Anthropology: A Brief Ethnomusicological Perspective of the Flute

Sound surrounded early human species. Around 40,000 years ago, early humans manipulated these sounds to produce the earliest forms of music. Successively, tools emanated vibrations, converting the cacophony to more euphonious tunes and melodies. Thereafter, sound has been further manipulated and combined with others to introduce more complex arrangements and even polytonal music. After percussive instruments, music included breath to form notes and rhythms. Consequently, the flute, in particular, has held great cultural significance.

When reading about the variations of the flute, please take the term “flute” with a grain of salt. The wind instrument does not belong to European music. “Flute” is used to draw comparisons between non-western musical instruments and the western Boehm model of the flute that may be most familiar to the globalized world.

I will walk you through the history of the flute first. It was initially very similar across many geographic regions, before changing. Following the brief history, this post will describe some variations of the wind instrument. These variations of the flute are unique to a specific culture. Nonwestern flutes are still similar to western flutes. At length, the cultural significance of the flute variations will be discussed in the context of a given geographical region. Each of these flutes plays a significant role in the culture of an area described. 

History of the flute

Like species through time, the flute that we know today has passably experienced evolution. Convergence and divergence led to adaptations in the instrument’s anatomy. Early models consisted of animal bones, and later adaptations were made of materials such as wood, nickel, ivory, glass, and more recently, silver and gold. According to Yamaha, “flute” originally referred to a pipe instrument, leaving ambiguity to the orientation of the wind instrument. Recorders were considered flutes up until the Baroque Era. 

The vertical flute, or recorder, had different names from the horizontal flute in different languages. According to Yamaha, different European languages discerned the differently oriented flutes. The Italians named the horizontally-held flute as flauto traverso, and the French called it flûte traversière, quite literally translating to “transverse flute.” The transverse flute construction included a tube with cavities for notes. Cavities orchestrated facilitated airflow, producing different pitches of sound. This simple model of the flute was renowned through the Renaissance period. It was not until the mid-1600s did the flute have the addition of keys ( Keys allowed for an expansion of the flute’s range of notes produced.

If you head to a music store today and ask to purchase a flute, the instrument that you will see is a flute that utilizes the Boehm system. This model was first unveiled in Paris in 1847, with a metal tube and more than one key, keeping the intervals produced more constant ( Essentially, the difference between one note and another note will always sound similar, regardless of the tuning.


A musician performs a silver flute, showing how the flute is held
Image source:

Variations of the flute

Asian variations of the flute

Nonwestern cultures have variations of the flute. Early models of the flute were made of available materials, complimenting the music of the region. The bansuri, the Northern Indian adaptation of the flute, was carved of bamboo with an embouchure hole and six finger holes. The bansuri is chiefly associated with devotional music in Northern India.

A man dressed in orange traditional Indian garb plays a long, wooden bansuri flute
This image shows a man playing the bansuri. This instrument is held diagonally, similar to the western flute. Image source:

In Eastern Asia, there are versions of the flute. Particularly in China, flutes were different in size, number of holes, and material. Models of the instrument consisted of wood, jade, iron, and bone. Different sizes spawn different tunings from each other. A peculiar variation of the instrument is the Chinese dizi. According to, a unique feature of the dizi is an extra hole covered by a thin layer of reed, giving it a slightly humming timbre. Insects and animals produce humming, buzzing, and other indistinct drone sounds similar to the dizi. Therefore, the dizi can emulate sounds of the environment and represent them in cultural music. Throughout Eastern Asia, local woodwind instruments have nestled their way into the music and culture.

a musician performs music on a long, wooden dizi flute
The image above is a dizi flute. Image Source:

African variation of the flute

Outside of Asia, there are also variants of the flute. The sodina is a wind instrument found in Madagascar. Initially made of bone, the sodina was adapted to be made of reed and has seven holes. The sodina has a thumbhole, creating the opportunity for a musician to prevent or facilitate air movement at the start of the instrument. The thumbhole has a similar mechanism to the thumb key in western flutes with the Boehm system. Over time, the Malagasy adapted to the sodina. More contemporary models feature a tin body. The museum also mentions that the sodina was not created independently of other civilizations. The Malagasy Civilization, living in Madagascar, hails from Malay, Indonesian, and Muslim ancestry. The Malagasy likely adapted the sodina from woodwind instruments brought to the island by migrant groups (

Madagascar currency for 1000 ariary pictures a Malagasy man playing a small, wooden sodina flute
The image above shows a man playing a sodina flute on the national currency. The appearance of the sodina on currency implies its importance to the culture in Madagascar. Image Source: via

American variations of the flute

Indigenous American cultures have also independently developed their variety of flutes, including the pan flute. The origins of panpipes in the Americas are unknown. However, in pre-Columbian Central and South America, panpipes were found. The pan flute did not have any coverable finger holes beside the embouchure hole. The graduated structure of the syrinx tubes allowed for there to be different pitches. The length of each pipe displayed some consistency since pipe length was measured (via the Washington Academy of Science, 1914). Please note that these are not the only instances of woodwind aerophones found outside of Europe. Many other geographic regions such as Australia have cultures that have independently created their own class of flutes, including the didgeridoo, for example.

A man performs using a large, wooden pan flute that has multiple pipes
This image shows a man playing a Native American pan flute. Image Source:

Cultural significance of the flute


Throughout India, the bansuri flute’s cultural significance lies within religion. The instrument is the divine instrument of God’s descendent, Krishna. Hindu religious icons often depict Krishna with a flute in hand. Raised by the village he grew up in, Krishna would enchant those around him with his bansuri (Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa). Additionally, his songs were a means of courtship for his lover, Radha, and his consorts (Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa). Regardless of whom Krishna’s audience is when playing the bansuri, his enchanting tunes served the purpose of uniting people. In one case, Radha achieved spiritual unity with Krishna, as he played his mourning song while she was on her deathbed. Their unification is comparable to the Chinese symbolism of the Yin-Yang (K. R. Srinivasa, Iyengar).

The Hindu god, Krishna, playing his bansuri flute, is surrounded by women admiring him
Pictured is the Hindu God Krishna alongside Radha


In China, the philosophy surrounding the Yin-Yang grew popular during the Qin Dynasty and continued through the Han Dynasty, where the dizi gained recognition in music. The dizi, at this point, was just an accompaniment instrument. It was not until the mid-1900s did dizi repertoire include more solos (Lau, Frederick).

Though the dizi has religious ties, it also holds cultural significance in the media and pop culture. When asked, many famous dizi instrumentalists in China cannot cite information concerning early dizi music, likely because of a shift in political ideology resulting from the Communist Revolution (Lau, Frederick). After the revolution, the government aimed to redefine culture in China and often invited folk musicians, including dizi flutists, to perform for the public (Lau, Frederick). Some dizi flutists even gained government prestige for their contribution to ensembles (Lau, Frederick). The Chinese government brought light to this instrument, enriching and expanding the culture of music in China. Government mediation on culture illustrates that music as a whole can be the sound that defines a region.

Children in China dress in traditional wear, reciting together as part of cultural revival
The Chinese practice cultural revival. Image source:


In Madagascar, the Malagasy islanders play the sodina and are usually autodidacts. The sodina is often an accompaniment to other instruments, including drums, stringed instruments, and other percussive idiophones. The sodina, among the variety of Malagasy instruments, is not notated in music (Fuhr, Jenny). In her research concerning Malagasy music, Fuhr discusses the importance of lova-tsofina. “Heritage-ear” is the literal translation of “lova-tsofina.” When individuals actively perform or listen to Malagasy music, melodies and themes are passed on. Music, in this culture, holds the position of being somewhat of an oral tradition. The absence of written arrangements allows for the music to evolve and change without breaking penned precedent. From an anthropological perspective, this contrasts with western compositions. However, the nonexistence of written arrangements outside of Europe is commonplace.

A zoomed in view of the edge of eastern Africa and the island of Madagascar, with labels on Madagascar and is surrounding countries
Location of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa, Image source: Goway Travel

Indigenous American

The pan flute does not use a notation method that involves notes, key signatures, time signatures, and clefs. Instead, some diagrams depict fingerings for pitches. The melodies produced from these pitches have a direct relation to the natural world in Native American culture. Individuals instilled with Native American cultural values describe rhythm as the heartbeat of Mother Nature (Jones, Mary Jane). Jones examined a “flute circle” that brought members with Native ancestry together. They learned how to play the pan flute, as well as uncover some elements of culture.

In the US, it is common knowledge that some degree of erasure has occurred resulting from government policies that discriminated against indigenous groups throughout American history. The rediscovery of the pan flute brought people together and reinvigorated cultural values. Jones discusses that some groups that experienced lost traditions reconnected with values by adopting some methods of self-expression from other tribes. Though this leads to some homogeneity within Native American culture, it does allow individuals to express their identity to the best of their ability.

Native American Powwow drum beaters dressed in colorful clothing
Native American Powwow drum beaters. Powwows often involve music. Credit:

Cultural Significance of the Flute in Anthropology

From reading up on the cultural significance of the flute in cultures outside of Europe, many factors are similar between India, China, Madagascar, and the Americas. Music is a unifying factor among the members of this culture. In India, the bansuri is in devotional tunes. These tunes unite devotees of Hinduism. Religion alone is a unifying factor. In addition, during the life of Krishna, his bansuri brought together the members of his village. They danced and enjoyed his sweet melodies. Krishna also used his bansuri to charm his wives. 

Individuals can achieve rediscovery and expansion of culture through learning the dizi and pan flute. After the 1950s, China encouraged citizens to learn cultural activities. In the Americas, the erasure of indigenous cultures led to populations being dispersed. Learning the pan flute leads people to rekindle with their cultures. 

In Madagascar, learning the sodina is comparable to an oral tradition. The passing down of tall tales in other cultures is similar to how music is shared in Madagascar. The Magalasy flute can bridge values between different generations. For China, India, and Native Americans, playing the flute can also connect the musician with the spiritual and natural world. In these cultures, the wind instrument is featured in myths. 

Nonwestern Flutes Differ From Western Flutes

The bansuri, dizi, sodina, and pan flute all contrast with European Boehm flutes in that they lack keys. Instead, these instruments have holes. Open-hole system flutes have keys with holes in them. This model brings musicians closer to the nonwestern models, but the presence of keys still allows for different techniques. Nonwestern flutes have a more simple design, usually consisting of wood, reeds, or bamboo found in the area. The simplicity expands beyond design. Playing these variations of the flute does not require intricate notations. These cultures do not notate music as we know it today; much of playing the instrument requires autodidactic skill and engaging in the music to develop technique.

Regardless, whether western music or nonwestern/non-European music is studied, music holds great cultural significance. There are many commonalities in what the flute contributes to music and culture. The flute variations vary in complexity but always seem to unify the members of a culture.

More on Madagascar and Oriental Cultures

Madagascar: Explore the Island of the East of Africa

Debunking the Myths around Oriental Dance 

Referenced Materials:

Iyengar, K.R. Srinivasa (1992), “The Krishna Myth.” Indian Literature, vol. 35, no. 2 (148) pp. 109–121. JSTOR,
Lau, Frederick. “Forever Red: The Invention of Solo Dizi Music in Post-1949 China.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology, vol. 5, 1996, pp. 113–131. JSTOR,
Fuhr, Jenny (2010), “Experiencing Rhythm: Contemporary Malagasy Music and Identity,” University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, Ph.D. Thesis;sequence=1
Fuhr, Jenny (2012) “ ‘6/8 Rhythm’ Meets ‘Lova-Tsofina’: Experiencing Malagasy Music”, University of Exeter
Jones, Mary Jane (2010) “Revival and Community: The History and Practices of a Native American Flute Circle,” Kent State University, College of the Arts, Master of Arts Thesis


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