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In general perception, they merge into one instrument genre, and those who master one instrument can also play the other without any problems. But is that true? Are there more similarities between the two instruments than the sheer naming? And do we all possibly underestimate the recorder if we assign it a purely pedagogical function?

From hollow bone to recorder

What is certain is that both instruments are enormously old and have a long tradition. Already in prehistoric times flute instruments were made of hollow bones, sometimes only playable with one hand, sometimes with both. In addition to the particularly frequently occurring pan flute, which is made of individual bamboo or bone tubes of different lengths, extremely different recorder-like instruments were in use. Since the 14th century at the latest, the recorder has also been known under this name (English “recorder” from “to record”). In the following three centuries it was by far the most popular wind instrument, also because of its tonal proximity to the human voice. During the 18th century, however, it was forgotten or replaced by other instruments and only rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, it has enjoyed constant popularity, especially as a popular instrument for children’s first contact with instrumental playing.

The transverse flute returns

During the baroque period the transverse flute, which had fallen somewhat into oblivion until then, came up again. For the first time there was an explicit distinction between the “flauto dolce” (recorder) and the “flauto traverso” (transverse flute, at that time “transverse flute”) and explicitly written for one of the two flutes. The transverse flute proved to be the better orchestral instrument due to its more present sound and, as the orchestras grew in size in the classical and romantic periods, it developed into today’s Boehm flute, which completely replaced the recorder due to its new characteristics: for the first time, it was made of metal, which made it possible to achieve a significant increase in volume and range. Also, a previously unattainable technical virtuosity was made possible by a completely new key system that made Romantic literature playable in the first place. Since then the transverse flute has enjoyed constant high popularity and is one of the most played instruments of the present in Europe.

Differences? Not only the posture!

The most obvious difference is the attitude of both instruments: The recorder is held vertically and straight with both hands in front of the upper body, while the transverse flute is held in an asymmetrical position from the mouth to the right shoulder. As this can lead to postural damage to the neck, shoulders and lower back, children, in particular, need good instruction and accompaniment at home.

The fingering system is also different, as can be seen from the flap system of the transverse flute, which is usually opposed by the recorder, which has no flaps at all, but finger holes drilled directly into the tube. This leads to the fact that the recorder sometimes requires somewhat more unpleasant finger combinations to be able to play all notes of the chromatic scale. On the transverse flute, the mechanics are a little more suitable for the player.

The sound of both instruments is based on the same principle: A stream of air hits a blowing edge and is split. This causes an oscillation of the air in the instrument, the length and speed of which produce different tones. In the recorder, the path of the air through a gap in the mouthpiece, the labium, is predetermined. Flute players must form this path themselves with their lips. This requires a greater tension of the lips as well as of the entire breathing apparatus. In this respect, it must be noted that the greatest difference in the handling of the instrument is the airflow. When changing instruments, special care must be taken to ensure that the most beautiful sound is obtained.

One origin, two flutes

So you can hold on to it: The two instruments come from the same origin but have developed in different directions over the centuries. Both, however, have their full justification as instruments which one must learn to play – and it is very worthwhile to discover what they both can do!


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