The Bass Flute

Most people are familiar with the standard concert flute – a long cylindrical tube used sideways that can play all sorts of fancy motifs. This is hugely popular all over the world as both a solo and an ensemble instrument. More and more people start learning every day, eager to discover the joys that playing such a versatile instrument can bring them.

However, there is a whole family of flute sizes available, which extend the playing range of the flute considerably.

The Bass Flute1

The most common of these aside from the concert flute is the piccolo – there is usually at least one piccolo in most ensembles, so many professional flutists will also own a piccolo they can double on.

There are also alto flutes, bass flutes and contrabass flutes, which are shaped differently to regular flutes. This article focuses on the bass member of the family.

What Does A Bass Flute Look Like?

A bass flute plays the same way as a concert flute, but has a curved head joint that bends round in front of the body. This is because the overall pipe needs to be longer to produce lower notes, but the usual straight line shape would make it too long to play. It would end up double the length of a regular flute, and a player’s arms can only stretch so far! 

Occasionally you will see a different design of bass flute, known as an upright bass. This rests on the floor and has an additional curve in the headjoint so you can still blow into it horizontally.

It is supported by an adjustable spike that can be extended to allow standing playing or retracted for sitting down. This can be an excellent alternative for those who find a regular bass too heavy or painful to play. 

There are also other bass flute designs that are even rarer, and are mostly unique to the company that manufactures them. Flute makers are constantly seeking new ways to improve the ergonomics of their bass flutes for a better overall playing experience.

How Does A Bass Flute Sound?

The bass flute is pitched an octave lower than the concert flute. This means players read music as if it were written for a standard flute, but it sounds an octave below. It produces a soft, breathy tone with a mysterious quality that really captures the listener’s imagination. 

Because the sound is so delicate, bass flutes may need to be amplified in some live performance situations. This will depend on the acoustics of the room and what other instruments are playing at the same time.

Amplification can be achieved either with a fixed standing microphone or a small one that you attach to the headjoint. The latter allows the player to move around as they play without affecting the volume.

Colder weather can distort the pitch of many wind instruments, making them sound out of tune. This is because air vibrates quicker at warmer temperatures, and higher pitches require more vibration.

Therefore, the cooler the air column, the slower the air will go and the flatter the sound will be. Bass flutes are especially affected since there is a greater distance for the air to travel.

You can counteract this by keeping your instrument away from extreme temperatures as far as possible, and making sure it is warmed up thoroughly before playing.

What Is A Bass Flute Used For?

Bass flutes are mainly found in flute choirs, which will contain the full flute family. They are not usually used in mixed ensembles because they would be drowned out by more powerful instruments. The delicate tone of the bass blends well with other flutes, creating a balanced sound.

As the instrument’s popularity increases, so too does the number of works written for custom ensembles to feature the bass flute. Chamber music offers the freedom to explore instrumentation in small groups, so composers are continuously finding new combinations that complement the bass flute. 

How Much Does A Bass Flute Cost?

This question can best be summed up with a counter question: how long is a piece of string? Prices will vary just like everything else, depending on a number of factors such as brand, materials and extra features. However, it is true that a bass flute will be more expensive to purchase than a concert flute, owing both to the reduced demand and the increased raw material requirements.

There are still basic models and more advanced models available, so it is worth spending time to research and find what is best suited for your circumstances.

Companies such as Flute World (www.fluteworld.com) have financing options you can apply for if you are unable to pay up front. Some also offer instrument trials, so you can try out an instrument before purchase, but they may need to put a hold on your credit card for the full amount as collateral.

If you are a prospective or current member of a music society that requires a bass flute, check if they have one you can use. Groups sometimes lend out some of the more unusual instruments to whoever plays for them at the time, so you may not need to buy your own. 

What Music Can I Play On A Bass Flute?

The Bass Flute

Although the bass flute isn’t generally considered a solo instrument, there is some repertoire written specifically for the bass flute that capitalizes on its warm, delicate sound. Here are some ideas for solo music you can sink your teeth into, including links to purchase the sheet music from a reputable flute website.

If you are looking for a comprehensive guide on how to play bass flute, this book is for you. It includes tips for setting up the headjoint, breath control/tone development exercises, and sample etudes.

This is one of the few books on the market dedicated specifically to bass flute, which is important if you want to progress to a high level. Some people make the mistake of assuming everything is the same as with a concert flute, and can become unstuck when they discover the nuances involved. 

Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion, the concept that forms the basis of this piece. Repeated semiquaver passages give it a hypnotic quality, with carefully-selected intervals that contribute to the eastern sound and overall atmosphere.

The bass flute is the ideal instrument here, due to the specific timbre required to make the music come alive. The score is edited by bass flute expert Christine Potter, who wrote the guide we have recommended above.

Written by American flutist and composer Gary Schocker, this sonata is recommended for advanced players and consists of three movements: Moderato, Cantabile and Snappy. These show off the different articulation styles a bass flute can achieve, including flutter tonguing passages. The modern style makes it enigmatic and fun to play, while remaining more accessible than similar works.

Moss Garden for Bass Flute and Electronics is an experimental piece that emphasizes the dark timbre of the bass flute. According to the composer, it draws on Japanese gardening concepts and is further inspired by Brian Eno’s atmospheric music of the 1980s.

It is accompanied by an electronic backing track, which can be downloaded when you buy the sheet music. The central theme of this piece is simplicity, which requires impeccable breath control and synchronicity to perfect.

If you are enjoying exploring your bass flute’s sound, you don’t just have to stick to specially-composed music – try playing some popular tunes that you think would suit the tones. We particularly suggest the Pink Panther theme, as the lower register will add an extra layer of mischief! 

Whatever you decide to play, don’t forget to have fun and treat this refreshing instrument with the respect it deserves. Not many people get the opportunity to play a bass flute, so make sure you fully appreciate the unique sound while you can.

David Williams
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