Tutti Fluti

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End-blown or Rim-Flutes

These are the great virtuoso instruments of the Near and Middle East, North Africa, and in most of the areas that were once under the sway of the Ottoman Empire.

They are also known as rim flutes because the air-stream is directed across the rim of the top of the tube, and they should be better-known as such, for two other types of flute are blown from the end, the notch flute and the duct flute, though these two are known by those more specific attributes. Nevertheless, end-blown flutes is often the term commonly used for them.

The blowing end is sometimes plain, just the cut-off top, but more often the outside circumference of the rim is knife-chipped to make a sharper edge, which improves the sound, or evenly ground down to a bevel edge to make the edge smoother and the same thickness all round the top, and so avoid any perturbations of the air-stream. Occasionally, as in Turkey, a mushroom-shaped mouthpiece may be added at the top of the tube.

It is this type of flute that is known to date back to Palaeolithic times, the Aurignacian period, when humans first came into Europe between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago.1 Because the instruments found are all of bone, with one or two of ivory, it has to be assumed that they were preceded by similar instruments of cane and reed, and of course we cannot know how far back flutes of those materials had been used because they have not survived burial in the earth for so many thousands of years in the way that bone can survive. Nor, because so far there has been little archaeological investigation of such early sites in North Africa, do we as yet have any evidence for bone flutes from that area, through which some of the incursion into Europe seems to have happened, nor have as yet such flutes been found in the early Near Eastern sites, the other main emigration route from Africa. Iain Morley’s book, The Prehistory of Music (Oxford: OUP, 2013), gives a list, with comprehensive details of all known whistles and flutes, from the earliest down to the end of the Neolithic period, and it also lists all those which had been thought to be flutes but which further investigation now suggests were not, with fingeholes and other indicators of musical use more likely to have been caused accidentally or by animals gnawing the bone.

The rim flute is normally played slightly obliquely, with the rim partly inserted between the slightly open lips at one edge of the mouth. Getting the angle and speed of blowing right to produce a full tone rather than just a hissing sound is a knack, but once secured and remembered, the player has little more trouble than players of other styles of flute. Most such instruments today have six or seven fingerholes, with or without a thumbhole, and sometimes a number of tuning vents below the lowest fingerhole. Six holes is enough for a diatonic scale, as all penny-whistle players will know, and any chromatic notes required can be produced by cross-fingering (covering whatever holes are necessary below an open hole) or by partly opening a fingerhole (known as half-holing).

Subtleties of intonation, commonly needed in areas where quarter-tones and other microtonal tunings are used, are achieved by slightly altering the angle of the flute against the lips, or by slightly covering or opening that end against the lip. Covering the end flattens the pitch, and opening it raises it, because this decreases or increases the area of open holes. This may be necessary more often than one might expect because fingerholes are usually placed by finger-widths between them, rather than by precise measurement, and my fingers may be wider or narrower than yours. Also, the fingerholes of most instruments of reed or cane are bored by a hot iron rather than by any precisely measured drill bit and therefore their diameters vary slightly, and this affects the pitch when they are opened. Since a very common use of these instruments is playing alone, there is normally no precise basic pitch, whereas the intervals between each pitch do need to be exact if the performance is to be ‘in tune’, though for instruments that are to be played in ensembles, a precise length must be determined also.

In a number of areas, especially Turkey and those parts of south-eastern Europe which were once part of the Ottoman Empire, solo players often accompany their music with a hummed drone, known in Romania as the ison. As the melody moves, so also may the pitch of the drone, from one base note to another. The use of the drone has a marked effect on the sound of the flute, adding a considerable richness to the tone, with a suggestion of much added overtones. Flutes of all sorts have on the whole a weaker overtone spectrum than reed-blown instruments, something much closer to a pure sine-tone, and the ison seems to fill up that spectrum.

As I said at the beginning, the rim flutes are virtuoso instruments, and this is because of the subtleties of intonation and tone quality described above and that are available to the players. In many of the cultures in which they are used, mostly the Middle and Near East and Central Asia, they are the first choice of the professional flautists, while the amateurs choose the duct flutes that are also available in the same areas for their ease of sound production. They are rivalled in virtuostic performance only by such notch-flute performers as those on the shakuhachi players in Japan and those of the great transverse flute, bānsrī, traditions of India.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

  1. See another paper on this site, ‘Origins of Music’, or on the Frontiers publications site.

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