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Origin of the Flute

Anyone who can control the elements is powerful, and he who can emulate them, and so by sympathetic magic can make them obey him, is powerful indeed.

So who first heard the wind whistle across the top of a broken reed and learned to imitate that sound by his or her breath, and with it cause the wind to blow and call up the clouds that would bring the much-needed rain? This of course we can never know, for it was far back in prehistory.

Wind magic, rain magic, sometimes they must have worked if only by coincidence, even if sometimes they did not work, but one thing is certain, magic or no, that that breath created the origin of the flute.

All our flutes derive from that simplest of instruments, the end-blown whistle.

Such instruments are still with us today. People in a village in Thailand use a simple, short, tube of reed to lure a toad which they find delicious to eat. People everywhere blow one as a signal. Our children blow across the top of a bottle or, if any still use those archaic tools, the top of a fountain pen or a key with a hollow shaft. Musicians tie such tubes together, tubes of graduated length, to create a panpipe, that instrument of ancient Greek legend, the syrinx, that is still widely used both by musicians and our children. Folk musicians play it worldwide, Mozart wrote for it in his opera Die Zauberflöte. To it and to many other derivatives of that earliest and simplest of wind instruments we shall return in other papers in this sequence on my website.

Simple indeed, for nothing is needed save the human breath and a tube, stopped at the lower end by a natural node, a plug, or a finger for the easiest of blowing. As one blows across the edge of the top, the physicists tell us that vortices are formed, alternately inside and outside the tube. If the periodicity, the rate at which the vortices form, i.e. the air-speed, matches the acoustic length of the tube, we have a sound. If the tube is long enough and we increase the air speed, we get a higher pitch, the first overtone a twelfth (an octave and a fifth) above the lowest pitch.

An open-ended tube is somewhat more difficult to sound. The angle of blowing, relative to the top of the tube, must be exactly right, as must the air-speed. The pitch for an open tube of the same length as the stopped tube will be an octave higher and the first overtone will be an octave above the basic pitch rather than a twelfth. These differences are beyond our control for they are fundamental laws of acoustics, though, as we shall see in other papers on this site, we can tinker with them a little so as to get a wider choice of pitches from what may appear to be a one- or two-note whistle.

What is the difference between a whistle and a flute? Nobody has an answer to this that can be universally accepted. A whistle produces one note, a flute many? No, for many whistles can be made to produce more than one note. A whistle is for signalling, a flute for music? No, for some peoples may use a whistle for signalling and others may use an identical instrument for music, either within the same people or by neighbouring peoples. So any answer is purely arbitrary within the pages of any one paper. I will, probably with a few exceptions as we go along, use whistles for signalling, usually with only one or two notes as with cuckoo-whistles or dog calls, though far more with the boatswain’s call, and will use flutes for those used for musical purposes, even though I have blown a cuckoo-whistle for an opera (drummers do not only hit things) and the swannee-whistle is much used for music as well as for a toy.

Flutes, and whistles, can be sounded in many ways. The simplest is as above, just blowing across the top of a tube, with an open or a closed end, or across a hole in a vessel of any shape but wider than a tube with no other outlet save, very often, one or more fingerholes. These first are called end-blown flutes or rim-flutes, the latter the more accurate term, because both notch and most duct flutes are also blown from the end, but the former is the more common term. Rim-flute is the better term since you blow across the rim of the end at the top of the tube or across the hole in the side of the vessel; these latter are called vessel flutes or ocarinas.

The tube can be somewhat easier to sound if at one point on the circumference of the blowing end a notch is carved with a sharp edge at its base, into which the air-stream can be aimed. There are comparatively few notch tubular whistles, though what is often seen is a demi-lune lowering of one side of the blowing end, a stage intermediate between the edge-flute and the notch flute. So far as I know, there are no notch vessel flutes – or at least I have never met one. But there are many notch flutes, for which see a separate paper in this series of papers on Flutes.

Next, in what seems to be a developmental sequence, the notch get moved down the tube and is transformed into a window or a mouth (both terms are used, though mouth is preferable1) with a passageway or duct leading the air-stream to the sharp edge at the base of the mouth. There are many forms of duct and many designs of mouth. The geometry of both, especially that of the mouth, will affect the sound but not all peoples have the same preferences for tone quality and sound. Just as one example: because of differences in the geometry of the duct and the mouth, the original baroque recorders sound very different from our modern versions of any ‘baroque’ recorder. Many original baroque recorders were revoiced by Arnold and Carl Dolmetsch to produce the sound that they preferred, just as all original Stradivarius violins were modified by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume and others in the early nineteenth century, to produce the sound that they preferred, though this was also in the course of modifying them to withstand the strains of modern performance and pitch.

The simplest of all ducts is provided by the player’s tongue, protruding into the top of the tube, to aim the air to the mouth cut in the wall of the instrument. There is no way to tell, with archaeologically-found bone flutes and whistles, whether they are missing a plug or block (the latter the preferred term, as in the German name Blockflöte) of wood or other material, or whether they never had one and the player’s tongue was used instead. Today, the preferred material for the block is wood (save with our plastic recorders and whistles), for the right kinds of wood are stable, provided the airway is regularly cleaned and dried after use, and will retain the desired geometry. In the past and still in many folk traditions, other materials are and have been in used, such as pith and wax, the latter often used, for example in South America, to transform a notch flute into a duct flute.

Because the duct automatically leads the air to the voicing edge, duct flutes and whistles are by far the easiest to blow and to play, and therefore the duct-flutes flutes and whistles, both tubular and vessel shaped, are equally by far the commonest forms of flute around the world.

But this does not mean that they are the best.

With a rim-flute or a notch flute, the player can produce many subtleties of tuning and tone quality which the use of a duct prohibits. By slightly varying the angle of the air-stream, or more commonly by slightly covering the upper end with the lip, the area of the open end can be changed, opening it to raise the pitch slightly, covering it more to flatten the pitch. One of the problems of the flute, and also a useful property of the whistles, is that blowing slightly harder to increase the volume of sound also slightly sharpens the pitch. This was why Bach specified a flauto d’echo instead of a normal flauto, as the recorder was called in his day, for Brandenburg Concerto no. 4, in the slow movement of which phrases are repeated, first forte and then piano. With the normal recorder, the pitch would be slightly flatter in piano than it would be in forte, which means that Bach must have had some special form of recorder in mind for that work. By using the lip, this change can be countered on the rim-blown and notch flutes, as it is today by the players of our transverse flute. Equally, the players of these instruments can play in the many different tuning systems used around the world without the more complex adjustments of fingerhole covering that are necessary to do the same on duct flutes.

Therefore, within many cultures today around the world, especially perhaps in the Balkans and the Near East, one finds the professionals, or the most highly-regarded players, using end or notch flutes and the amateurs and the children using duct flutes.

‘Duct flute’ is the best term for those instruments, because the term ‘whistle flute’ leads to an obvious confusion – is it a whistle or a flute? And not all whistles have ducts as we have already seen. Another term, ‘fipple flute’, is a pure nonsense because the word ‘fipple’ has never been clearly defined. Many authors have used it: some for the whole head, some for the block, some for the duct, some for the mouth. If everybody uses the word ‘fipple’ for a different part of the instrument, then indeed we have a nonsensical term, one which conveys no sense. The two things that are essential for a duct flute to work are a duct and a block. So if we leave block flute to our German colleagues, let us use duct flute in English if only because one form of the block, a human tongue, is ephemeral, leaving the head unblocked the moment the player ceases to play but re-creating the duct the moment he resumes.

As I have said, it would seem that this is a developmental sequence, rim-blown, then notch-blown to make it easier, and finally duct-blown to make to make it even easier, but we have, and can never have any evidence for this. That is because, if it really was a developmental sequence, it happened at such high antiquity, in or before the Neolithic period. This was when humans first learned to make pottery, or to grow crops in settled communities (the two basic criteria for the Neolithic) and to make and to play duct flutes. We have many such instruments from that period, those surviving being made of bone. This is because it is only bone that survives, buried in the earth, for many thousands of years. End-blown whistles are far earlier, dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic period, perhaps even to the times before our fully human species, Homo sapiens, came into existence. If we have evidence for bone whistles, and perhaps flutes, from Neanderthal times, then we must assume that the more easily made flutes and whistles of reed, cane, or wood were earlier still, perhaps into the times of Homo Heidelbergensis and the common ancestor of Neanderthals and true humans.2 But these have all rotted away, whereas bone survived. So these bone whistles and flutes, with some notch flutes, are our earliest flutes today, but they can never have been the earliest of all, if only because drilling a hole and shaping a mouth in bone is far harder to do than doing the same in the softer materials of reed or wood.

Finally, the most recent type of flutes are the transverse, those blown across the side as in our modern orchestral instruments. Worldwide and historically, these are the rarest, common historically only in India and the Orient, whence they spread to the rest of the world.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

  1. See Laurence Picken, Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey (London: OUP, 1975), 424-31, for a very detailed survey of the typology and nomenclature of flues and ducts.

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

Endblown or Rim Flutes >>