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People have been playing the flute for longer than they have been farmer, working metal, or even before humanity tamed animals. Learn more about one of the first musical instruments ever created.

Ancient History

The first flutes predate domestication, farming, and metalworking. They dated from 40,000 BC and were made from the bones of various animals. These instruments not only have mouthpieces but also holes to govern airflow through the instrument.

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The oldest specimens originate in Europe, but more recent examples from around 9,000 BC have been found in China. So crucial were these early flutes that some archaeologists have suggested that they helped to separate modern humans from Neanderthals.These instruments were almost always made out of bone, as the space left after the disposal of the marrow left a perfect channel for air.

However, with time other materials were adopted, especially bamboo and other reeds. In any event, the universal nature of the flute made it popular throughout not only the ancient world but across cultures.

The Flute Around the World

Since flutes can be constructed easily from a number of materials found in nature, the instrument became popular around the world. From South America to China, flutes were created to express local music.

  • The bansuri is a flute style popular in Northern India. Like many other flutes, it is most often a transverse flute, meaning that the instrument is held horizontally and played by blowing air over the mouthpiece.

    That said, a number of fipple designs, which requires the musician to blow down into the length of the flute, can be found.

South Asian Flute
South Asian Flute
  • The dizi is actually a whole family of Chinese bamboo flutes, almost always played transversely. These flutes have various sizes to approximate the wide range of sounds common to Chinese music and are notably a prime example of an instrument that requires advanced techniques, even down to rhythm of breathing, from the musician to produce advanced results.
  • The zampoña is a fipple flute that the musician plays from blowing air into the instrument rather than just across a mouthpiece. It is most common in South America in the Andes Mountains, where it predates the arrival of Europeans by centuries.

    Of note is that is is a pan flute, meaning that multiple pipes secured together.

Western Flute

While flutes in various shapes and constructions have been among the most popular musical instruments in history, the modern concert flute, also known as a Western concert flute, is the most popular in orchestras and bands today. This flute is made of brass or another metal and features a number of levers that allow easier control over airflow for the musician. It is a crucial part of modern music, especially with regards to classical music and jazz, despite the fact that it originated in its modern form almost 1000 years ago.

Drawing of a modern flute
Sketch of a modern flute

Flutes were not always so common in music.

Following the Baroque period, their popularity declined with composers. Indeed, it took the birth of recording, as well as a renewed interest in Baroque music, to rekindle the flute’s influence on modern music. The instrument’s ability to accompany stringed instruments, such as the violin, in such a way that added to the value of the greater orchestra’s work was particularly noted.

Concert flute in use
Flute in Use

Conclusion

Despite being one of the oldest implements ever devised by humanity, the flute has undergone relatively few changes in the interceding centuries. Reimagined in new materials and multiple ways of drawing a tone from the instrument, the flute remains at its core a tool of the musician to render beautiful sound through blowing with a pipe, same as it was 40,000 years ago.

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