The Western flute used to be considered a masculine instrument, but it’s now one of the most feminine. Why is that, and when did the gender association change?
I spent my first year after graduating from college working at a family-owned music shop. During rental season, my coworkers and I would sometimes try to guess what instrument new band students would choose when they came in for a rental. One day, a boy walked in wearing one of those bright, multicolored hats with a spinning propeller on top, and I thought instantly, “that kid’s gonna play the trumpet.” So I was totally surprised when he asked for a flute instead.
I spent the next hour and a half introducing him to the instrument and walking his parents through a rental contract. But after he left, I wondered what his first week of band was gonna be like… and was not surprised when he came back a week later looking to trade his flute for a brass instrument.
So where do these ideas about girls’ and boys’ instruments come from? A few weeks ago, I came across an online chat thread debating whether the flute was “girly” and saw some interesting things pop up in the comments. There were a surprising amount of guys jumping in defensively with links to performances by famous male flutists like James Galway, Emmanuel Pahud, and Ian Andersen. There were also some folks from non-Western cultures chiming in with friendly reminders that this stereotype was not universal and not a bias they had ever personally experienced. Lastly, there were a few music teachers attempting to moderate the discussion by insisting, in various forms, that “music doesn’t have gender!”
Spoiler alert: it absolutely does. And these teachers’ comments were what troubled me most in this entire thread, because if they’re pretending this issue away and don’t have the language or understanding to help unpack this, then our students are never going to learn to move past these biases for themselves. So here’s a brief introduction to the gender associations of musical instruments, with a focus on the flute as a case study.
What is Gender??
Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.World Health Organization
First off, we need to start off with a definition of gender. A couple important things to realize here are 1) the concept of gender is more fluid than you might think, since it also encompasses our interactions with the society around us – including social gatherings that involve music; and 2) even if it’s not explicitly acknowledged, institutions are also gendered, and the groups that we belong to also contribute to our social identities. Look at how many more male conductors and section leaders we see in modern orchestras, and the demographics of many boards of directors. That has a huge trickle-down effect on the way that these organizations are run and the kind of music that they program. Not to mention that a vast majority of Western classical music from historical periods was written from a masculine perspective and catered to a male aesthetic. All of this results in a strong patriarchal bias in Western classical music.
On a side note – yes, musical instruments are inanimate objects. But music as an art form has very strong cultural associations, and it’s difficult to separate the sounds that instruments make and the way that their music makes us feel from the objects (and people) creating them. The language we use to talk about musical instruments, performers, and the institutions they’re a part of has been tied together for centuries.
Even if it’s possible to create non-gendered music, we still need to acknowledge the gender biases that have layered up over time in order to find ways to start unraveling them and lessen their hold on future generations. So, even if you’re firmly in camp “music doesn’t have gender” (or perhaps especially so, in order to help make that belief a reality), understanding the ways that audiences interpret and interact with classical music is an essential part of being a well-rounded performer.
That said, we are dealing with at least three different layers of the classical music tradition, and it helps to be specific when referring to each one – the musical instruments themselves as objects, Western art music as a form of expression that’s created using those instruments, and classical music as a Western cultural institution. The associations we have with each of those layers are closely related, but affect our lives in different ways – especially for folks who are not white, male, and cishet. Each individual layer is its own can of worms, but for now I’m gonna focus on the types of sounds created by orchestral instruments and the social environments where you’d typically find them played.
These small social gatherings with family and friends could have taken place as a part of providing entertainment for guests, caring for their husbands and/or male relatives, or as part of an effort to attract a suitor. As a result, the male gaze played a huge role in determining which instruments were the most suitable.
“…indeed it can hardly be recommended or expected that the professors of fair faces and soft swelling lips should consent to puff out the one and conceal the other by use of the flute, while such a display of all the charms of grace and beauty wait upon the use of the harp.”N.M. James, 1826
Back in the heyday of classical music, keyboard instruments, the harp, and singing were considered to be the most appropriate for women. The lute and guitar were also acceptable, though they were a little less common. Why? Simple – if forming the proper embouchure or playing position “deformed” a woman’s face, that instrument was deemed unsuitable. Puff out your cheeks while playing a wind instrument? Not if it makes your face look ugly. 😧 If it looks like you have a double chin when you bend over the shoulder rest of a violin? That’s out of the question too. And heaven forbid you try to play a percussion instrument (even though that doesn’t affect your face) – women were expected to appear dainty, and striking a drum requires strength and power. 😨
“You must strive as much as possible to acquire the tone quality of those flute players who know how to produce a clear, penetrating, thick, round, masculine, and withal pleasing sound from the instrument.”Johann Joachim Quantz, 1752
However, gender biases from this era weren’t solely based on appearances. Check out Quantz’s definition of the “ideal” flute tone from his book On Playing the Flute. This is still a standard text, but I’m always surprised every time I hear a woman quoting it – the word “masculine” is literally in his description! (Also, if I read that list of adjectives out of context, I would never have guessed that he was referring to a flute 😬). My copy is an old edition from the 1960s, so if you have a version that uses different phrasing, I’m curious what words the translator used. This is from chapter 4, paragraph 3 – if yours is different, send me a message and let me know! 🙂
One more note about historical contexts – I’ve seen the military association argument come up a lot in reference to the masculine associations of horns and trumpets, but that isn’t actually unique to brass instruments. Horns were associated with hunting and bugles were used by cavalry units, but instruments from the flute family were also common in the military. Fife & drum corps commonly accompanied infantry units, where those instruments were used to play upbeat marching tunes and convey signals. The tradition of using fifes in the military dates all the way back to mercenary corps in Switzerland during the Renaissance.
“The flute, probably is the most comely musical instrument for women, and it fits the conventional male idea of how strong women are, and what kind of bird-like sounds it is fitting for women to make.”John Sherman, 1962
Here’s one popular theory: brass instruments are loud, lower pitched, physically larger, and heavier. This lines up nicely with how boys are encultured to be strong and assertive, and the pitch matches more closely with their actual voices. The flute is a small, light, and dainty-looking instrument with a softer tone, which aligns with the (patriarchal) idea that women are comparatively weaker and more demure. It also sounds at a higher pitch, more analogous to a soprano singing voice. In general, the upper voices in both winds and strings have come to be considered more feminine over the past century.
Language and Representation
An interesting side note: in languages that gender nouns, the words for different types of musical instruments are masculine in some languages but feminine in others. Personally, I don’t read anything into this since they don’t necessarily correspond to these cultures’ gender stereotypes regarding music-making. For example, la flûte is feminine in French, but it’s taken a long time for the Paris Conservatory to fully accept women among their ranks (their first female Professor of Flute was Sophie Cherrier, appointed in 1998). However, the language we speak and the way that we use it is a huge factor in the way that we interpret and interact with the world around us, which is why an awareness of the gender gap in Western classical music is so important.
When a student starts a band or orchestra program, they don’t necessarily come in with an understanding that certain instruments are more appropriate for girls or for boys. That comes from the types of people that they see represented playing each instrument, and the way that the adults in their lives talk about them. As musicians and educators, that’s one of the reasons why showing diverse representation is so important. Be careful of the types of descriptive words that you use when you’re talking about the different instrument families, and if you show videos of performances to your students, make sure to show both women and men playing each instrument. And, most importantly, talk to your students’ parents – don’t underestimate the impact of what kids pick up from their home environments. The ideas and beliefs that they pick up from their families can sometimes have a bigger influence than the things that they learn at school.
Musical instruments may not technically have gender, but the way that we interact with each other while playing them or listening to their music does. If we’re ever to be able to create spaces where gender roles are not an obstacle in Western classical music, we need to start by acknowledging and addressing the elephant in the room.
If you’d like to learn more about the gender bias in Western classical music, check out these studies exploring representation in modern orchestras and influences on the instrument choices of young musicians!
2022 data from Protestra on the gender representation of orchestral sections in 20 of the top orchestras in the US.
This recent analysis of concert programming from top US orchestras illustrates some of the institutional gender bias across the country. If you’re in the US, check this out to see how your local major orchestra stacks up!
An interesting study from 2004 using a synthesized tone test to determine students’ preferred timbre vs that of the instruments they actually chose to play. The author concludes that their choices were heavily influenced by gender bias, most strongly coming from the children’s parents.