The alto flute is a part of the flute family, like the C (soprano) flute, and the bass flute. It’s not an uncommon instrument, but it isn’t played nearly as often as the C flute.
A Unique History
It’s no news that flutes have been around for a very long time. They’ve even been found dating back from the paleolithic ages. But the alto flute, and other harmony flutes, are much newer. Theobald Boehm, the inventor of the modern flute system, made his first alto flute around 1850. (This was not the first alto flute made, but after Boehm made his model, the concept really took off.) So, even though that seems like a long time ago, this flute is unique in that it is very new to the flute timeline!
Range and Key
Since the alto flute is lower than the C concert flute but higher than the bass flute (which sounds exactly one octave below the concert C flute), you might be wondering about the alto flute’s key. The alto flute is pitched in G, which means that it sounds a 4th lower than written. Let’s talk a little more about alto flute transposition.
Since the alto flute is a transposing instrument, when an alto flute player reads a C on the staff, it will sound a G below that on the piano.
The alto flutes range is from G3-G6 on the staff. By comparison, the typical C flute ranges from C4-C7. The alto flute's range begins almost where the C flutes range ends, making it perfectly designed for extending flute arrangements into lower note territory. Interestingly, there is one more flute in between the range of the C concert flute and the alto flute. It’s called the flute d’amour, but it’s very uncommon. Take a look at a comparison of the alto flutes range vs. the concert flutes range!
More advanced alto flute players can often reach the Db7 above the G. Like other woodwinds, the closer the alto flute gets to this altissimo range, the more airy and difficult it becomes to get a good tone on the instrument. But it’s nothing a lot of practice and long tones can’t solve!
They Call It What?!
In England, they call the alto flute "the bass flute." So if you’re listening to someone else talk about members of the flute family, remember that the language (and the speaker's background!) can vary!
We can’t talk about the alto flute without mentioning its tone. The alto flute is renowned for its rich tone color, especially in the lower register. This flute takes more air than the concert C flute, due to its larger size. This lends to those beautiful, dark low notes. It is much more mellow than its more popular family members, the piccolo and the concert flute.
As we work our way up the range, the alto flute begins to sound even more ethereal and mild in the high range. It doesn’t produce the piercing sharpness that can occur in higher flutes, even as the notes progress up the staff.
You might be wondering what kind of flute repertoire is out there for the alto flute. Alto flute music has been becoming more and more prevalent in contemporary pieces. In addition, flutists such as Barry Griffiths (GrizzlyFlute) arrange innumerable genres with this instrument...Even video game music! Let’s check out one of his creative multi-frame videos here to see what he does with it!
Composers such as Stravinsky, Ravel, and Holst have brought the alto flute under the shining lights of the orchestra. It can be heard in pieces such as The Planets, in the movement Neptune, as well as in the famous Rite of Spring. Ravel included a solo for this instrument in his version of Daphnis et Chloe. It’s clear to see that composers have been welcoming the alto into the orchestra for quite some time.
Alto flute is frequently used as a harmony instrument in flute choirs. It can also be used as a solo instrument. A few popular alto flute pieces include Variations on the Willow Tree (for alto flute alone, by Garth Baxter), and Afterglow (for flute and electronics, by John Palmer). Even a Paramore song on the album After Laughter (Called 26) features the alto flute in the outro. How cool is that?
Beyond solo performance, the orchestra, and arranging, there are a number of great Alto Flute method books. Trevor Wye has an excellent overall flute pedagogy. I recommend trying out The Alto Flute Practice Book for those looking for those looking for a method book.
Holding the Alto Flute
Holding the alto flute can be really difficult. But it doesn’t have to be! The main decision to make when it comes to comfort when holding the instrument is deciding between a curved vs. a straight headjoint.
Some flutes are sold with one of each, while others are not. Straight headjoint altos are known for being very balanced weight-wise, but players with shorter arms often have difficulty holding the flute for long periods of time. Curved headjoints make the instrument less balanced, but provide ease when holding it.
Here she talks about the pros and cons of the two different headjoints, and plays some samples of the Trevor James Alto Flute Line.
Picking out a flute is hard. Picking out an alto flute can be even harder! So let’s talk about some staple brand names for this harmony flute.
Great alto flutes to play on include:
- Trevor James
This Pearl flute from the 201 series has a stunning quality, and is great for starting out, without breaking the bank!
Trevor James offers many wonderful alto flutes. This American-made brand often experiments with different metal types for their harmony flutes. Their newest alto is called the Copper Tube Alloy Alto, and has a lovely lush sound.
This Altus 900 alto is a gem of a professional alto flute. It comes with French pointed keys, and a Brittania silver headjoint. I’d definitely recommend this flute to those who are getting serious about their alto flute career.
To close, the alto flute is an enchanting member of the flute family, that every flutist should try at least once. While it can be difficult to choose which instrument to take home, I hope these tips were helpful to you, if you are in the market for buying!