low register of G. Along with the bore size, the placement and sizes of the keys were changed to compliment the new, larger bore.[2]

The first widely produced alto flute was created by Rudall Carte & Co. in London, 1891. They took many of Bohem’s ideas and adjustments to create their alto flute. This alto flute was the lowest flute in the family just under “Bass Flute G”.[2]

Design and Construction[edit]

Like other Western flutes, the alto flute is constructed of three main parts: the head-joint, the body joint, and the foot joint. Those pieces include an embouchure hole, tone holes, keys, and the mechanism that operates the keys. The head-joint may be straight or curved; curved head-joints are often made in two parts. The straight head-joint is easier to play in tune in the high register due to its true conical bore shape, which is not possible with a curved head-joint.[4] However, the curved head-joint could be a better option for those flutists who have smaller arms and/or smaller hands; it is frequently preferred by smaller players because it requires less of a stretch for the arms, and makes the instrument feel lighter by moving the center of gravity nearer to the player.[5] The head joint is slightly tapered (conical bore) to accomplish precise tonal quality and it includes an embouchure hole. The body and foot joint of the alto flute are composed of either closed hole or open hole keys. Most alto flutes are made with closed hole keys; the Kingma system alto flutes are available with open holes.[1] Open holed alto flutes have more possibilities for extended techniques.[6]


The alto flute along with the other low flutes are constructed at a longer length than the concert flute; the larger the flute, the lower its pitch.[7] The alto flute is about 1 inch in diameter and 34 inches in length.[8] This compared to the concert flute makes it ¼ of an inch wider in diameter and almost 8 inches longer in length[9] (these measurements may vary depending on the type of head-joint---curved or straight---and whether or not a person is measuring the overall length of the flute or the sounding length of the flute, which is the length measured from the middle of the embouchure hole to the end of the flute).[10] The tone holes on the alto flute are slightly smaller than those of the modern concert flute, relative to its size. According to page 26 of The extended alto flute: The history and development of the alto flute, with a study of modern alto flute design and its effect on extended techniques in alto flute repertoire and pedagogical materials, a dissertation by graduate student John Edward Davis, “the averaged and converted alto flutes show that their tone holes are relatively smaller compared to the c-flute”.[9] The arrangement of the holes can differ depending on the maker of the flute.

Alto flute with curved head.
Alto flute with straight head.

The embouchure-hole for alto flute is similar to that for C flute, but in proportion to the size of the instrument. Hence the embouchure-hole sits lower on the lower lip, and the lip-aperture is wider.


Music written for alto flute includes but is not limited to music for alto flute alone, for alto flute and piano, for alto flute and mixed ensembles of many different instruments, and flute choir music. It also appears in orchestral music and film soundtracks.

The following lists are not intended to be complete, but rather to present a representative sampling of the most commonly played and well-known works in the genre. The lists also do not generally include works originally written for other instruments and subsequently transcribed, adapted, or arranged for alto flute, unless such piece is very common in the repertory, in which case it is listed with its original instrumentation noted.

Alto flute alone[edit]

  • Bruno Bartolozzi: Cantilena
  • Garth Baxter: Variations on the Willow Tree
  • Jonathan Bayley: Music for Pan (1982)
  • Michael Csany-Wills: Trystyng
  • Charles Delaney: Variations on the 'Seeds of Love' (1989)
  • Jon Gibson: Untitled (1974)
  • Alexander Goehr: Ariel Sing (2003)
  • Philippe Hersant: Cinq Miniatures (1995)
  • Daniel Kessner: A Serene Music (2012)
  • Coreen Morsink: Andromache (2010)
  • Patrick Nunn: Maqamat (2002)
  • Michael Oliva: Les Heures Bleues (2013)
  • Edwin Roxburgh: The Curlew (1994)
  • Kaija Saariaho: Couleurs du vent (1998)
  • Alexander Shchetynsky: Five Etudes (2011)
  • Harvey Sollberger: Hara
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen:
    • Susani's Echo, 3. ex Nr. 58+12 (1985)
    • Xi, 3. ex Nr. 55 (1986)
  • David Bennett Thomas: Carla (2012)
  • Guillem Ponsí: Alnilam (2020)

Alto flute and piano[edit]

  • Arnold Cooke: Sonatina for Alto Flute and Piano (1985)
  • Tom Febonio: Sonata for Alto Flute and Piano
  • Daniel Kessner: Simple Motion (1993)
  • Melvin Lauf: Passing Thoughts
  • Phyllis Louke: As The Clouds Parted
  • Andrew McBirnie: The Moon by Night (2003)
  • Mike Mower: Sonnets
  • Laura Pettigrew: Offertoire
  • Gary Schocker: Sonata for a Lost Planet

Alto flute and guitar[edit]

  • Toru Takemitsu: Toward the Sea (1981)
    • also scored for alto flute and marimba, alto flute and harp, or alto flute and harp and string orchestra

Alto flute, piano and electronics[edit]

Orchestral excerpts[edit]

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. It is featured in Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Franco Alfano's opera Cyrano de Bergerac, Sergei Prokofiev's Scythian Suite and the original version of Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra. Shostakovich used it in his operas The Gamblers (left unfinished), Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (also known as Katerina Ismailova), as well as in his Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad). It also figures prominently in several movements of Gustav Holst's The Planets.[11] It also appears in Howard Shore's music for The Lord of the Rings among many other contemporary film scores.[12] Even before 1940 it had been used occasionally in Hollywood; early Broadway pit orchestrations using the instrument include Jerome Kern's Music in the Air (1932) and Very Warm for May (1939), both scored by Robert Russell Bennett (the manuscript orchestrations are in the Jerome Kern Collection, Music Division, The Library of Congress).

Performers & Pioneers[edit]

A number of specialist alto flute players emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries. These include French improvisor/composer Christian Le Delezir, American Christine Potter, American Paige Long, British Kingma System alto flute player Carla Rees, jazz players Ali Ryerson and Brian Landrus, American Peter Sheridan who currently resides in Australia, Swiss composers/performers Matthias Ziegler and Stefan Keller and Dutch composer/performer Anne La Berge. Florian Schneider-Esleben of the German Electronic Group, Kraftwerk, played an alto flute in the first few years of the band's tenure.

Christine Potter[edit]

Christine Potter established a connection with the alto flute while she was studying at the university of New Mexico. As she became more experienced with the flute and fell more in love with the instrument, she began to compile a repertoire of music and publishers that included parts for the alto flute. At this point, she had such a repertoire that she wanted to make sure that her findings were available online to people who were also interested in playing the instrument. In doing so, she was connected with other flute players like Carla Rees, and the two specialists put their information together and created a compiled list of music. Potter had the opportunity to perform at a convention in Chicago showing how the alto flute could be considered a low solo instrument. This was received very well and Potter was invited to perform with different concertos around the country. At a 2012 Las Vegas Convention, Potter performed the world premiere of a low flute ensemble that she had been working on with other low flute specialists. The performance garnered excellent feedback from the audience, inspiring Potter to reach out to other performers and music composers around the world to perform her own and other peoples pieces. Potter has commissioned thirteen pieces since then that feature the low flute as well as produced a number of her own arrangements and compositions. She holds the distinction of being the initial individual to chair the National Flute Association Low Flutes Committee and pioneered what is called the International Low Flutes Festival in Washington D.C, bringing flutists of all skill levels and age together to give the low flute center stage of their performances. This along with conducting many competitions, Potter has been an important performer and pioneer in the generation of usage of the alto flute as well as the study of the alto and other low flutes.

Paige Long[edit]

Paige Long initially played violin in a faculty orchestra in her place of employment. She was offered a position to play piccolo and took the position to open up new opportunities for her. She was offered a flute teaching position a year later. Whilst in this position, Long started a flute choir to attract more people and was allowed to purchase an alto flute and a bass flute. The choir became very popular, but she knew she needed to improve the quality of the lower sound. She attended a convention where she heard a low flute ensemble, and becoming more interested, she intended to gather more low flutes for her own ensembles. At a convention three years later, Long had the opportunity to purchase the first alto flute in all of North and South America. Paige Long spent many years and much money to try and incorporate the low flute into many ensembles, and is one of the biggest advocates of the low flute in music.[13]


  1. ^ a b c "The Kingma System Alto Flute: A Practical Guide for Composers and Performers". Retrieved 2024-03-28.
  2. ^ a b c "The Kingma System Alto Flute: A Practical Guide for Composers and Performers". Retrieved 2024-03-19.
  3. ^ "What Is An Alto Flute? | tonebase Flute". tonebase. Retrieved 2024-03-19.
  4. ^ Potter, Christine (2016). Alto Flute Method. United States of America. ISBN 9781530126583.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ "Phyllis Louke - Article: Getting Started Playing Alto, Bass and Contrabass Flutes". Archived from the original on 27 February 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  6. ^ Davis, John Edward (1997). "The extended alto flute: The history and development of the alto flute, with a study of modern alto flute design and its effect on extended techniques in alto flute repertoire and pedagogical materials". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ "Wave Physics with LIGO data". Retrieved 28 March 2024.
  8. ^ Music, Phamox (2022-10-19). "Alto Flute - Musical Instrument Guide". Phamox Music. Retrieved 2024-03-19.
  9. ^ a b "A guide to the lengths of flutes". Retrieved 2024-03-19.
  10. ^ "Phyllis Louke - Article: Getting Started Playing Alto, Bass and Contrabass Flutes". 2009-02-27. Retrieved 2024-03-19.
  11. ^ Toff, Nancy (2012). The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 69–72.
  12. ^ One of the best-known uses of the alto flute in 20th century music was by Pierre Boulez in his piece Le marteau sans maître for contralto and six instrumentalists. Adams, Doug (2010). The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films: A Comprehensive Account of Howard Shore's Scores, Book & CD. Los Angeles, California, USA: Alfred Music.
  13. ^ Tedjamulia Read, A. "The History and Pedagogy of Low Flutes".