All about the Pan Flute

The Pan Flute, named after the Greek God Pan, is a musical instrument believed to have originated in Greek Mythological lore. Also referred to as a panpipe or syrinx, the pan flute has become a popular folk instrument. Studies have shown the pan flute to be an ancestor of both a pipe organ and a harmonica. Although the precise origin is unclear, historical references and archaeological records suggest that the pan flute dates back as far as 6th millennium B.C. in Europe, making it one of the oldest musical instruments to exist in the world. Many musicians today find the pan flute appealing due to its unique structure, playing methods and cultural influence it has had on the world.

STRUCTURE OF THE PAN FLUTE

The pan flute is a collection of closed tubes usually comprised of five or more pipes that gradually increase in length. The pipes are then held together side-by-side using some type of twine, vegetable material or band forming a shape similar to a raft. Pan flutes are typically built using bamboo or cane stalks but wood, metal, and plastic have also been used as additional materials around the world. The pipes are generally stopped at each end creating a sound wave reflection and when heard, this reflection produces the different notes that a listener would hear. Stopped pipes produce a lower octave sound, while open pipes produce a higher octave sound. Pan flutes can also be tuned to achieve the correct pitch. There are a number of different ways to fine-tune a pan flute. South American style uses small pebbles or kernels of corn and places them at the bottom of each pipe to reach the desired note. Beeswax has also been used to correctly tune Romanian-style curved panpipes, and is then carefully removed using special tools. For a much easier and faster method, corks and rubber stoppers also provide a means to discovering the perfect pitch.

PLAYING METHODS

A pan flute is categorized as an Aerophone, which is defined as any musical instrument that produces sound primarily by causing air to vibrate. By blowing across the open holes at the top end of the pipes, a beautiful sound is produced. In today’s society flutes are often recognized as instruments that have finger holes, and those holes are used to produce the different notes that a person hears. The pan flute however, lacks these finger holes and instead relies on the length of the tubes to create different note frequencies. Pan flutes are also tuned to a specific keynote; this is known as fundamental frequency. Although different in structure, the pan flute is capable of creating a wide array of notes including sharps and flats. Tilting the pipes and adjusting the jaw movement to minimize the size of the pipe hole results in the desired change in pitch.

The pan flute is primarily played using a musical term known as staccato, meaning “of shortened duration.” Pan flute players typically use two forms of breathing techniques simultaneously. Phrasing breathing, also known as the deep level, is the technique in which a player will breathe in deeply and hold that breath until they reach the end of the musical phrase. During this level no physical movement is required so players will typically use that time to give visual cues to each other. The second level of breathing is unique to pan flute players and is known as articulatory breathing. It consists of frequent and intense pumping of air for each note played. Due to the strength and power required of the abdominal muscles to be able to perform this type of breathing, seeing and hearing it done is a phenomenon in and of itself. There are also two styles of vibrato that can be played on the pan flute. The first is known as hand vibrato, in which a player applies a gentle motion to one end of the flute thus creating a rhythmic pulsation of the note being played. Breath vibrato is achieved much like any other woodwind player by using the diaphragm and amount of air to cause the vibration. Skilled musicians of the pan flute can play a full scale, upwards and down.

VARIATIONS OF THE PAN FLUTE

Countries all over the world have been using pan flutes for hundreds of years, each allowing its cultural influences to create a constantly changing version of this widely admired instrument. Here are some examples:

Antara – The antara is the Andean name for the pan flute. In this part of the world the instrument is typically made out of cane or clay materials.

Paixiao – The Chinese version of the pan flute. It was often played at courtroom ensembles and religious rituals during the days of the philosopher Confucius.

Wot – A circular pan flute found in the regions of Laos and Thailand. To produce different tonal sounds, the musician physically rotates the instrument while playing it.

Nai – The nai is the Romanian version of the pan flute. The origin of the nai has also been found to exist during the Ottoman Empire in Turkey where it was referred to as a muscal.

So – The So is the Korean version of the pan flute deriving from earlier versions of the paixiao. Much like the paixiao, the so was played at rituals for Confucius.

Syrinx – From Ancient Greek Mythology, Syrinx was a wood nymph from Arcadia that became the love interest the Greek God Pan. As she was trying to escape Pan's lustful advances, she was punished and turned into hollow water reeds that made a sound when wind blew through them. Pan crafted the pan flute from these reeds and named them after his lost love.

Zampona – The Spanish word for pan flute, this is another traditional Andean instrument. Played in pairs and used as the main instrument for the musical genre sikuri, it has also been referred to as a Siku.

Kuvytsi – Found in the Ukraine, the kuvytsi has two versions of the pan flute. The one-sided kuvytsi which runs pipes large to small, or the double-sided kuvytsi which has the largest pipes nestled in the middle.

  • The Pan Flute – This site provides and in-depth overview regarding the history, structure and playing method of the pan flute.
  • Pan Flute Historical Resource Guide – A historical reference guide detailing the origins of the pan flute, and the many different cultures that have influenced this unique instrument.
  • Definitions Page – This list of definitions provides a wide array of information on the topic of Greek Mythology.
  • Breathing Techniques for Pan Flutes – A great resource for understanding the breathing techniques necessary to play the pan flute. The website references Russian panpipe players and details how one would practice to be able to play the panpipe well.
  • Pan pipes Resource – This website is another great resource page depicting the history, description and function of the Philippine panpipes.
  • Musical Instrument Resource Guide – An informational resource guide defining all types of musical instruments and the sub categories in which instruments are divided into.
  • History of the Pan Flute – This website illustrates the origin of the pan flute and goes into great detail regarding the cultural influence that this instrument has had in other parts of the world.
  • Antara Resource Guide – A page defining the Andean panpipe known as an Antara.
  • Wot Instrument Resource Guide – This is a short resource page illustrating information on the Wot, a South East Asian version of the pan flute.
  • Greek Mythology Resource Guide – An article depicting the creation of the pan flute as written in Greek Mythology. The information on this page tells the story of the Greek God Pan, and his love interest Syrinx, whom the pan flute is named after.
  • Instrument Resource Guide of the Zampona – A short resource page with information on the Spanish version of the pan flute known as a Zampona.
  • Historical Monsters and Creatures – This website details the life of Syrinx, a woodland nymph of Greek Mythology and how from her punishment, the pan flute was created.