The Classical Flute Description Page

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Other names Transverse flute, Boehm flute
Playing range
Range flute.png
Related instruments

The Western concert flute or C flute (most flutes are tuned to the key of C) is a transverse (side-blown) woodwind instrument made of metal or wood. It is the most common variant of the flute. A musician who plays the flute is called a flautist, flutist, or flute player.

The C flute is used in many ensembles including concert bands, orchestras, flute ensembles, and occasionally jazz bands and big bands. Other flutes in this family include the piccolo, alto flute, bass flute, contrabass flute and double contrabass flute.



A flute from 1917.

The flute is a transverse (or side-blown) woodwind instrument that is closed at the blown end. The instrument is played by blowing a stream of air over the embouchure hole. The flute has 16 circular finger holes closed by keys, which can be used to produce high and low sounds depending on which finger holes are opened or closed as well as the direction and intensity of the air stream.

The standard concert flute is pitched in C and has a range of about three and a half octaves starting from the musical note C4 (corresponding to middle C on the piano), however, some experienced flautists are able to reach C8. Modern professional flutes may have a longer B-foot joint, which can reach B3.

The piccolo is also commonly used in Western orchestras. Alto and bass flutes, pitched a fourth and an octave below the concert flute, respectively, are also used occasionally.

Some jazz and rock ensembles include flutes. Since Boehm's fingering is used in saxophones as well as in concert flutes, many flute players "double" on saxophone for jazz and small ensembles and vice versa. Jethro Tull is probably the best-known rock group to make regular use of the flute (played by Ian Anderson).

The modern professional concert flute is generally made of silver, gold or combinations of the two; a few of the most expensive flutes are fabricated from platinum or palladium.[1] Student instruments are usually made of nickel-silver alloy, composed of nickel, copper, and zinc, (also known as "German silver") or nickel- or silver-plated brass. Headjoints are generally of the same metals, but may be made of wood. Wooden flutes were far more common before the early 20th century. The silver flute was introduced by Theobald Boehm in 1847 but did not become common until later in the 20th century. Wm. S. Haynes, a flute manufacturer in Boston, told Georges Barrere, an eminent flutist, that in 1905 he made one silver flute to every 100 wooden flutes but in the 1930s, he made one wooden flute to every 100 silver flutes.[2] Today the silver flute is still far more popular than the wooden flute and is accepted as the standard in most symphony orchestras.

The modern concert flute comes with various options. The B thumb key (invented and pioneered by Briccialdi) is practically standard. The B foot joint, however, is an option available on middle-to-upper end models. Other, more recent additions include a C-trill key, and an increasingly popular roller between the E-key and the C-key.

Open-hole flute

Open-hole "French model" flutes have circular holes in the centers of five of the keys. These holes are covered by the fingertips when the keys are depressed. Open-hole flutes are frequently chosen by concert-level players, although this preference is less prevalent in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Students may use temporary plugs to cover the holes in the keys until they can reliably cover the holes with the fingertips. Some players claim that open-hole keys permit louder and clearer sound projection in the flute's lower register.

Open-hole keys are needed for traditional Celtic music and other ethnic styles and for some modern concert pieces which require the player to produce harmonic overtones or to manipulate "breathy" sounds. Quarter tones, which fall between the half steps of the chromatic scale, are achievable on an open-hole flute.

The standard range of the concert flute extends from B3 to D7, sometimes to F7. There is an altissimo register cosisting of the octave above C7, but it is generally required only in advanced musical pieces.


Millions of works have been composed for flute. The flute has a long history because it is one of the oldest wind instruments and one of the most widespread instruments in the world. The following section follows a rough sketch history of the western concert flute. For flutes in general see flute.

Medieval flutes (1000–1400)

Throughout the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, transverse flutes were very uncommon in Europe, with the recorder being more prominent. The transverse flute arrived in Europe from Asia, via the Byzantine Empire, where it migrated to Germany and France. These flutes became known as "German flutes", to distinguish them from others, such as the recorder.[3] The flute became used in court music, along with the viol, and was used in secular music, although only in France and Germany. It would not spread to the rest of Europe for nearly a century. The first literary appearance of the transverse flute was made in 1285, by Adenet le Roi in a list of instruments he played. After this, a period of 70 years ensues, where there are few references to the flute.

Renaissance (1400–1600) and Baroque flutes (1600–1760)

Beginning in the 1470s, a military revival in Europe led to a revival in the flute. The Swiss army used flutes for signaling, and this helped the flute spread to all of Europe.[4] In the late 16th century, flutes began to be used in court and theatre music (predecessors of the orchestra), and the first flute solos. Following the 16th century court music, flutes began appearing in chamber ensembles. These flutes were often used as the tenor voice. However, flutes varied greatly in size and range. This made transposition necessary, which led flutists to use Guidonian hexachords (used by singers and other musicians since their introduction in the 11th century) to transpose music more easily.[5]

During the 16th and early 17th centuries in Europe, the transverse flute was available in several different sizes, in effect forming a consort much in the same way that recorders and other instrument families were used in consorts. At this stage, the transverse flute was usually made in one section (or two for the larger sizes) and had a cylindrical bore. As a result, this flute had a rather soft sound and limited range, and was used primarily in compositions for the "soft consort".

A modern copy of an 18th-century French traverso, by flute-maker Boaz Berney.

During the Baroque period, the transverse flute was redesigned. Now often called the traverso (from the Italian), it was made in three or four sections, or joints, with a conical bore from the head joint down. The conical bore design gave the instrument a wider range and a more penetrating sound, without sacrificing the softer, expressive qualities of the instrument. In addition to chamber music, the traverso began to be used in orchestral music.[citation needed]

In the baroque era, flutes become used in the scores of opera, ballet and chamber music. With this, composers now wrote music for the flute. These included Praetorius, Schütz, Rebillé and Descoteaux, Quantz, Bach, Telemann, Blavet, Vivaldi and Handel.

Because of the works of such composers, the flute became popular as a solo instrument.[citation needed] However there were few professional flutists who had the instrument as their main instrument (many had oboe as their main instrument).[citation needed] In 1707, Jacques Martin Hotteterre wrote the first method book on playing the flute: Principes de la flûte traversière. The 1730s brought an increase in operatic and chamber music feature of flutes. The end of this era found the publication of Essay of a Method of Playing the Transverse Flute by Quantz, considered[who?] the greatest exposition on flute method of its time.

Classical Flutes (1760–1820) and Romantic flutes (1820–1900)

The later half of the 18th century shows the first orchestras being formed, and the flute being a member thereof, featured in symphonies and concertos. Throughout the rest of the century the interest in flutes increased, and peaked in the early half of the 19th century.[6] Friedrich Dülon was the flutist considered a great artist, and Theobald Boehm began flute making. The style of flutist changed during the classical era; keys were added to the flute to strengthen its lower register, used by all professional flutists.

With the romantic era, flutes begin to lose favor. Symphony Orchestras featured brass and strings more, and many musicians did not accept Boehm’s new flute design, however they would slowly win favor throughout Europe as the century wore on, until the end of the century brought a flute revival spurred by artists such as Debussy, when the Boehm flute had won favor. The early 19th century saw a great variety in flute designs. Conical bores giving a penetrating sound were used in Vienna, English flutes had a range to low C and played best in flat keys, French flutes gave a softer tone, and German flutes blended best with orchestras.

Meyer flute

The Meyer flute was a popular flute in the mid 19th century. It was a combination of a traditional keyed flute and the Viennese flute, and became the most common throughout Europe and America. It had 12 keys, body of wood, head joint of metal and ivory, common at the end of the century.[7]

Boehm flute

The dimensions and key system of the modern western concert flute and its close relatives are almost completely the work of the great flautist, composer, acoustician and silversmith, Theobald Boehm, who patented his system in 1847. It was immediately popular, and spread worldwide in just a few years. Minor additions to and variations on his key system are common but the acoustical structure of the tube remains almost exactly as he designed it. Major innovations were the change to metal instead of wood, large straight tube bore, "parabolic" tapered headjoint bore, very large tone holes covered by keys, and the linked key system which simplified fingering somewhat. The most substantial departures from Boehm's original description are the universal elimination of the "crutch" for the left hand and the almost universal adoption of Briccialdi's thumb key mechanism instead of Boehm's. Boehm's key system, with minor variations, continues to be regarded as the most effective system of any modern woodwind, allowing trained players to perform with facility in all keys and with extraordinary velocity and brilliance. The modern flute has three octaves plus c-c-d in the fourth octave. Many modern composers used the high dm; while such extremes are not commonly used, the modern flute can perform up to an f in its fourth octave.

Giorgi flute

Quite at the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of the complexity of the key system developed by Boehm, was the Giorgi flute, an advanced form of the ancient holed flute. Patented in 1897, the Giorgi flute was designed without any mechanical keys, though the patent allows for the addition of keys as options. Giorgi enabled the performer to play equally true in all musical keys, as does the Boehm system. Giorgi flutes are now rarities, found in museums and private collections. The underlying principles of both flute patterns are virtually identical, with tone holes spaced as required to produce a fully chromatic scale. The player, by opening and closing holes, adjusts the effective length of the tube, and thus the rate of oscillation, which defines the audible pitch.

20th century flutes

A 1911 illustration of a Western Classical Flute

With the ability to record sound (beginning in the 1890s), flutes begin to regain their favorability, not seen since the classical era. Recordings of flute music became increasingly common, with professional flautists spending a great deal of time recording music. Beginning in the 1970s, models of alto and bass flutes were invented for modern music and flute ensembles[citation needed]. In the 1990s, the French model replaced the previously used pre-1940 Boehm model, used by professionals[citation needed]. The 20th century brought the first recordings of Baroque music on modern flutes.

Boehm-Lot-Cooper flute

In the 1950s, Albert Cooper modified the Boehm Flute to make playing modern music easier. The flute was tuned to A440, and the embouchure hole was cut in a new way to change the timbre of the flute. These flutes became the most used flutes by professionals and by amateurs.

Brögger flute

In the 1980s, Johan Brögger modified the Boehm-Lot-Cooper flute, by fixing two major problems that had existed for nearly 150 years: maladjustument between certain keys, and problems between the G key and the B♭ key. The result was non-rotating shafts, which gave a quieter sound and less friction on moving parts. Also the modifications allowed for springs to be adjusted individually, and the flute was strengthened. The Brögger flute is only made by the Brannen Brothers[8] and Miyazawa Flutes [9]

Kingma flute

The Kingma flute was developed at the end of the 20th century by Eva Kingma and Bickford Brannen to allow the use of quarter tones. It is essentially a Boehm flute, with the ability to play quarter tones and has better capability of producing multiphonics. These abilities are especially useful for those who wish to play eastern music and for jazz flutists. The Kingma system flute is only made by the Brannen Brothers[10] and Sankyo Flutes.

Appearance and development

The precursors of the modern concert flute were keyless wooden transverse flutes, similar to modern fifes. Later these were modified to include between one and eight keys to aid in producing chromatic notes. The most common pitch for such flutes was and remains "six-finger" D, but other pitches sometimes occur. These primitive and simple-system flutes continue to be used in folk music (particularly Irish traditional music) and in "historically informed" performances of Baroque (and earlier) music.

Members of the concert flute family

From high to low, the members of the concert flute family include:

Each of the above instruments has its own range. The piccolo reads music in C like the concert flute but sounds one octave higher. The alto flute is in the key of G, and extends the low register range of the flute to the G below middle C. Its highest note is a high G (4 ledger lines above the treble clef staff). The bass flute is an octave lower than the concert flute, and the contrabass flute is an octave lower than the bass flute.

Less commonly seen flutes include the treble flute in G, pitched one octave higher than the alto flute; the soprano flute, between the treble and concert; and the tenor flute or flûte d'amour in B or A, pitched between the concert and alto.

The lowest sizes (larger than the bass flute) have all been developed in the 20th century; these include the sub-bass flute, which is pitched in F, between the bass and contrabass; the subcontrabass flute (pitched in G or C), the contra-alto flute (pitched in G, one octave below the alto), and the double contrabass flute in C, one octave lower than the contrabass. The flute sizes other than the concert flute and piccolo are sometimes called harmony flutes.

Construction and materials

Concert flutes have three parts: the headjoint, the body, and the foot joint. The headjoint is sealed by a cork (or plug). It is possible to make fine adjustments to tuning by adjusting the headjoint cork, but usually it is left in the factory-recommended position around 17.3 mm from the centre of the embouchure hole for best scale. Gross, temporary adjustments of pitch are made by moving the headjoint in and out of the headjoint tenon. The player makes fine or rapid adjustments of pitch and timbre by adjusting the embouchure, and/or adjusting the position of the flute in relation to the player, i.e. side and out.

Often, a different head can make the flute play like a different flute. Some flute makers sell both end blown heads and transverse heads that can be interchanged. The same flute body can be used as a whistle/recorder style instrument, or as a transverse flute.

The most common mechanical options of flutes are "offset G" keys, "split E" modification, and a "B foot". All of Boehm’s original models had offset G keys, which are mechanically simpler, and permit a more relaxed hand position, especially for younger players. Offset G keys are more common on less-expensive flutes, but available on almost all makes at every level of expense. The in-line G was originally invented because it was easier to manufacture, and was used by the better commercial flutes, though currently even the best of flute makers offer the offset G as an option on their flutes. The split E modification makes the third octave E easier to play for some players, a less expensive option is the "low G insert". The B foot extends the range of the flute down one semitone to B below middle C.

Trill keys permit rapid alternation between two notes. Fingerings using the trill keys also permit a skilled player to reach four octaves of range, though the commonly used range is three octaves. The C trill key, an increasingly popular option available on many top-end professional flutes, allows many trills and tremolos that would otherwise be difficult or impossible.

Less expensive flutes are usually constructed of silver-plated nickel silver (nickel-bronze bell metal (63%Cu, 29%Zn, 5.5%Ni, 1.25%Ag, 0.75%Pb, alloyed:As, Sb, Fe, Sn)). Flutes that are more expensive are usually made of more precious metals, most commonly solid sterling silver (92.5 % silver), and other alloys including french silver (95%Ag, 5%Cu), "coin silver" (90% silver), or [Britannia silver] (95.8% silver). It is reported [11] that old Louis Lot French flutes have a particular sound by nature of their specific silver alloy. Professionals tend to play more expensive flutes made from more expensive materials.

Most alloys used contain significant amounts of copper or silver. These alloys are all biostatic because of the oligodynamic effect, and thus suppress growth of unpleasant molds, fungi or bacteria.

The tubes are usually drawn, especially in student flute models. Soldered tubes are thought by some to improve tone. Tone-holes may be either drawn or soldered, more often soldered in more expensive instruments. The rest of the mechanism is constructed by lost-wax castings and machining, with mounting posts and ribs silver-soldered to the tube. On the best flutes, the castings are forged to increase their strength.

The head-joint tube is tapered slightly towards the closed end. Boehm described the shape of the taper as parabolic. Examination of his flutes did not reveal a true parabolic curve, but the taper is more complex than a truncated cone. The head joint is the most difficult part to construct, because the lip plate and tone hole have critical dimensions, edges and angles, which vary slightly both between manufacturers and in individual flutes especially where they are hand-made. Head joint geometry appears particularly critical to acoustic performance and tone,[12] but there is no clear consensus on a particular shape amongst manufacturers. Acoustic impedance of the embouchure hole appears the most critical parameter.[13] Critical variables affecting this acoustic impedance include: chimney length (hole between lip-plate and head tube), chimney diameter, and radiuses or curvature of the ends of the chimney. Generally, the shorter the hole, the more quickly a flute can be played; the longer the hole, the more complex the tone. Finding a particularly good example of a flute is dependent on play testing. Head joint upgrades are usually suggested as a way to improve the tone of an instrument.

Tone holes are stopped by pads constructed of fish skin (gold-beater's skin) over felt, or in some very low-cost or “ruggedized” flutes, silicone rubber. Accurate shimming of pads on professional instruments to ensure pad sealing is very demanding of technician time. In the time-honored method, pads are seated on paper shims sealed with shellac. A recent development is "precision" pads fitted by a factory-trained technician. Student model flutes are more likely to have pads bedded in thicker materials like wax or hot melt glue. Larger sized closed hole pads are also held in with screws and washers. Synthetic pads appear more water resistant but may be susceptible to mechanical failure (cracking).

A closed hole "Take-down" flute in case

Flutes may have open or closed tone holes (ring keys). Student models generally have closed holes for ease of playing. Flutes for more advanced players generally have open-holed, "French" keys in order to facilitate alternate fingerings, "extended techniques" (e.g. quarter-tones, glissando) and multiphonics. Multiphonics and microtones are possible on closed-hole flutes, but not on entire register and are hard to get; glissandos are limited to half tone only in this kind of flute). Many flute-players prefer these open-hole keys (some say that open-holes create a better projection of the sound). Closed holes permit a more relaxed hand position for some players, which can help their playing. Plugs can be used to seal off the open holes of learning students.

Flute key axles (or "steels") are typically made of drill rod or stainless steel. These mechanisms need periodic disassembly, cleaning, and relubrication, typically performed by a trained technician, for optimal performance. James Phelan, a flute maker and engineer, recommends single-weight motor oil (SAE 20 or 30) as a key lubricant demonstrating superior performance and reduced wear, in preference to commercial key oils.)[14]

Most flute keys have needle springs, made of phosphor bronze, stainless steel, beryllium copper, or a gold alloy. The B thumb keys typically have flat springs. Phosphor bronze is by far the most common material for needle springs because it is relatively inexpensive, makes a good spring, and is resistant to corrosion. Unfortunately, it is prone to metal fatigue. Stainless steel also makes a good spring and is resistant to corrosion. Gold springs are found mostly in high-end flutes because of its cost.

Variation in materials used

Inexpensive Western concert flutes are normally made of brass, polished and then silver-plated and lacquered to prevent corrosion. They can also be made from a range of metals such as silver (Britannia or Sterling); gold (yellow, white, or rose); platinum ; and even alloys. Composites such as Carbon Fiber can be used as well. They can be either gold on the inside and silver on the outside, or vice versa. However, the idea that different materials can significantly affect sound quality is under some contention, and some argue that different metals make less difference in sound quality than different flautists playing the same flute.[15]

Most metal flutes are made of alloys that contain significant amounts of copper or silver. These alloys are biostatic because of the oligodynamic effect, and thus suppress growth of unpleasant molds, fungi and bacteria.

Good instruments are designed to prevent or reduce galvanic corrosion between the tube and the key mechanism.

Spring material for concert quality instruments is generally made of gold alloys, bronze springs are generally used for student and mid-range models.

Flutes can also be made out of wood.

Flute terms

  • Flautist (also "flutist" or "flute player") — one who plays the flute.
  • Crown — the cap at the end of the head joint that unscrews to expose the cork, and which helps keep the head joint cork positioned at the proper depth of insertion.
  • Lip plate — the part of the head joint which contacts the player's lower lip, allowing precise positioning and direction of the air stream.
  • Riser — a metal section shaped like a 'top hat with the top cut off', which raises the lip plate from the head joint tube.
  • Head joint — the top section of the flute, has the tone hole/lip plate where the player initiates the sound by blowing air across the opening.
  • Body — the middle section of the flute with the majority of the keys.
  • Closed-hole — a finger key which is fully covered.
  • Open-hole — a finger key with a perforated center, allowing the use of techniques such as pitch bending or glissando.
  • Pointed arms — arms connecting the keys to the rods which are pointed and extend to the keys' centers; found on more expensive flutes.
  • French model — a flute with pointed French-style arms and open-hole finger keys, as distinguished from the plateau style with closed holes.
  • Inline G — the standard position of the left-hand G (third-finger) key — in line with the first and second keys.
  • Offset G — a G key which is extended to the side of the other two left-hand finger keys (along with the G key), thus requiring less bending of the wrist, rendering it easier to reach and cover effectively, and less uncomfortable and fatiguing to play.
  • Split E mechanism — a system whereby the second G key (positioned below the G key) is closed when the right middle-finger key is depressed, enabling a clearer third octave E; standard on most flutes, but omitted from many intermediate- and professional-grade flutes, as it can reduce the tonal quality of 3rd octave F.
  • Trill Keys — two small, teardrop shaped keys between the right-hand keys on the body; the first enables an easy C-D trill, and the second enables C-D. A-B lever or "trill" key is located in line directly above the right first-finger key. An optional C trill key which facilitates the trill from B to C is sometimes found on intermediate- and professional-quality flutes. The two trill keys are also used in playing the high B, and B. Although they can be played without them it speaks better with them.
  • Foot joint — the last section of the flute (played farthest towards the right).
  • C foot — a foot joint with a lowest note of middle C; typical on student model flutes.
  • B foot — a foot joint with a lowest note of B below middle C, which is an option for intermediate and professional-grade flutes.
  • D roller — an optional feature added to the E key on the foot joint, facilitating the transition between E/D and D/C, and C.
  • "Gizmo key" — an amusingly named optional key on the B foot joint which although cannot be used to play low B, due to the fact that it only puts down the B key and not the C and C as needed to play the low B, It can help assist in playing C4, increasing the tone and ability to speak.

In jazz

Flutes were rarely used in early jazz. Drummer and bandleader Chick Webb was among the first to use flutes in jazz, beginning in the late 1930s. Frank Wess was among the first noteworthy flautists in jazz, in the 1940s.[16]

Since 1950, a number of notable performers have used flutes in jazz. Frank Foster and Frank Wess (Basie band), Jerome Richardson (Jones/Lewis big band) and Lew Tabackin (Akiyoshi/Tabackin big band) used flutes in big band contexts. In small band contexts notable performers included Bud Shank, Herbie Mann, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Lloyd and Hubert Laws. Several modal jazz and avant-garde jazz performers have utilized the flute: Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers and James Spaulding. Many saxophonists take up flute as a second instrument, and vice versa.

In popular music

While the sound of the Western concert flute might generally be said to clash with the sound of typical rock music, the classical- and jazz-influenced symphonic tendencies of progressive rock opened the way for the use of flute within the genre. Ian Anderson of the progressive band Jethro Tull is probably the most notable flautist in popular music.


  1. ^ Toff, Nancy (1996). The flute book: a complete guide for students and performers. Oxford University Press. pp. 20. ISBN 9780195105025. 
  2. ^ Goldman, Edwin Franko (1934) "Band Betterment" Carl Fischer Inc. New York. p. 33
  3. ^ Powell, Ardal, Dr. "Medieval flutes". Retrieved 15 November 2006. 
  4. ^ Powell, Ardal, Dr. "Military flutes". Retrieved 15 November 2006. 
  5. ^ Powell, Ardal, Dr. "Renaissance flutes". Retrieved 15 November 2006. 
  6. ^ Powell, Ardal, Dr. "Classical flutes". Retrieved 15 November 2006. 
  7. ^ Powell, Ardal, Dr. "19th Century flutes". Retrieved 15 November 2006. 
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Kingma System Flutes", Brannen Brothers Website . Retrieved 12 February 2010.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Spell, Eldred (1983). "Anatomy of a Headjoint". The Flute Worker. ISSN 0737-8459. 
  13. ^ Wolfe, Joe. "Acoustic impedance of the flute". Flute acoustics: an introduction. 
  14. ^ Phelan 2001, p58.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Scott Yanow: Frank Wess — Biography (at


  • Boehm, Theobald; Dayton C. Miller (trans.) (1964). The Flute and Flute-Playing in Acoustical, Technical, and Artistic Aspects. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486212599. 
  • [[James Phelan[disambiguation needed] |Phelan, James]] (2001). The Complete Guide to the Flute and Piccolo. Burkart-Phelan, Inc.. ISBN 0970375301. 
  • Rockstro, Richard Sheperd (1890). A Treatise on the Construction, the History and the Practice of the Flute, Including a Sketch of the Elements of Acoustics, and Critical Notices of Sixty Celebrated Flute-Players. London: Rudall, Carte and Co., Ltd..  Second Edition, London: Rudall, Carte and Co., Ltd., 1928. Reprint of the second edition, in four volumes, Buren: Frits Knuf, 1986.
  • Theaker, Daniel (1994). Scales and Arpeggios for the Flute (Vol.1&2). Mayfair Montgomery Publishing. 
  • Toff, Nancy (1996). The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers. Oxford University Press.  Second edition.
  • Powell, Ardal, Dr. "". Retrieved 25 August 2006. 

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Flute". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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