How Does a Piccolo Make Sound?

by Andrea M. Zander
The piccolo is a woodwind instrument.

The piccolo is a woodwind instrument.

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The piccolo is a rather misunderstood member of the woodwind family. It responds directly to air blown across the mouthpiece in conjunction with opening and closing of keys over holes along the barrel of the instrument. Being smaller and lighter than flutes, piccolos are more sensitive and have a reputation for being shrill that may have more to do with heavy-handed playing than a fault of the instrument. Playing one well is an art.


A piccolo is a woodwind instrument related to the flute. It's a transverse instrument, which means it is held horizontally as it is played. Piccolos can be made of wood, ebonite (a kind of hard rubber), metal, bone or most any solid material that can be bored out. While a flute has a head joint, body joint and foot joint, the piccolo has only a head joint and a body joint. Movable keys sit over the holes in the body joint.


Primitive flutes date back to neolithic times, but the piccolo did not appear as an orchestral instrument until about 1700. Through the mid 18th century, the piccolo was a one-key instrument used in military music. It was developed into a multi-key instrument in 1824. Beethoven was the first to use the piccolo in symphonies. The six-key piccolo became the most popular in the 19th century. Modern orchestras and composers fully incorporate the piccolo.

Head Joint

The head joint has no keys and only has one hole, across which the flautist blows to produce sound. The lip plate, more accurately called the embouchure, is where the flautist rests the bottom lip. The mouth hole may be round or oval. The tuning cork on the head joint is adjusted to change the instrument's intonation, or how it hits the notes (flat or sharp). Piccolos are sensitive to lip position and air temperature, pressure and support.

Body Joint

Though flutes originally relied solely on the flautist's fingers to block air from the holes, modern instruments use padded keys. The result is a clearer note and more reliable playing, and the tuning slide and tenons allow for tuning. Pressing too heavily on a piccolo's keys or blowing too hard can produce a shrill sound rather than a tuneful one. As the air passes through the bore of the instrument, it exits through the holes. Opening and closing the keys produces specific musical notes.

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