Since the Middle Ages,
flutes have been built in different sizes, from quite
small to as large as possible. During a period that
lasted roughly a hundred years from the early sixteenth
century, flutes were most commonly made in sets to play
four-part consort music.
The most usual consort consisted of three alto/tenor
flutes and a bass, which was sometimes replaced by another
wind or stringed instrument. In some pieces, a discant
flute played the upper part.
Since the mid-18th century, large flutes have been
made with keywork that extends the reach of the fingers.
Since the mid-19th century, modern mechanism has allowed
flutes to be made in much larger sizes than was possible
with simpler keywork.
Flutes of smaller sizes, not including military flutes
or fifes, seem to have been introduced in the 18th century,
when the piccolo first appeared. The piccolo became
popular as a solo instrument in the 19th century, and
appears frequently on recordings at the beginning of
the 20th century when recording technology captured
its sound better than that of the flute.
Just as renaissance consort flutes came in a set, for
playing four-part consort music, flute bands and flute
choirs have adopted a similar idea in the 20th century
for playing in parts..