Flute, musical instrument belonging to the woodwind group, although most modern orchestral flutes are made of metal. The flute differs from most other woodwind instruments in that it is played in a sideways position. For this reason it was once often called the transverse flute, to distinguish it from similar instruments like the recorder. It is also distinguished in that the sound is produced by blowing directly across the mouthpiece instead of into it as in the bassoon, oboe, and clarinet.
Flutes, often made of clay, existed in ancient Sumer, Egypt, and Israel, as well as the Americas. In Europe technical improvements made the wooden flute an important solo instrument from the 17th century. Throughout the 18th century, from Bach to Mozart, the flute was very popular, both in orchestral and chamber music, and it remains an important member of the orchestra today. A much smaller version of the flute is the piccolo (Italian, “little”), which has a correspondingly higher range of notes and a shriller tone. It came into orchestral use during Beethoven's lifetime and is regularly included in military bands.