Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

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Classification of Flutes

The precise classification of musical instruments may seem like an exercise for organologists (people who study musical instruments), but how an instrument is classified tells us a lot about it's construction and how it is played. Calling an instrument a “whistle” or a “flute” or a “pipe” or a “fipple flute” or a “vessel flute” or a “duct flute” or a “block flute” or a “shepherd's flute ” or a “flageolet” or a “flûte à bec” or a “blockflöte” or a “tubular ducted flute” carries implications about what kind of sounds it can make, and how much experience is needed by the player. These issues are especially important to flute makers and players.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on what these terms mean (or even if a term refers to a style of instrument or a particular instrument design), different sources use the terms in different ways, and some sources invent new terms. For example, George H. Pepper describes the rim-blown flutes he excavated in Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito as a “flageolet … of the ‘self’ type; that is, the kind that was played without a mouthpiece” ([Pepper 1909], page 200), and H. T. Cresson coined the term “pitch-pipes” in his study of Mexican flutes in 1884, when he discovered they were far more musical than mere “whistles” ([Cresson 1884]).

Several different systems of instrument classification have been developed (by organologists), but their discordant definitions has created more confusion among different sources. (for example, [Lee-TA 1969] and [Mendoza 1950] - see [Bourg 2005] Ancient Maya Music Now With Sound, p10 ¶2).

On Flutopedia, I use a set of common terms to mean specific things about the style or sound-producing mechanism of an instrument. Some of these terms come from a system that is now widely used (by organologists) for classifying musical instruments, and there are some additional terms that are used on Flutopedia.

Hornbostel-Sachs

The most widely used system for classifying musical instruments is the Hornbostel-Sachs [hohrn-bah-stel zahks] system devised by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs ([Hornbostel 1914]).

An English-language version is available at the Virginia Tech web site.

While this classification system is mostly used by ethnomusicologists, it is very helpful when talking about world flutes. The classification of a flute tells us a great deal about how the sound is made.

This page provides a simplified outline of the Hornbostel-Sachs classes that are most interesting to Native American flute folks. It should not be considered authoritative with respect to Hornbostel-Sachs. Some of the terminology has been changed slightly to fit in with this web site and some sub-classifications have been eliminated in the interest of simplicity (such as classification 421.122 - Sets of side-blown flutes) and those instruments grouped into the next higher class.

1 - Idiophones

Instruments where the sound is primarily produced by the actual body of the instrument vibrating, rather than a string, membrane, or column of air. This includes all instruments that you strike with the exception of drums.

Examples are marimbas, rattles, kalimbas, and percussion tubes.

2 - Membranophones

Instruments where the sound is primarily produced by the vibration of a tightly stretched membrane.

This group includes all drums and kazoos.

3 - Chordophones

Instruments where the sound is primarily produced by the vibration of a string or strings that are stretched between fixed points.

This group includes string instruments, as well as most keyboard instruments such as pianos and harpsichords.

4 - Aerophones

Instruments where the sound is primarily produced by vibrating air.

41 - Free Aerophones

Instruments where the vibrating air is not enclosed by the instrument itself.

Examples include a bullroarer and a siren, and also “free-reed” instruments like the harmonica, shruti box, the Laotian khaen, and the Chinese sheng.

42 - Non-Free Aerophones

Instruments where the vibrating air is contained within the instrument. Most of the instruments we consider a “wind instruments”, such as flutes and bugles, are included in this group, as well as odd instruments such as conch shells.

421 - Edge-Blown Aerophones

The player's breath is directed either by the player or by the instruments against a “spliting edge” that causes the air to vibrate.

421.1 - Flutes without a duct

The player's lips direct a stream of air to the splitting edge.

421.11 - End-blown flutes

The player blows against the sharp rim at the upper open end of a tube.

  421.111 - Individual End-blown flutes

The instrument has a single tube.

Examples include the Anasazi flute, the Egyptian nay, the Bulgarian kaval, and the Japanese shakuhachi.

  421.112 - Sets of End-blown flutes

The instrument has more than one tube bound together.

An example is the panpipe.

421.12 - Side-blown flutes

The player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube.

Examples include the Western concert flute and the Indian bansuri.

421.13 - Vessel flutes

The body of the instrument is not tubular but vessel-shaped, but the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole on the body of the instrument.

An example is the Chinese xūn. Note that the ocarina does not fit into this class, since it has a duct to direct the steam of air to the splitting edge.

421.2 - Flutes with a duct (aka "Duct Flutes")

A narrow duct directs the stream of air to the splitting edge.

421.21 - Flutes with an external duct

The duct is outside the wall of the flute; this group includes flutes with the duct chamfered in the wall under a ring-like sleeve and other similar arrangements.

An example would be the Roura flute.

421.22 - Flutes with an internal duct

The duct is inside the body of the instrument. This group includes flutes with the duct formed by an internal baffle, such as the natural node of a bamboo stalk or a block of wood or resin, as well as an exterior tied-on cover.

Examples include the Native American flute, the recorder, the Slovakian fujara, the pennywhistle, the ocarina, and the huaca.

422 - Reed Aerophones

The player's breath is directed against a “lamella” or pair of lamellae which periodically interrupt the airflow and cause the air to be set in motion.

Examples are the oboe, the clarinet, the Armenian duduk, and the English horn, bagpipes, and the rackett.

423 - Trumpets

The player's vibrating lips set the air in motion.

Examples are the coronet, bugle, and French horn.

5 - Electrophones

Instruments that produce sound electronically.

Terms Used on Flutopedia

In addition to the terms above, I use these terms on Flutopedia to classify instruments. These terms also appear in the Glossary:

Flute

A flute is any instrument where the player's breath is directed either by the player or by the instrument against a splitting edge that causes the air to vibrate.

This matches class HS 421 Edge-Blown Aerophones, but its so much more pleasing to say “nice flute you've got there” rather than “nice edge-blown aerophone you've got there”.

Note that some people would not classify a Native American flute or a recorder as a “flute” (see, for example, the strenuous objects in the introduction of [West 1994a]). They would classify instruments only where the player directs the air, such as a classical flute or an East Indian Bansuri to be flutes, or “true flutes”. However, my preference (and what seems to be majority of cases) is that the term “flute” includes instruments where the instrument itself directs the air to the splitting (as in a Native American flute). Besides, if a Native American flute was not a flute, the name “Native American flute” would be an oxymoron.

Duct Flute

A duct flute is a flute where a narrow duct directs the stream of air to the splitting edge. A Native American flute is a type of duct flute.

Flageolet beans

Wonder what happens if I plant them ...

This matches class HS 421.2.

The terms “fipple flute” and “tubular ducted flute” are usually (but not always) use to mean the class of duct flutes.

The terms “flageolet” and “block flute ” sometimes means the class of duct flutes and it is sometimes a synonym for the recorder, a specific type of duct flute developed in Europe. There are also uses of the term “flageolet” in the literature that are used for rim-blown flutes (see below). And then there are the flageolet beans I found recently at a local grocery store. I'll stay away from using the term “flageolet”.

Likewise, “flûte à bec” and “blockflöte” are sometimes used as the French and German words for the European recorder and sometimes used to refer to the duct flute class of instruments.


Embouchure Flute

An embouchure flute is a flute where the player's lips direct a stream of air to the splitting edge.

This matches class HS 421.1.

Embouchure flutes generally require more experience to play than a duct flute, but tend to offer a wider range of pitch.

Transverse Flute

The term “transverse flute” is a synonym for a side-blown flute, class HS 421.12.

Rim-Blown Flute

The term “rim-blown flute” is generally used for an end-blown flute with a single tube - synonymous with class HS 421.111 Individual End-blown flutes.

Whistle

A whistle is a flute without finger holes.

This seems to be the generally accepted, colloquial usage, but it does create some difficulties. For example, there are Eagle Bone Whistles that have finger holes, creating another oxymoron.

The term “pipe” sometimes means the same as “whistle”, but not always. There are Uilleann Pipes, which have finger holes.

Types of Finger Holes

Flutes are sometimes described by how the finger holes are closed:

  • On an “open finger hole”, the player uses a finger to close the hole.
  • On a “keyed finger hole”, a “key mechanism” that is part of the instrument closes the holes.

Flutes with open finger holes are called “open-hole flutes” (or sometimes “keyless flutes”) and flutes with keyed finger holes are called “keyed flutes” (or sometimes “closed-hole flutes”). Many flutes use a mixed design, where some of the holes are open and other used a key mechanism.

A flute with open finger holes

A flute with open finger holes Larger image Photo by Clint Goss.

There are tradeoffs between having open finger holes and using keys on a flute. Open finger holes generally give the player more expressive control in how a finger hole is opened. A player can close the hole partially, shade the hole to change pitch, and use different methods to open and close the finger hole, such as rolling the finger on and off the finger hole oir sliding the finger along the body of the flute to get a pitch bend.

However, the placement of open finger holes is limited by the reach of the player's fingers. Open finger holes also require more precision to completely seal the finger hole … a common challenge for people new to open hole flutes.

Key mechanism of a clarinet, with levers to extend finger reach

Key mechanism of a clarinet, with levers to
extend finger reach Larger image Photo by Clint Goss.

Flutes with keyed mechanisms were developed to extend the reach of the player's fingers. Using a system of levers and keypads, keyed finger holes could be placed further apart than open finger holes. The idea began with a few key mechanisms on recorders to get a few lower notes, and gradually expanded to the instruments where all the finger holes used key mechanisms.

However, key mechanisms have their drawbacks. As mentioned above, key mechanisms limit the player's expressive control. They are also complex, more time consuming for the maker, and require maintenance. They are slower and less precise to place, especially key mechanisms that have a long lever or series of levers to close the pad over a distant hole.

Keypad of a clarinet - close to the finger hole

Keypad of a clarinet - close to the
finger hole Larger image Photo by Clint Goss.

Also, there is the issue of timbre. The pad of a key mechanism tend to be close to the hole, even when it is fully open. On the basic principle that larger finger holes give a brighter sound, the small space over the finger hole amounts to less area for the sound vibrations to get out.

To compensate for some of these drawbacks, some flutes were created with holes in the key mechanisms that were underneath the players fingers. So, there are two types of key mechanisms:

  • Open key mechanisms that have a central opening in the key mechanism. The central opening is covered by the fingertips when the key mechanism is depressed. This is not to be confused with open finger holes, where there is no key mechanism. A classical flute with some open key mechanisms is sometimes called a “French model flute”.
  • Closed key mechanisms where the key mechanism completely covers the finger hole. Closed key mechanism are sometimes called “plateau keys”.
Western concert flutes with two styles of key mechanisms

Western concert flutes with two styles of key mechanisms More information

Open key mechanisms return some expressive control back to the player, but only for those finger holes where they can be used (i.e. underneath the fingers). They also require more experience to play since the player has to be more precise in covering the finger holes.

Other Construction Issues

Flutes can be made with a single-piece body or with multiple sections that can easily be disassembled. Traditional Native American flutes and almost all contemporary Native American flutes have a single-piece body. However there are some advantages to flutes with multiple sections:

  • They can be tuned. Typical multi-section designs have a “headjoint” section that can be slid some distance from the main body section of the flute. This allows the overall pitch of the instrument to be adjusted by sliding the headjoint out a bit. See the note on Headjoint Tuning below.
  • They pack into a smaller space for travel.

However, there are some drawbacks to multi-section flute designs:

  • The joint where two sections meet is typically a physical weak point of the instrument.
  • If the instrument has key mechanisms with levers to extend the reach of the reach of the player's fingers, and the levers extend across two sections, then there needs to be a mechanism to connect the two levers. This adds even more complexity to the key mechanisms of the instrument.

Headjoint Tuning

Sliding the headjoint out from the body of the instrument lowers the pitch of all the notes on the flute. However, it does not lower all the notes by the same amount. Pulling the headjoint out some distance tends to affect the higher notes (more finger holes open) than the lower notes with more finger holes closed. So, in practice, you can only pull the head joint out a bit before this "unequal tuning" effect becomes a problem.

 

 
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