Flute timbre and its artistic characteristics

Flute timbre and its artistic characteristics

by Yulia Berry, D.M.A.

Article © Copyright 2023 by Yulia Berry. All Rights Reserved

The voice of the flute, like the voice of the human who created it, can sound in different intonations: joyful and sad, enthusiastic and tragic, inspired and overwhelmingly mournful, sublime and passionate. It can express the whole gamut of human emotions and experiences. Sound, timbre in music (as well as a word in acting speech) does not carry one meaning, is not static and unchanging, but acquires many variants of sound depending on the meaning inherent in them, the state of mind, and the mood of the composer and performer.

Understanding the complexity and sometimes inconsistency of human feelings, as well as the essence of our whole life, leads to a completely different matter – social and humanistic, and therefore pedagogical – the significance of individuality, the value of each person, each voice, whether it is the voice of an orchestral instrument or one person.

Performing and teaching art of playing the flute

The high level of modern flute performance in the solo, ensemble and orchestral repertoire determines the high requirements for flute players and flute teachers.

The performer must own a large arsenal of technical and artistic means of expression:

  • know all the capabilities of the instrument and have a certain level of playing skill
  • be able to play in ensemble and orchestra
  • have a subtle sense of style and developed aesthetic taste

There are no two identical people, musicians, or students. Each of them is special, inimitable, and unique. And the task of the teacher is to help the student find his own individual style, his own palette of colors, timbres, and means of expression.

Teaching the flute should be based on a comprehensive knowledge of general and musical psychology and pedagogy, as well as teaching methods for playing the instrument, which largely predetermine a successful professional and performing career of a flute player.

With the advent of new playing techniques and the constant improvement of flutes, the range of tasks facing the performer-interpreter is noticeably expanding.

It becomes especially important to reveal the timbre capabilities of the instrument. The timbre is the most important means of transmitting information, becoming artistic at the moment when it is endowed with meaning and spirit.

Sound characteristics of the flute

I invite you to add more definitions in your comments, but here are some: airy, light, poetic, juicy, bright, wafting, mellow, penetrating, deep, dark, ethereal, saturated, soft, graceful, soulful, brilliant, clear, piercing, silvery, windy, whistling, whispering, buzzing, filigree, sighing, aspirated, warm, and so on.

Composers about the flute timbre

The view of composers on the expressive possibilities of the flute and their use in orchestral colors is very interesting. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz while growing up studied the flute as his main instrument. He left interesting notes on understanding the historical development of the flute as an instrument and its possible color palette. In his Treatise on Instruments (1844), he devoted quite a few pages to the use of flute timbre in orchestral music, including examples of the music of Gluck, Wagner, and Weber. He especially notes how many composers do not understand the timbre and nature of the lower register of the flute and prefer to attribute a high register to it.

The modern masters generally kept the flutes too persistently in the higher ranges. They always seem afraid that they will not be sufficiently clear amidst the mass of the orchestra. Consequently the flutes predominate in the ensemble instead of blending with it; the instrumentation thus becomes hard and sharp rather than sonorous and harmonious.

H.Berlioz, Treatise on Instrumentation, p.235

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

In his Principles of Orchestration (written 1896–1908), the great Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov developed the theory that the four main woodwind instruments have a wide range of expressiveness. He also analized various options for their combination and possible sound colors (as an artist experiments and mixes paints on a palette getting new tones and shades)

Individual timbres lose their characteristics when associated with others. Hence such combinations should be handles with extreme care. Phrases or melodies demanding diversity of expression alone should be entrusted to solo instruments of simple timbres. The same applies to the coupling of two instruments of the same kind, such as 2 flutes, 2 oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoon. The quality of tone will lose nothing of its individuality, and will gain in power, but it’s capacity for expression will be diminished accordingly.


Some examples from this very interesting section on the use of two or three woodwinds and interesting color combinations of sound that a composer can achieve include:

  • Flute + oboe will give the sound a fuller color than the flute and sweeter than the oboe alone.
  • Flute + clarinet will enhance the flute but dull the clarinet.
  • Flute + oboe + clarinet will give a very full quality color.

Rimsky-Korsakov also talks specifically about the sound charactersitics of the flute, piccolo and bass flute.

The following remarks illustrate the characteristics, timbre, and use of special instruments:

“… the slightly melancholy timbre of the flute is some- what related to the feeling of sorrow and distress with which the passage is to be permeated. The case of a melody coinciding in character with the instrument on which it is played is of special importance, as the effect produced cannot fail to be successful.

There are also moments when a composer’s artistic feeling prompts him to employ instruments, the character of which is at variance with the written melody (for eccentric, grotesque effects, etc.).

…The whistling, piercing quality of the piccolo in its highest compass is extraordinarily powerful, but does not lend itself to more moderate shades of expression.

…The low and middle range of the piccolo and small clarinet correspond to the same register in the normal flute and clarinet, but the tone is so much weaker that it is of little service in those regions.

…The bass flute is an instrument seldom used even today; it possesses the same features as the flute, but it is colder in colour, and crystalline in the middle and high regions.

… the bass flute is used in my opera-ballet Mlada (1892), and also in my most recent compositions, The Christmas Night, and Sadko; the bass flute will also be found in The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitesh, and in the revised version of “Ivan the Terrible”.

Rimsky Korsakov, Principles Of Orchestration

Development of the role of the flute

Before the Renaissance, the flute and drums were the instruments played by foot soldiers and were associated with war and battle. Flutes also were used for festive occasions, such as weddings and feasts. At the end of the 16th century, flutes and the first flute solos began to appear in court and theater music (the forerunners of the orchestra). By the Baroque era, the ability of the instrument to express tender feelings was recognized. This aspect of the flute gained immense importance during the Romantic era.

As an orchestral instrument, the flute appeared in opera in the 17th century and at first served to create pastoral images. Flute melodies are found in operas by Giulio Caccini (Eurydice, 1602), Claudio Monteverdi (L’Orfeo, 1607), and Antonio Cesti (The Golden Apple, 1668).

Jean-Philippe Rameau strongly promoted the flute and other woodwinds as orchestral instruments in his opera Hippolyte et Aricie, 1733

Francois-Joseph Gossec founded the orchestra of the Concert des Amateurs in 1760 and developed it into one of the greatest orchestras in Europe. His compositions include a Symphonie concertante for flute and violin among his other compositions for the flute:

As the instrument developed, so did the repertoire, which led to the emergence of a whole generation of virtuoso flute players.

The sounds of nature

With its virtuosity, colorfulness and ease of passages, the flute surpasses all other wind instruments. The high register and dizzying flute technique depict the sounds of nature in the works of various composers.

The melody of two flutes in P.I. Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades gives a pastoral character.

In Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons, two flutes illustrate Lucas’ words “the quails sing in the fields,” and in the preceding thunderstorm scene, the flute’s intermittent arpeggios resemble lightning zigzags.

Often in music you can find a generalized image of birds singing, associated with the morning, the awakening of nature, the beginning of a new day, which means new hopes.

A vivid example is the flute solo in the finale of M.P. Mussorgsky’s symphonic poem “Night on Bald Mountain“:

The flute perfectly imitates bird voices. “Birds” sing in the solo “Morning” from the First Suite of Edvard Grieg “Peer Gynt”, in the 5th part of the Second Symphony by G. Mahler, and in the musical picture “Dawn on the Moscow River” by M.P. Mussorgsky.

In the 2nd part of L.v.Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” “Scene by the Stream“, the nightingale sings with the voice of a flute. The “bird” flute chirps very touchingly at the beginning of A. N. Scriabin’s Second Symphony, echoing the gentle melody of the solo violin.

The flute skillfully imitates a bird in the musical fairy tale by Sergei Prokofiev “Peter and the Wolf”:

The great master of “bird singing” Olivier Messiaen in his ornithological pieces “The Awakening of the Birds“, “Thrush” and “Exotic Birds” assigns the role of a thrush to the flute. Of course, this is not accidental, since he perfectly copes with the most complex rhythmic variety in the singing of this bird.

The flute solo – the singing of a bird – can have a serious dramatic function, for example, in the oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) by Arthur Honegger, as well as in his Liturgical Symphony. Suffice it to recall the singing of the nightingale in the finale of the oratorio and the voice of the bird in the coda of the symphony as a symbol of hope, humanity and peace:

Genre dance in folk scenes

The flute is often used by composers to depict genre-dance and folk scenes. For example, in the finale of the 4th part of N. A. Rimsky Korsakov’s symphonic suite “Scheherazade”, the main dance theme begins with two flutes in unison:


Brilliance and festivity are heard in a duet with a clarinet and a short, but bright, expressive flute cadenza in the fourth movement of his Spanish Capriccio:

A characteristic manifestation of a folk dance action in the square of a Spanish city, beginning (after the snare drum) with the famous solo flute in a low register, is the “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel:

In the famous “Scherzo” from the overture to Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Felix Mendelssohn skillfully uses one of the flute’s characteristic techniques – staccato – to convey lightness and fast fluttering.

Fairy Tale characters

The timbre of the flute is ideal for depicting fairy tale characters (for example, the flute solo in one of the episodes of The Snow Maiden by N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov). In scale, it resembles a small play. It is noteworthy that this solo demonstrates the capabilities of all registers of the instrument. It has an undercurrent quirkiness to the lower case; the coldness of the Snow Maiden, inherent in the average; brightness, colorful passages – ups and downs.

Speaking of images from fairy tales, we must recall the significance of the timbre of the flute in the scores of I. Stravinsky’ s ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) and The Rite of Spring.

An important role in the creation of fantastic characters is played by the flute in the work of A. Lyadov. This is the image of Kikimora, constantly associated with the “cold”, piercing timbre of the piccolo flute, and the rapid flight of Baba Yaga (the “whistling” motif), and the bright, colorful glare of the “Magic Lake”:

Sorrow and loneliness

Let us recall the sad, touching flute solo from Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane on the Death of the Infanta”:

The depressingly hopeless intonations of the theme of “Slow Waltz” from the Third Suite for Orchestra by P.I. Tchaikovsky make one feel the loneliness of a suffering soul.

But, probably, the famous flute solo comes from the opera by Ch.W. Gluck “Orfeo ed Euredice”:

The use of the flute in the music of D. Shostakovich

The flute in the works of D. Shostakovich appears in a variety of colors. For example, an unpretentious melody in the spirit of a simple street song from the 2nd movement of the Fifth Symphony.

The flute solo in the 4th part of the Sixth Symphony is of a different plan. Instead of scherzo, the definition of motor skills would be more appropriate here.

Even more different in character is the flute solo that opens the Fifteenth Symphony. Here the scherzo melody with sharp intonations and jumps acquires an ugly Brueghelian tone. The flute timbre contributes to this to some extent, giving the theme an unnatural character:

The most important role is played by the flute in the “invasion theme” of the Seventh Symphony, expressing the nature of the soullessness, inhumanity, senselessness of war:

A vivid example of the psychological depth and grief is the “farewell” theme in the roll call of the flute and horn before the mournfully lyrical nature of the coda of the Fifth Symphony.

Loneliness, fragility, defenselessness are conveyed by the flute in the 1st movement of the Sixth Symphony:

Lyrical and poetical

Indeed, the flute is an instrument that is most subject to a sense of lyrical, poetic mood. This is how the flute appears in the symphonic works of P. I. Tchaikovsky, S. Rachmaninov, S. Prokofiev, J. Brahms and many other composers.

Of course, speaking of the timbre of the flute, one cannot fail to recall its most picturesque, delightfully beautiful statements.

The flute solo in Claude Debussy’s symphonic poem “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is amazingly beautiful:

As Pierre Boulez said, “The flute of Debussy’s Faune breathed new air into the art of music.”

The French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé himself sent Debussy the following note:

“I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.”

Claude Debussy, master of dreams” by Maurice Dumesnil

Seductive and charming

It is the flute that often performs thoughtfully contemplative, meditative and at the same time seductively inviting melodies.

Let us recall the most beautiful orchestral episode – the flute solo from the ballet Daphnis and Chloe by Maurice Ravel. Here, its timbre and virtuoso technique make it possible to embody tenderness and sophistication, waywardness, capriciousness and charm of the female image in music:

One of the pearls of world musical literature is the flute solo from Intermezzo to the third act of Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” – quivering, charmingly touching, and filled with delight from the beauty of nature, freedom, and life:


It is clear that any attempt to attribute to flute its allegedly stable meaning and unchanging expressive function is doomed to failure in advance.

A perfect conclusion would be the wise and beautiful words by Rumi:

The fluteplayer puts breath into a flute, and who makes the music? Not the flute. The Fluteplayer!

Yulia Berry


Yulia Berry is founder of Web Flute Academy, The Babel Flute, The Babel Flute Courses and New England Flute Institute, creator and developer of the popular “All about Flute” Mobile app and the First Global Game for Flutists, highly experienced flutist and mentor teaching at all levels, with a Doctor of Music Arts degree focused in Flute Performance, Pedagogy and Music Education from the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory named after N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia).

She has performed as a soloist and chamber musician in prestigious venues around the world, and has been praised for her virtuosity, musicality, and expressive playing.

Yulia Berry is known for her expertise in flute pedagogy, innovative and effective teaching methods, which emphasize technique, musicality, and artistry, and her dedication to helping students achieve their full potential as flutists.

She wrote many articles on the connection of the flute with art and the role of the flute in the arts and cultures of different eras and cultures.

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