The word “flute,” in its most general usage, applies to a wide variety of wind instruments that have long histories throughout the world. The recorder – important in Medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music – is an end-blown flute that evolved in Europe.
When we speak of the flute in the context of the Western orchestra, however, we refer to the type of instrument that has become the modern concert flute. This is the traverse-blown flute, with the mouthpiece on the side. The traverse flute has a long history in India and seems to have appeared in Europe by the early Middle Ages. The fife is a small-size, simple traverse flute.
The early flute had a soft sound that restricted its use in concert settings. Then, design improvements resulted in a broader range and more robust sound. The baroque era traverse flute – made of wood and lacking keys – is often referred to by an Italian name, “traverso,” to distinguish it from modern concert flutes. The traverso became increasingly prominent in orchestral music throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
The flute continued to be important through the 18th century. The addition of keys – which strengthens the lower register for the flute – was a major innovation in that era.
The modern concert flute is a made of metal, not wood. It is a relatively recent arrival, the result of a long chain of enhancements during the 19th century. It is used by modern orchestras to perform early music, although the modern concert flute cannot always provide historically correct sound. For this reason, traverse flutes that replicate baroque and classical models are also produced.