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Flutes of the Ancient World
Transcript of Flutes of the Ancient World
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What isn't a Flute?
A flute is not a brass instrument — brass instruments rely on 'Sympathetic Resonance' with the player's lips, and airflow is less important than for a woodwind instrument.
An example of a brass instrument is the Roman 'bucina', shown to the right.
What isn't a Flute?
A flute is not a reed-blown instrument — reed-blown instruments rely on the use of a thin strip of material, typically inserted into the mouthpiece, which you blow on in order to produce a vibration. Although they require a greater consideration for airflow than Brass instruments, this priority for airflow is (with one highly notable exception) generally less important than it is for a flute.
An example of a reed-blown instrument would be the Greek 'auloi', shown to the right.
What is a Flute?
A flute, in contrast to those, utilizes neither resonance nor reeds in order to amplify its sound. Instead, flutes are instruments which employ 'edge tones' — i.e., a flute has a fixed edge at one end of the pipe, which a player blows a stream of air across or into. The air vibrates inside the pipe, and those vibrations oscillate to produce the resultant sound.
The earliest graphical depiction of a Pan Flute we have is from the François Vase (c. 575 BCE), where we see Calliope playing a set of Pan Flutes for the wedding of Peleus and Thetis.
Pan Flutes (Syrinx)
Pan Flutes, so-named after the patron deity of shepherds in ancient Greece, became a staple of the art of pastoral poetry after Theokritos popularized the genre.
In ancient Greece, they consisted of a number of edge-blown pipes, typically of the same length, fixed together. Variant tones were achieved not by thickness or length, but by filling the pipes with beeswax to a depth which achieved the desired pitch.
Types of Flutes
There are a number of different types of flutes: pan flutes, fipple flutes, and edge-blown flutes, to name just a few. However, evidence for either of the latter two in classical antiquity is limited. Let's take a look!
From What Were Flutes Constructed?
It's likely that the earliest examples of flutes were constructed from reed plants, which were already hollow and readily available to almost anyone living on the Mediterranean. For obvious reasons, however, no such examples survived long enough to be preserved.
Later constructions may have been hewn from bone, wood, ivory, or even crafted from metal; or, indeed, from wood or bone encased by metal.
Often, the easiest example to provide of a fipple flute is that of a tin whistle, pictured to the right. Although it's important to remember that this type of whistle is unlikely to have existed as far back as the Classical Era, the fundamental concept is not so complex that fipple flutes should have been unavailable to the Greeks and Romans, even if they only existed in limited numbers.
The other common example of a fipple flute is the Recorder, pictured below. The Leeds City Museum has a specimen preserved which has been dated as far back as the Iron Age, constructed from sheep bone. We know, therefore, that instruments like this existed; however, the striking deficit of textual or artistic evidence to support this is reason to suspect that they were anything but mainstream.
Edge-Blown Flutes (Plagiauloi)
Edge-Blown Flutes are often what we're referring to when we use the word 'Flute' today. Flutes of this type could be end-blown, or they could be transverse.
Modern flutes are transverse, as is the one depicted in the Roman mosaic on the right.
Transverse flutes are, as we can tell, the design which won out as musical technology progressed. The advantages of the design are clear:
- With the auloi, you must keep both thumbs still in order to support one pipe in each hand. With a transverse flute, you only ever need one thumb to support the instrument, maximizing the number of fingerholes you can utilize at any given time.
- With pan flutes, you have a very limited range of pitches (generally one per pipe), and alternating quickly between any complex sequence of those pitches is next to impossible unless you have designed your pipes to achieve that exact pitch-shift. With a transverse flute, you can change your pitch as quickly as you can move your fingers.
- The advantages over the fipple flute are less clear. Modern transverse flutes tend to have a broader tonal range than modern recorders by virtue of the more complex range of finger-motions required of a transverse flute player. However, this was unlikely to be the case in Classical times, before either instrument really saw the advent of its professional use.
However, it's important to note that, in Classical Greece, the aulos remained the most popular instrument, despite its clear disadvantages over its transverse cousin.
The Scary Math
The Less-Scary Table of Solutions
Nederveen, C. J. (1998).
Acoustical Aspects of Woodwind Instruments
University of Illinois Press
Landels, John G. (2001).
Music in Ancient Greece and Rome
West, M. L. (1994).
Ancient Greek Music
Oxford University Press
Baines, Anthony (1993).
Brass Instruments: Their History and Development
McCullough, L.E. (1976).
Historical Notes on the Tinwhistle
Special thanks to the Chrysalis Foundation
, without which this project would have been hopeless from the beginning.