Posted in For Project 7 Examples

Example 3 Research, Part 3a: Overlapping of the Words: Flute, Whistle and Pipe; and the Primitive Reedless Woodwind Aerophones

For my third example, using the previously explained nonatonic scale, I decided to write a piece for the flute. This is the first part of the research about the instrument, focusing on the earliest period of its emergence.

In the broadest sense, flute is a reedless woodwind aerophone – a hollow tube (or sometimes a globe and other shapes), which produces a tone when a stream of air is projected against the sharp edge of its opening. (Fig. 1) Under this loose definition, the term flute is a general name for a very large and varied family of wind instruments, but this denotation overlaps with the terms pipe and whistle.


Fig. 1. The mechanics of reedless woodwind instruments

Pipe can refer to not only the specific instrument – the three-holed pipe played with tabor (Fig. 3), which is classified under the flute family, but it can also have a very broad meaning – any instrument in the form of tube, or any aerophone in general, with or without reed. In this sense, pipe can be categorized as the generic term, with the flute being its subcategory.


Fig. 3. The tabor pipe

There are some differences between flute and whistle, mainly that the whistle is usually shorter and often found without fingerholes, thus sounding one pitch. However, as Montagu (2007: 48) demonstrates:

“One could define a whistle as a flute that produces only one note, but we have already encountered the Venda and Lithuanian flute bands in which each instrument only produces one note. Equally, we have many whistles, instruments used for signaling, that have more than one fingerhole…” 

He continues that even the assumption that the whistles are mostly used for signaling, while flutes for music-making, is difficult, because one same instrument may be used for different purposes depending on the region.

A very interesting example is the tin whistle (Fig. 2), a name actually referring to the reedless woodwind musical instrument with six fingerholes, although it is also known under other names, like the more flute-like – tin flageolet. This may be because of the majority of whistles being duct blown (although there are other kinds), so much so that the duct flutes in general – the group where the tin whistle belongs, are often called flute whistles. (Montagu, 2007: 49)


Fig. 2. The tin whistle, or tin flageolet

The two terms are used particularly interchangeably when describing the primitive reedless woodwind aerophones, which were the first melodic instruments to be invented in almost every part of the prehistoric world. The unearthed extant examples are made of bone, usually tubular in shape, and depending on the source, we find all the previously mentioned cases – they may treated as whistles, despite having multiple fingerholes, while in a different source, they may be called flutes, even if they appears as scarcely anything more than little one-note whistles. Other times, because many of them are duct blown (Sachs, 1940: 44), they may also be called whistle flutes.

In any regard, I was quite surprised that these reedless woodwind – melodic instruments, were the most ancient musical artefacts to be excavated, and not the older percussion – rhythmic instruments. Made from bear femur and around 43,000 up to 82,000 years old, is the oldest discovered instrument, found in Slovenia, dubbed the Neanderthal flute. (Fig. 4)



Fig. 4. The Slovenian Neanderthal flute

The name was probably given because of the shape and fingerholes (although as we’ve seen they aren’t any strict distinctions), two complete and two incomplete – one on each end, meaning that this bone fragment consisted of four or more holes before being broken off. There are some debates on whether or not the bone was actually used for music, and there are also questions regarding whether it was man-made.

While Morley proposes the carnivore origin of the holes, Fink writes about the human origin, arguing that the probability of four holes being placed randomly in line in a recognizable musical scale (he proposed diatonic, but Nowell and Chase write that the bone is too short to play the diatonic notes in tune) being very low – one in many tens of thousands. Turk, who discovered the fragment, also defends the origin of the holes being man-made:

“If this probability were greater (and of course it isn’t), it is likely that there would have been more such finds, since … carnivores in cave dens were at least as active on bones, if not more so, than people in cave dwellings.”

Without going further into the discussion, I wanted to mention that I visited Slovenia just recently. Although I didn’t have the time to visit the museum to see the original fragment, since I only had a short stay during a larger trip, I got the opportunity to see a copy of it in the Ljubljana castle. (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5. The Ljubljana castle (left) and the copy of the Neanderthal flute (right)

The first undisputed examples of the bone flute/whistle are from the Paleolithic period. The earliest is the Hohle Fels flute (Fig. 6) of the Aurignacian culture, found in Germany, made of radius of a griffon vulture, possibly carved 35,000 years ago. (Fig. 6) Rysdyk describes it having tin whistle-like sound and a guardian article described it as “…basically an ice age penny whistle”. It has five-holes and seems to have been constructed to play the pentatonic scale. Here is how it may have sounded (the playing starts around 1:41):

In the Geisenklösterle cave, a swan bone flute was discovered, and also fragments of three mammoth-ivory flutes discovered. ()

Particularly the mammoth-ivory fragments, as the World Heritage Centre states, reflect

“…a remarkable piece of musical engineering, since the process of manufacturing a flute from massive ivory is much more complex and time consuming than carving a flute from hollow bird bone. One advantage that an ivory flute provides is that its size and its tonal qualities are not predetermined by the raw material itself.”

Among the other examples, we have the six bone whistles from Exeter, as named in the Archaeological Report, despite the fingerholes. Then we have twenty-two Stone Age bone flutes/whistles at the Isturitz site in the Pyreness Mountains of France.

The oldest found in China are a series of 9,000 years old Neolithic bone flutes from Jia Hu. Two from the oldest period are tetratonic and pentatonic, while the middle phase contains the hexatonic and the final phase the heptatonic flutes. Some even have an added smaller hole for tone and pitch adjustment, and one of them is still playable today. There were also one hundred and sixty bone whistles found in HeMuDu, about 7,000 years old. Here is an interesting piece portraying the hemudu people, played on the bone whistle/flute.

In Caral-Supe of Peru, the reedless woodwind made of bones were unearthed, dating between 2,600 and 2,000 BC. They are played by blowing the central hole. The most bizarre example of these instruments I’ve found are those made by native Carobs of Guyana, also from South America, who used the human bones from their enemies to carve the instruments. Today, eagle bone whistle is still used by shamans in Asia and also by the Native Americans.

Another type of reedless aerophones existed in the ancient world – vessel whistles or flutes. In the early stage, they were made of clay, in different shapes. The oldest are believed to date back over 12,000 years, probably appearing in South and Central America, being types of ocarina, which are also common in other parts of the world, such as Africa. The earliest extant ocarinas though, date from around 2,000 BCE, obtained on the coast of Ecuador, which makes Chinese xun, a similar, globular or rather, egg-shaped vessel woodwind, older such instrument to have been excavated. In Banpo is the earliest, 6,700 years old (around 4,700 BCE) one-holed predecessor of xun, and again, depending on the source, some call this early example a pottery flute, while the others call it a whistle. I was lucky to visit the Banpo museum in 2013 and see it.

Finally, there are note flutes/whistles, mostly found in the which are played using by the nostrils and not mouth, and there are both tubular and globular, and there are examples of other shapes. (Sachs, 1940: 46) It is hard to know the precise date of origin, but their distribution goes between the end of Neolithic age and the beginning of the early metal age.

Whereas there is a lot of speculation as to how the music was actually performed by prehistoric people on their primitive whistles and flutes, I did enjoy reading about how the existing tribes use this type of instruments, which they make from shells and bamboo. Baines and Boult write how in New Guinea flutes/whistles devoid of fingerholes are tuned to play natural harmonics, and how sounds of two instruments are combined in a duet to create phrases of melody. (Fig. 1)



Fig. 1. Flute duet of a tribe in New Guinea

I found a video which shows a tribe from New Guinea, where two players perform similar phrases (starting around 0:35):

They also mention that a similar technique is found among the South American Indian tribes of Amazon and Orinoco, with the tuning between the flutes being the minor third, which allows the harmonics to form a tetratonic scale. (Fig. 2)


Fig. 2. Flute duet of a tribe in Orinoco

Another method of performing is when, instead of natural harmonics, several instruments are tuned to sound different specific pitches – fundamentals, forming bands, many from the tribes of Central and South Africa. These can have as many as twenty-four one-note flutes, and the set of instruments is tuned to a tetratonic scale, for example g – a – c -d, extended over several octaves. The top group begins and then the lower groups join in one after another until everyone is playing, repeating the same short phrases. (Fig.) When the top group stop, the lower groups drop out in order, and the lowest finish alone, as in a round or catch.

south africa

Fig. The short musical phrase from the South African flute band

The tribes without the invention of the reedless woodwind are quite rare, including the Australian aborigines and the Fuegians. (Baines and Boult: 171) But leaving this earliest period and the tribal music behind, in the next post, I will look at the further development of the reedless woodwind aerophones, from those which were recorded in the ancient civilizations, to the evolution of these instruments towards the modern Western orchestral versions. For the sake of convenience, knowing the blurry lines in terminology, I will switch to the term flute family. Finally, the last part of my research will be dedicated to the flute as the specific orchestral instrument. Take a look at the next part here.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. The mechanics of reedless woodwind instruments

Figure 2. The tin whistle, or tin flageolet At: (Accessed on)

Figure 3. The Tabor Pipe. At: (Accessed on)

Figure 4. The Slovenian Neanderthal flute. (1995 found) At: (Accessed on)


Montagu, Jeremy (2007) Origins and Development of Musical Instruments. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Sachs, Kurt (1940) The History of Musical Instruments. New York: W.W. Norton

Baines, Anthony (1991) Woodwind Instruments and Their History, with a foreword by Sir Adrian Boult. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Rysdyk, Evelyn C. (2014) A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Schamanic Tools. San Francisco: Red Wheel/Weiser, Inc.


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