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The term Irish Flute or Scottish Flute (in a Scottish setting) refers to a conical-bore, simple-system wooden flute of the type favored by classical flautists of the early 19th century, or to a flute of modern manufacture derived from this design (often with modifications to optimize its use in Irish Traditional Music, Breton Traditional Music or Scottish Traditional Music). The vast majority of traditional flute players use a wooden, simple-system flute.
Despite the implication of this commonly used name, the Irish flute is not an instrument indigenous to Ireland. It is in fact an English version of a transverse wooden flute long-known as the German flute, modified by the English, and radically changed by English inventor and flautist Charles Nicholson Jr.
Simple system flutes were not made with traditional folk musicians in mind, but were adapted by Scottish and Irish flautists as the simple wooden flutes were discarded by concert musicians during the advent of the modern, Boehm system, Western concert flute in the mid-19th century. These "obsolete" flutes were picked up by traditional musicians.
From the latter part of the 19th century, there were two main styles of large-holed flutes made by two distinguished London based companies: Rudall & Rose and later Boosey & Co., which produced the Pratten flute devised by Robert Sidney Pratten, a prominent flautist of the 1840s and 1850s. George Rudall was an amateur player of some importance who studied for a time under the junior Nicholson before teaching on his own. He was introduced to John Mitchell Rose in c.1820 and their long association began.
Pratten was a prominent player who filled in as principal flautist in the same orchestras as Nicholson. He played a Siccama flute for a time and then associated himself with flutemaker John Hudson, who had been making the Siccama flutes, and together they devised the Pratten's Perfected flute, which Hudson produced under his own name beginning in c.1852. Hudson and Pratten would later bring the flute model and its design to Boosey & Co. following John Boosey's offer to Hudson to foreman his factory.
Unlike the flute of Theobald Boehm, the "English Transverse" flute is a simple-system instrument that relies on keys for the accidental (sharp/flat) notes of the scale, and whose six primary tone holes are drilled directly into the wood and covered by the player's fingers. The flute is considered pitched in D as the lowest natural note occurs when all six tone holes are covered—three by the left hand and three by the right. The scale it produces when a single finger at a time is lifted from the bottom upward is the D-major scale. The modern Boehm flute produces the same scale, except the third, F, is an F-natural. Hence why today's metal flutes are said to be pitched in C, though they are precisely the same in sound. The Irish flute produces an F-sharp when fingered naturally.
The Pratten has wider bore dimensions and provides a bigger sound, the result of Hudson's work on the Siccama flutes which carried the same concepts. The Rudall & Rose flutes had a reputation for having a darker, pure tone and slightly thinner than the Pratten style flute, but the firm made flutes of many styles, primarily in cocus wood and boxwood. Many of these original flutes had a foot joint that allowed the playing of both C# and C with the use of keys, typically pewter plugs that fit into silver plates. Some modern makers forgo the addition of these keys, but maintain the longer footjoint with two holes where the keys would be, as it is thought to better emulate the pitching and tone of the 19th century originals.
Today's makers emulate the designs of old, focusing often on a specific model or serial number, and maintaining tuning to today's modern pitch standard of A=440 at equal temperament. The flutes of Rudall & Rose and Pratten were made in the meantone temperament, though some were created in equal temperament.
The Irish flute is a simple system, transverse flute which plays a diatonic (Major) scale as the tone holes are successively uncovered. Most flutes from the Classical era, and some of modern manufacture include metal keys and additional tone holes to achieve partial or complete chromatic tonality. Due to its wooden construction, characteristic embouchure and direct (keyless) fingering, the simple system flute has a distinctly different timbre from the Western concert flute. Most Irish flute players tend to strive for a dark and reedy tone in comparison to classical flautists. Though most commonly pitched in the key of D, simple system flutes are available pitched in other keys, and are often heard in Irish music pitched in E flat, B flat and C. Although referred to as a D flute, this is a non-transposing instrument, so if you finger C, a concert-pitch C is sounded. The name D-flute comes from the fact that the simplest 6-hole wooden flute has D as its lowest note and plays the scale of D without any cross-fingering. The E-flat, B flat and C versions are transposing instruments.
The flute has six main finger-holes. For a D flute (the most common variety), with X symbolizing a covered finger-hole and O symbolizing an uncovered finger-hole, all holes covered, (three fingers per hand) can be represented as XXX-XXX = D . As the scale progresses, XXX-XXO = E, XXX-XOO = F#, XXX-OOO = G, XXO-OOO = A, XOO-OOO = B, OOO-OOO = C#, with XXX-XXX or OXX-XXX being the higher octave D for the full D major scale.
Wooden flutes have a cylindrical bore in the head and a conical bore in the body. This bore is largest at the head end, tapering down to a smaller bore at the foot. This has the effect of shortening the flute for a given pitch.
There is some confusion with modern players in that a modern Boehm keyed system flute is typically pitched in C. This is due to the added keys that allow one to reach low C, yet when one covers just the six main finger-holes (with thumb key covered) on a modern metal Boehm system flute, (XXX-XXX) the note achieved is D. For many technical reasons, a simple system D wooden flute more closely mirrors a concert C modern Boehm system flute in the pitches achieved in its fingering positions as opposed to a simple system flute pitched in C. Theobald Boehm completely redesigned the flute to more easily access the chromatic scale. The Boehm flute has a cylindrical bore (with a parabolic bore in the head) and uses keys to enable the tone holes to be in the ideal place and to be of the ideal size.
Today, transverse "simple system Irish" flutes are being made for the playing of a variety of traditional musical styles. In the Irish tradition, the material used is most commonly wood, but also Delrin, PVC, and even bamboo is used - though wood is still by far the most popular material. These modern Irish flutes can vary in the number of added metal keys, or have no keys at all. Most are tuned using modern methods and are typically better in tune with modern instruments. All have the basic six hole diatonic design as in a tinwhistle.