Acoustics of the Flute: How Tone Is Produced

Flute acoustics are complicated.

Until recently, scientists did not have a good understanding of flute acoustics and how a flute makes a sound.

We can easily classify the sound production mechanism for most of the instruments. For instance, brass instruments use vibrating lips, reed instrument have a vibrating reed, strings have vibrating strings, and percussion instruments are struck.

However, scientist have found it much more difficult to describe how the flute sound is made.

The flute is one of the the oldest instruments.

People have been playing percussion instruments since the beginning of time. However, none of the extremely old percussion instruments survive to the present. Fortunately, we do have some very, very old flutes that have survived.

In 2008, archeologists in Germany found a bone flute in a cave. They dated it to 42,000-43,000 years ago! Amazingly, the flute plays in a diatonic key, and tunes like “Ode To Joy” are recognizable.

bone flute found in German cave, dated 42,000 years old

Hear the World’s Oldest Instrument

Archaeologists have found many other bone flutes from Europe and China, suggesting that the flute was an instrument played by people throughout the ancient world. But it is unlikely that any of these ancient peoples understood the complex physics and acoustics of the instrument.

Flute Acoustics: The Basics

People much smarter and more eloquent that me have described the mechanism of tone production on the flute.

The Current Science of Flute Acoustics

Fortunately, smart people have designed experiments to figure out flute acoustics, and specifically tone production.

The Recorder Air Jet Amplifier study at the University of Colorado set up an interesting experiment using a plastic recorder, microphones, and an air compressor.

I have to admit that this article about “Acoustic Impedance Spectra of Classical and Modern Flutes” was going a bit beyond my comprehension.

A few years ago, I wrote a similar blog article on flute acoustics that references some other articles.

Play In the Sandbox

In a previous blog article, I wrote about a fun online sandbox for playing with acoustics. Enjoy!

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