History of the Pan Flute

Learn about the Pan Flute with Brad White 

Origins of the Pan flute

By Brad White & Costel Puscoiu

I think the pan flute (also known as the Panpipe) is so old because it is so simple. It was probably preceded only by percussion instruments. After primitive man had produced sound by hitting things, he probably accidentally discovered sound production by blowing a pipe, stems of plants (reed or bamboo) or animal bones. The One Pipe Panflute probably came first. Man in his development started to distinguish between different pitches and to make instruments which could produce tones. 

The first step in the pan flute's development therefore was joining one pipe to another. Also variations in form, straight (raft-shaped), slightly bent, or bundled. The theory of the pan flute's birth on a particular place on earth is just as untrue as the thesis of one cradle for all cultures. 

It can be said with certainty that the pan flute originated in several places which could not have been connected at all. In most places, the pan flute came into existence at about the same stage of cultural development, which means at different times and in different geographical zones.

Ancient Panflute
viking Panflute
panflute history
panflute history

Pan Flute in South America

Evidence of the Panflute in Europe

Archaeological proof of the existence of pan flutes can be found throughout Europe. Viking panpipes have been found in excavations dating from the 10th century. A recent find was made at Coppergate in York, site of the world-famous Viking Age discoveries made in the 1970s. 

In France, in the old Roman colony of Alisia, a similar instrument with 7 pipes were found tuned in the notes of a standard major scale (Do Re Me). Other evidence can be found in the art works, literature and poetry of the time. In his poem "Tristia" the Latin poet, Ovidius, describes the pan flute he has seen in the hands of the shepherds of Tomis (an old Roman colony near the Black Sea). 

Evidence of the pan flute's use in Romania can also be found in a few booklets. One such booklet is "The text-book of King Neagoe Basarab for his son Teodosie", dating from the early 16th century. In the 19th and 20th centuries the modern Romanian Panflute or Nai (see note), is seen more and more in Europe, and we find an increasing amount of documentation on the instrument. 

In 1843 in Bucharest alone, as many as 13 professional pan flute players were registered at the musicians association. The period between the two world wars was a heyday for pan flute players. They went everywhere in Europe. The amount of players numbered less than in the 19th century, but the quality of their playing was magnificent. 

Around the second world war there were no more than 16 registered pan flute players in the whole of Romania. The pan flute revival came about after the war, caused by Fanica Luca, the famous pan flute player who had performed at the world exhibitions of 1937 (Paris) and 1939 (New York). He did many concert tours in France, England, Poland, Egypt, China, Russia and the United States. 

In 1949, aided by the Institute of Folklore Research in Bucharest, he started a pan flute class, which in 1953 moved to the Music Lyceum. This training remained in his hands until his death in 1968. 

Fanica Luca was not a man who had received a superior education himself, his work therefore was founded more on experiment than on pedagogy. By dint of hard work the results were grand and after the seventies a generation of fantastic pan flute players appeared in the West. Exponents of this school are: Gheorghe Zamfir, Damian Luca, Simion Stanciu, Nicolae Pirvu, Constantin Dobre, Radu Simion, Damian Cirlanaru and others.

Evidence of the pan flute in other parts of the world

  • Female Musicians
  • Islamic Art (Tulip period 1720)
  • Levni's narrative of the Surname-i Vehbi

It would be incorrect to believe the pan flute is only in use in Europe. We may not consider negligible the proof of its existence on other continents both now and in the ancient world. Even in ancient Mesopotamia and the great civilizations of 3500 BC we find the pan flute. 

In the British Museum in London, there is a bas-relief from India of women making music on the syrinx, double aulos' and drum and here we can clearly see a woman playing a panpipes of 13 to 15 pipes (click here). 

The bas-relief stems from the old India of the Gandhara period (Ist to 5th century AD). 

Another example we find in the Lucknow Museum (India), from the Mathura period (2nd to 3rd century AD) a woman with a panpipe of 8 pipes, apparently of equal length. To me this is evidence of the existence of panpipes in the old Indian culture. I suspect the instrument was taken there during the wandering of nations in the whole of the Orient. 

In Asia we also find one of the pan flutes oldest ancestors. This is the p'ai hsiao, a kind of pan flute which has one big pipe in the middle, with pipes of symmetrically diminishing sizes to both sides. This instrument was used for rites. 

From the same period of time we find in Indonesia several pan flutes either straight or in a bundled form. 

The existence of the pan flute in Africa is evident. In a few places in Eastern and Central Africa, Uganda for instance, primitive pan flutes with 2 to 6 pipes are found. 

From ancient Egypt little statues (Ptolemaic Dynasty) establish the existence of the panpipe in Egyptian civilization. There are panpipes with 8 to 12 pipes made of bamboo, attached to a wooden lower rim. Remarkable is the fact that almost all of these panpipes have their longest pipe on the left (seen from the player's point of view). There are also types of pan flutes in Oceania among the people of the different islands. In general these are pan flutes with just a few pipes, 3 to 14, in a flat raft-shape, or in a bundle. We notice that the long pipes are still held in the left hand.

In South-America, particularly in Peru and Bolivia, the pan flute is as alive as in Romania. It is always used in folkloristic groups. In museums all around the world we find evidence of pan flutes from the pre-Colombian period, dating from between 300 and 1500 AD. 

The larger part of the statues of people playing the panpipe are found in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. The panpipes are made of wood, stone or metal, and they are beautifully adorned. A few of these panpipes are in the British Museum and the Horniman Museum in London. There are straight panpipes with 8 to 14 pipes on one plane or two planes behind one another.

One fact is certain, the origins of the pan flute in the Americas greatly predates both the Inca and Maya civilizations. Pan flutes have been found throughout the territory, both north and south. They have many names: Antara, Malta, Toyo, Rondador, Hauyra, Puhura and Siku. 

The pipes are attached to a cross-beam and tied with rope or vegetable material. They are not tied as securely as a Romanian pan flute. The longest pipes are on the right side (seen from the player's point of view). The outer row of the double panpipes is nearly always shorter than the inner row. The longer pipes for the lower tones can be up to 80 centimeters long (32 inches). Because they are this long many harmonic overtones can be produced. Traditionally women were not allowed to play these instruments.

The pan flute today however, is no longer seen as a primitive instrument to be used exclusively in folkloristic music and I am convinced in the future it will become one of the most widely used musical instruments.

Links for further reading: 

panflute history

Pan Flutes around the world.

panflute history

Pan in Ancient Rome

panflute history

Female Musicians

Islamic Art (Tulip period 1720)

Levni's narrative of the Surname-i Vehbi

panflute history

Pan Flute in South America

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