What is a Native American Flute?

As we first begin to explore the Native American flute, we find an array of

terms used to describe and identify the flute. Many are used interchangeably,

though they are not synonymous while others are used in an attempt compare

the flute with something supposedly more familiar.

Most of the ancient expedition chroniclers, ethnomusicologists and

archeologists alike indiscriminately and interchangeably used such terms as

"flute, "flageolet," and "whistle." Further compounding the issue was references

to "recorders," "fifes," and panpipes." As a result, we have multiple-hole

"whistles" and no-hole "flutes."

At best, the menagerie of terms is confusing. The following definitions will

hopefully bring us to a common reference point, using the terms in a much

more accurate manner.

One of the first wind instruments to appear in ancient cultures was the

"whistle." It is defined as a short instrument consisting of single tube (or other

shape) with a mouthpiece opening and either an open or closed end. An

opening or notch is cut into the wall that causes blown air to vibrate and

produce sound. Most whistles have no finger holes and predominantly produce

a single tone, although additional tones can be produced by altering the air

flow (with a finger) around the notch opening or end opening if there is one.

However, there are whistles that have one or two holes. Pennywhistles and

similiar "whistles" are actually misnamed, for they are really fipple flutes. It

should also be noted that most modern whistles made with a ball, such as

made by the American Whistle Company, should be called ball whistles.

Since this design was similar to the individual pipes on an organ, there were

sometimes referred to as "pipes," which is confusing because Native Americans

already had an object known as the pipe. Nonetheless, a series of these pipes

or whistles sheathed together constitutes what is known as a panpipe, such as

the ancient Hopewellian panpipe, made of bone and copper.When we come to the term "flute,” 

understand that this is a general term

covering a variety of instruments that basically possessed no reed device to

vibrate the air. We must add additional terms to identify the type of flute.And

Flute actually means: A long, usually rounded groove incised as a decorative

motif on the shaft of a column, for example. A similar groove or furrow, as in a

pleated ruffle of cloth or on a piece of furniture.

The "transverse" or side-blown flute is perhaps the most common of all. It is

an instrument held horizontally to the ground. It is a long tube with a sound

hole and multiple finger holes. Sound is created by directing a stream of air

across the sound hole, which strikes the far edge of the sound hole and

vibrates the air. Originally made of bone and wood, it was later also made of

metal and glass. The Silver or Boehm flute is a modern transverse flute as is

the smaller and higher pitched piccolo (whose predecessor was the fife).

The "end-blown" flutes can be found in a variety of designs. The Japanese

"shakuhachi," is played much like a transverse flute, but the stream of air is

directed across the end of the flute rather than a side opening. A "recorder" is

also an end-blown flute, most often described as being a tube with a large to

small tapering bore, with a small and flat mouthpiece that directed the airflow

directly to notched sound hole. It has eight finger holes, including one on the

bottom side. Closely related to the recorder is the "flageolet," which differs

mainly in that it only has six finger holes, including two on the bottom. It

should also be noted that the flageolet was only in use from the early 16th

century to the end of the 19th century. It should also be noted that the term

"flageolet" can also refer to a fipple flute.

With the exception of the generic terms "flute" and "end-blown flute," none of

the preceding terms accurately identify and describe the Native American flute.

The terms that do are "fipple flute" or "duct flute." Both refer to design

elements, although differing elements. A fipple flute has an edge on the far the

edge of a sound hole that splits the air flow and directs the air into the sound

chamber. A duct flute has a channel or flue around a plug in the tube that

directs the air against the fipple edge of the sound hole.

Native American flutes are not the only fipple flutes. Certain whistles,

recorders, flageolets and even some organ pipes are fipple flutes as well.

Perhaps the most accurate term, as used by Dr. Payne, would be "duct flutes."

Exclusively on the most common design of the Native American flute is a block

(also referred to as a bird, fetish, totem, effigy, saddle, and slider) that sits on

the flute above the channel or flue across the fipple and assists in the directing

of the airflow. In some designs, the channel is carved directly into the block,

while in others, the channel is carved into the body of the flute. And there is

the historic design that places the channel in a spacer between the flute body

and the block.

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