The Small but Mighty Piccolo

A MILITARY BACKGROUND

The word “piccolo” literally means “small” in Italian—and this instrument lives up to its name.

As one of the smallest instruments found in the orchestra, the piccolo is often the butt of the joke amongst musicians. But what exactly is the history of this tiny little flute?

Despite its small size, the piccolo actually has its roots in the military. In the Middle Ages, foot soldiers frequently used both a small flute and a drum as they were marching. By the 17th century, flute-making had undergone an enormous period of growth, with more and more flutes created to replicate the various registers of the human voice. It was during this time that the piccolo traverso was born, heavily inspired by the military marching flute of the Middle Ages.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE MODERN PICCOLO

The piccolo as we know it today was developed slightly after the concert flute. In the 1700s, all of the innovations that had been applied to the concert flute were applied to the piccolo, and the instrument began to rapidly improve. In its early life, the piccolo only had one to four keys; however, throughout the 18th century more keys were added, and the development of the piccolo began to match the development of the flute. 

HOW DOES THE PICCOLO WORK?

The term “piccolo traverso” (“small transverse flute” in Italian) was used to differentiate the transverse piccolo from the recorder. The difference between these two instruments lies in the way that they are held: transverse instruments such as the piccolo are held at a 90 degree angle to the face, while recorders are held straight out in front of the lips.

The piccolo is generally 13 inches long—about half the size of a flute. It is made up of a headjoint and a body, with the headjoint generally being cylindrical and the body generally being conical in shape. Piccolos can be made of either wood or a metal such as silver; occasionally they are also made of plastic.  

Given the way its development mirrored that of the flute, it should not be surprising that the piccolo and the flute both produce sound in a very similar way. To create sound, the musician blows through the mouthpiece (otherwise known as the embouchure hole). The piccolo is designed so that this stream of air flows through the instrument in a cyclical pattern, causing vibrations within the piccolo as it travels. The musician controls the pitch of these vibrations by putting their fingers over the piccolo’s tone holes, thus shortening the amount of space the air can travel. 

While it may seem quite straightforward, the musician actually has a great deal of control over the type of sound that is produced by the piccolo. This is because the quality of the sound is determined not by the musician’s finger placement but by their lips; the shape, positioning, and angle of the lips all have an enormous effect on the way the music ultimately sounds.

If you’re looking for a way to tell how skilled a piccolo player is, listen to the volume of the music—being able to play the piccolo quietly is immensely difficult, and is therefore the mark of a highly skilled musician. 

WHERE YOU CAN HEAR THE PICCOLO

If all of this has you curious about how these tiny instruments have been used throughout the centuries, look to classical music. Some of the most famous classical pieces to include piccolos are Gioacchino Rossini’s “Semiramide,” Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 6,” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9, Movement IV.” 

While it may be a small instrument, the piccolo is definitely mighty—give it a chance, and you might be surprised by how powerful it can be.