Home flute Why is the Flute Called the Recorder?

Why is the Flute Called the Recorder?

by Madonna

Understanding why the flute is sometimes referred to as the recorder requires an exploration into the historical, cultural, and linguistic development of these instruments. While they are now recognized as distinct, the confusion between the terms “flute” and “recorder” has roots that span centuries. This article delves into the origins, terminology evolution, design, playing techniques, and cultural factors that have shaped the modern interpretation and usage of these terms within the music community.

Historical Background

Origins of the Flute

The flute is one of the oldest musical instruments, with evidence of its existence dating back over 40,000 years. Early flutes were typically made from bones, particularly bird bones or mammoth ivory. These ancient instruments have been discovered in various archaeological sites across Europe and Asia, suggesting a widespread use and significant role in early human cultures.

Over the centuries, the flute evolved in design and material. The transverse flute, held sideways and blown across a hole, became prominent in Europe during the Renaissance. By the Baroque period (1600-1750), the flute had undergone significant modifications, including the addition of keys to extend its range and improve tuning. The 19th century saw the development of the modern Boehm system flute, named after Theobald Boehm, which standardized the instrument’s design with a conical bore and a complex key system, enabling greater agility and more precise intonation.

Origins of the Recorder

The recorder, a type of internal duct flute, has a similarly ancient lineage. Early versions of the recorder appeared in medieval Europe, with depictions in artwork and references in literature dating back to the 14th century. The instrument gained popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, appreciated for its clear, sweet tone and versatility.

Unlike the transverse flute, the recorder is held vertically and has a whistle mouthpiece (or fipple), making it relatively easy to play. This accessibility contributed to its widespread use in both professional and amateur music-making. Recorders were crafted in various sizes to cover different vocal ranges, from the tiny garklein to the large bass recorder.

Terminology Evolution

Historical Usage of “Flute”

In historical texts, the term “flute” often referred to any woodwind instrument with a similar playing method. During the Renaissance, “flute” was commonly used to describe what we now know as the recorder. This usage can be seen in various musical scores and writings from the period, where the context often indicated whether the instrument was a transverse flute or a recorder.

By the Baroque era, the distinction between the transverse flute and the recorder began to solidify. The transverse flute was increasingly referred to as the “German flute” or simply “flute,” while the recorder retained its name. This distinction became more pronounced as the transverse flute’s popularity rose, leading to the modern nomenclature where “flute” typically denotes the transverse instrument.

Evolution of “Recorder”

The term “recorder” is believed to have originated from the Middle English word “recorden,” which means to remember or to play music. This etymology reflects the instrument’s role in learning and practicing music. Early references to the recorder can be found in literary works such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” indicating its established presence in medieval music culture.

As musical styles and preferences evolved, the recorder’s prominence waned, especially during the Classical and Romantic periods when the transverse flute dominated orchestral and solo repertoire. However, the recorder experienced a revival in the 20th century, driven by the early music movement, which sought to perform Renaissance and Baroque music on period instruments.

Design and Construction

Physical Differences

The flute and recorder are distinct in their design and construction. The modern flute, or transverse flute, is typically made of metal (such as silver, gold, or nickel) or wood. It consists of three main parts: the head joint, the body, and the foot joint. The head joint houses the embouchure hole, which the player blows across to produce sound. The body contains most of the key mechanisms, while the foot joint extends the instrument’s range.

The recorder, on the other hand, is made from wood or plastic and comprises a single piece or several sections (head, body, and foot). The recorder’s head joint features a block (or fipple) that directs the player’s breath into a narrow windway and over a labium, creating sound. The body has finger holes instead of keys, although some larger recorders have a few keys to aid in playing the lower notes.

Sound Production

Sound production in the flute and recorder is fundamentally different due to their construction. In the flute, the player blows across the embouchure hole, causing the air column inside the instrument to vibrate. The pitch is controlled by opening and closing the keys, which changes the effective length of the vibrating air column.

In contrast, the recorder’s sound is produced by blowing air into the windway, which is then directed against the labium. The pitch is altered by covering and uncovering the finger holes. This mechanism is simpler than the flute’s, which is why the recorder is often used as a teaching instrument for beginners.

Playing Technique

Flute Technique

Playing the flute requires precise control of breath and embouchure. The player must develop an accurate and consistent airstream directed across the embouchure hole. The position and shape of the lips (embouchure) are critical in producing a clear tone and controlling dynamics and intonation.

Finger technique is also crucial, as the flute’s keys must be operated with speed and precision to play different notes and execute complex passages. Advanced techniques include double and triple tonguing, vibrato, and various articulation methods to enhance musical expression.

Recorder Technique

The recorder’s playing technique is more straightforward but requires its own set of skills. The player’s breath control is essential, but the fixed windway simplifies sound production compared to the flute. Recorder players must focus on finger placement and coordination, especially on larger recorders where finger stretch can be challenging.

Articulation in recorder playing is achieved through tonguing, using syllables like “tu” and “du” to start and stop the airflow. Dynamics are controlled by breath pressure, and vibrato is typically produced with slight variations in breath rather than finger or lip movement.

Cultural and Linguistic Factors

Influence of Language and Culture

The interchangeability of the terms “flute” and “recorder” has been influenced by cultural and linguistic factors. In several European languages, words for these instruments can overlap. For instance, in German, “Flöte” can refer to both the flute and the recorder, though context usually clarifies the meaning.

In English-speaking countries, the distinction between flute and recorder became clearer over time, especially with the rise of formal music education and orchestral music. However, historical texts and older literature may still reflect the ambiguous usage of these terms, contributing to ongoing confusion.

Regional Variations

Different regions have developed their own traditions and preferences for the flute or recorder. In Western classical music, the transverse flute became the standard, largely due to its adaptability and expressive range. Conversely, the recorder maintained its presence in folk traditions and early music ensembles.

In countries with strong early music traditions, such as the Netherlands and the UK, the recorder enjoyed significant popularity and respect. Meanwhile, in orchestral settings, the flute solidified its role, especially in France and Germany, where major advancements in flute design occurred.

Modern Interpretation

Contemporary Usage

Today, the terms “flute” and “recorder” are generally well-defined within the music community. The flute refers to the modern transverse flute used in orchestras, bands, and as a solo instrument. The recorder, while still prevalent in educational settings, has also carved out a niche in historical performance and folk music.

Educational Context

The recorder is widely used in music education due to its simplicity and affordability. Many children are introduced to music through the recorder, which serves as a stepping stone to more complex instruments like the flute. This educational role has reinforced the recorder’s identity, distinguishing it from the transverse flute.

Revival and Popular ity

The 20th-century revival of early music has brought renewed interest in the recorder. Performers and ensembles dedicated to historical performance practice use recorders to authentically recreate Renaissance and Baroque music. This movement has elevated the recorder’s status, showcasing its unique sound and historical significance.

The Role of the Ukulele

Interestingly, the ukulele has experienced a similar revival and growing popularity, especially in educational settings. Both the recorder and the ukulele are often chosen for their ease of learning, portability, and relatively low cost, making them ideal for introducing music to beginners. This parallel highlights a broader trend in music education towards accessible instruments that encourage early musical engagement.


The flute and the recorder, while distinct in modern terminology, share a rich and intertwined history. The evolution of these terms reflects broader cultural, linguistic, and musical developments over centuries. Understanding why the flute is sometimes called the recorder involves delving into historical contexts, changes in design and playing techniques, and the influence of regional and educational practices.

In contemporary music, both instruments have carved out their niches, with the flute reigning in orchestral and solo repertoire, and the recorder finding its place in early music and education. The enduring appeal of both instruments, much like the ukulele, lies in their ability to engage musicians of all levels, fostering a lifelong appreciation for music.

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