The Birth Story of Flute

  November 17, 2021   Read time 2 min
The Birth Story of Flute
A FLUTE, like most other wind instruments, produces its tone by means of an air column within a tube, which is set in longitudinal vibration either by human breath or by artificial wind. The families of wind instruments differ in the special way in which the vibrations are brought about.

This is particularly complicated in the flute. It would be going beyond the compass of this book to describe the acoustics of the flute in detail. We refer the reader to the most recent textbooks on musical acoustics and confine ourselves here to stating that the vibrations in a flute are due to little eddies formed at regular intervals when the player blows obliquely across the sharp edge of a mouth-hole. Thus, a sharp-edged mouth-hole is the characteristic quality of any flute.

The mouth-hole of the vertical flute is formed by the upper opening of the pipe. In the cross flute, or transverse flute, the upper end is stopped and the mouth-hole is cut in the side. In the whistle flute there is also a hole in the side, but not to be blown into; the upper end is stopped except for a small and narrow channel, called the flue, into which the player blows, and which directs his breath to the sharp edge of the side hole.

The recorderlike whistle flute came before the simple vertical flute and also before the cross flute, though it was more complicated; complication is no criterion of late invention. The earliest whistle flutes were probably made of birds’ bones. These produced a sharp, whistling sound, whereas the larger cane flutes made a softer, deeper sound. In all flutes the (fundamental) tone is almost pure; overtones are few and weak. The earliest flutes produced only one note; fingerholes were introduced much later.

Flutes, like bone scrapers, are phallic. Primitive man cannot overlook the resemblance between a pierced straight instrument and the penis; even in modern occidental slang the penis is designated by flute names. Early civilizations where the masculine impulse predominates connect the ideas flutes—phallos—fertility—life—rebirth, and they associate flute playing with innumerable phallic ceremonies and with fertility in general. Some of these rites have been described in the author’s book Geist und Werden der Musikinstrumente. In the present book we will confine ourselves to an old, naive myth of the Sentani in northern New Guinea which shows how primitive man connects the flute with ideas of fertility and rebirth. This is the tale:

One day a man went to the bush with his wife to gather fruit. The man climbed up a high tree and threw the fruit down, and the woman put it into her net. Suddenly a big piece of fruit fell onto a dry bamboo tree and cracked it open with a sharp sound. The frightened woman ran away, for she did not know what had made the noise. Out of the slit bamboo appeared a cassowary [the Melanesian counterpart of the phoenix, symbol of rebirth] making a buzzing sound. The man at once built a fence around the bird, ran into the village and told his friends what had happened. “Now we have a way of frightening the women,” they said. They began to cut pieces of bamboo and tried to draw a sound from them and finally discovered that by blowing across a stalk they could make a sound similar to that of the cassowary. This was the first flute.

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