Flute – A Musical Instrument Popular Across Cultures

Written by Shankar Mahadevan Academy on 11 July 2014

The flute holds a unique place among musical instruments. Not only is it the oldest among instruments, but it is also the only musical instrument that is found in cultures all over the world. Among several flutes that have been found in archaeological excavations in different parts of the world, the oldest flute is said to date back at least 35,000 years in time. Made from a vulture wing bone, the five-holed flute was found in a pre-historic cave in Ulm, Germany. Scientists who made the discovery claim that it is the oldest known musical instrument in the history of the human race. Various other pre-historic flutes have also been found in parts of China, Sumeria, India and North America confirming that the flute is not only the oldest among instruments but also was the most popular among our ancient ancestors. 

Popular flutes across various cultures:

The popularity of the flute lies in its simplicity. Initially made from carved bone, and later from bamboo and wood, the humble flute served many purposes- from communication between and within tribes, with cattle, and most importantly, to provide musical entertainment. In India, the Hindu God Krishna is considered master of the bamboo flute and is always portrayed with one. Handed down from ancient times the flute continues to hold its place as an instrument of repute and is featured in most orchestras, bands, and musical compositions. 

Most flutes consist chiefly of a tube with a mouthpiece on one end. The musician holds the flute horizontally and blows across an oval shaped hole in the mouthpiece. At the same time, the musician presses levers or holes on the flute, called keys. The keys, when depressed and released, open and close to produce different notes. Though similar in construction, flutes across the world vary in the way they are played and in the tone they produce. 

• The Indian Flute: The Indian flute is traditionally made of bamboo and was independently developed from its western counterpart. Primarily found and used in folk music, the Indian Classical flute was developed into a classical musical instrument by legendary flutist Pannalal Ghosh. He transformed the tiny folk instrument into a bamboo flute (32 inches long with seven finger holes) suitable for playing traditional Indian classical music. Compared to its folk counterpart, the Indian Classical flute has an extra hole, the seventh, to accommodate the entire range of traditional ragas. Pandit Raghunath Prasanna further developed various techniques that would allow the flute to faithfully reproduce the subtleties and nuances of Indian Classical music. Apart from the Indian Classical flute, the bansuri, with six finger holes and one embouchure hole, is popular in North Indian Hindustani music. South Indian Carnatic musicians employ the cross-fingering technique and play the eight holed velu or pullanguzhal. 

• The Western concert flute: Developed from 19th century German flute, the western concert flute is made from various materials including wood, nickel, brass, silver, gold and sometimes even platinum. The modern concert flute uses a flute range developed by Theobald Boehm. Known as the Boehm system, the Western concert flute has a range of three octaves, starting from the middle C. This makes it one of the highest common orchestral instruments, with the exception of the piccolo, which plays an octave higher.

• The Chinese and Japanese flute: There are many kinds of Chinese flutes or dizi. They come in different sizes, structures (with or without a resonance membrane), number of holes (from 6 to 11) and intonations (different keys). The most popular of Chinese flutes are the bangd, quid, xindi, and dadi, the most popular being the vertically played bamboo flute called the xiao. Chinese flutes are mostly made of bamboo, but they also come in wood, jade, bone, and iron. Japanese flutes called fue are mainly of two types- the transverse and end-blown. They hold an important place in Japanese music and can be found in all traditional Japanese compositions. 

• Instruments closely related to the flute: The sodina, suling and sring are all instruments that are closely related to what is known as the modern flute. The sodina is an ‘end-blown flute’ that is indigenous to the island state of Madagascar and holds repute as one of the oldest instruments in this island nation. The sodina bears great similarity to the suling, another end-blown flute found commonly in Southeast Asia and particularly Indonesia. Archaeologists studying the sodina and suling have suggested that the island’s original settlers emigrating from Borneo may have carried the predecessor of the sodina to the island of Madagascar. 

The sring or blul, a relatively small, end-blown flute with a nasal tone quality and the pitch of a piccolo, is one of the most characteristic of all national Armenian instruments. Mainly found in the Caucasus region of Eastern Armenia, the sring is made of wood or cane, usually with seven finger holes and one thumbhole, which helps in producing a diatonic scale. The centuries old sring is still in use, mainly by shepherds who use it play various signals and tunes.

Learn to play the flute online:

The Shankar Mahadevan Academy, founded by renowned singer, composer and music director Shankar Mahadevan, offers online classes by expert teachers, for the Indian flute and tabla. Shankar, as he prefers to be called, started the academy with the aim to impart quality music education to all who wish to learn in the comfort of their homes. In a recent interview with Rekha Shah, he underlines the reason why he founded the academy. “I believe that if something interests you and is good to do, then surely you must do it really well. I just make time for the things that are close to my heart, and believe me, anything to do with music is important to me. I set up the Shankar Mahadevan Academy because there are thousands of people who love music -- Hindustani, Carnatic, Devotional, Film music -- and want to learn it, but don't know where to go. My online music academy is a small but sincere effort to help aspiring people learn music and revel in their talent.”

The Academy also offers singing lessons for Hindustani, Classical, Devotional and Bollywood film songs. Log on to www.shankarmahadevanacademy.com to find out more. 

Did you know that the oldest flute dates back to the pre-historic age and is nearly 35,000 years old?