AskDefine | Define panpipe

Dictionary Definition

panpipe n : a primitive wind instrument consisting of several parallel pipes bound together [syn: pandean pipe, syrinx]

Extensive Definition

The pan flute (also known as panflute or panpipes) is an ancient musical instrument based on the principle of the Closed tube, consisting usually of ten or more pipes of gradually increasing length (and, at times, girth). The pan flute has long been popular as a folk instrument, and is considered the ancestor of both the pipe organ and the harmonica. The pan flute is named for its association with the rustic Greek god Pan. The pipes of the pan flute are typically made from bamboo or giant reed (Arundo donax); other materials used include wood, plastic, and metal.
Another term for the pan flute is syrinx, from Greek mythology, the story of Pan. The plural of syrinx is syringes, from which the modern word syringe is derived. (Pan pipes is both singular and plural.) Other names for the instrument include the Latin fistula panis.


The pipes comprising it are stopped at one end, at which the standing wave is reflected giving a note an octave lower than that produced by an open pipe of equal length. In the traditional South American style, pipes are fine-tuned to correct pitch by placing small pebbles or dry corn kernels into the bottom of the pipes. Contemporary makers of curved Romanian-style panpipes use wax (commonly beeswax) to tune new instruments. Special tools are used to place or remove the wax. Corks and rubber stoppers are also used, and are easier to quickly tune pipes.


The acoustic properties of the pan flute are in the Helmholtz oscillator class of closed tube acoustics. It shares acoustic properties with other instruments, such as the ocarina, gemshorn, Native American flute and the clarinet. Generation of a fundamental frequency is produced by blowing across the open end of the tube, thus creating a Von Karman vortex street by means of a siphon effect at the top of the tube. The tuned resonator body then supports this frequency. An overblown harmonic register is near a 12th above the fundamental in cylindrical tubes, but can approach an octave jump (8th) if a decreasing taper is used. The formula for calculating the length of a pan flute tube is TL = (S/F) / 4 (the "theoretical length" [TL] equals the speed of sound [S], divided by the desired frequency in hertz [F], that quantity divided by 4). Because of a property of compression within the tube, the length must be a little shorter to correct flat pitch. The extra length is helpful for an amateur maker, who can use a cork or plug at the bottom to adjust the pitch. Some professional instruments use wax or pellets to tune the fundamental pitch of each tube. A tube that has a diameter 1/10th of its length yields a typical tone colour. An inner diameter range between 1/7th and 1/14th of the length (TL) is acceptable. A narrow tube will sound "reedy", while a wide one will sound "flutey".


The pan flute is played by blowing horizontally across the open end against the sharp inner edge of the pipes. Each pipe is tuned to a note, called the fundamental. By overblowing, that is, increasing the pressure of breath and tension of lips, odd harmonics (notes whose frequencies are odd-number multiples of the fundamental),near a 12th in cylindrical tubes, may also be produced. The Romanian panflute has the pipes arranged in a curved array, enabling the player to easily reach all the notes by simply swiveling their head. These instruments can also play all the sharps and flats, with a special technique of both tilting the pipes and jaw movement, thus reducing the size of the pipe's opening and producing a change in pitch. An advanced player can play any scale and in any key. There are two styles of vibrato possible, hand vibrato and breath vibrato. In hand vibrato, the player applies a gentle motion to one end of the panflute (usually the high end) in much the same way as the violin vibrato is achieved by rocking the hand from the wrist. Breath vibrato is the same technique used by players of the flute and other woodwinds by use of the player's diaphragm.


The European curved-style pan flute was popularized by the Romanian musician Gheorghe Zamfir, who toured extensively and recorded many albums of pan flute music in the 1970s, and by several other artists who began recording at the same time. Today there are thousands of devoted players across Europe, Asia and the Americas. Both the curved and traditional South American variations are also very popular in Peruvian traditional groups and other Andean music.
This simple instrument was used in some songs by The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Bee Gees, Agustín Lara, Luis Miguel, Aerosmith,Goldfrapp and Céline Dion, and has enjoyed some popularity in New Age music.

Types of pan flutes

  • Nai (Romania). Note that nai is also the Romanian word for the Middle Eastern reed flute ney.
  • Antara (Andes)
  • Paixiao (China)
  • So (Korea)
  • Syrinx
  • Zampoña (Andes)
  • Kuvytsi, Svyryli, Rebro (Ukraine)
  • A small syrinx called chiflo or xipro was used by Galician mobile knife sharpeners in Spain, Argentina and Mexico, who blew quick, loud scales to announce their arrival in the neighborhood. They were traditionally bored from a block of wood, but more recently have been cast in plastic.
  • The firlinfeu is a popular folk instrument in Brianza, the province of Monza and the southern sides of provinces of Lecco and Como (Italy).
  • Quills, an African American instrument known primarily through the recordings of Henry Thomas in the 1920s

Notable panflutists


panpipe in Catalan: Flauta de Pan
panpipe in Czech: Panova flétna
panpipe in Danish: Panfløjte
panpipe in German: Panflöte
panpipe in Spanish: Zampoña
panpipe in Esperanto: Fluto de Pan
panpipe in Persian: زامپونیا
panpipe in French: Flûte de Pan
panpipe in Western Frisian: Panfluit
panpipe in Italian: Flauto di Pan
panpipe in Hebrew: חליל פאן
panpipe in Lithuanian: Pano fleita
panpipe in Dutch: Panfluit
panpipe in Japanese: パンパイプ
panpipe in Norwegian: Panfløyte
panpipe in Polish: Fletnia Pana
panpipe in Portuguese: Flauta-de-pã
panpipe in Romanian: Nai
panpipe in Russian: Флейта Пана
panpipe in Finnish: Panhuilu
panpipe in Swedish: Panflöjt
panpipe in Turkish: Panflüt
panpipe in Chinese: 排萧

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

English horn, Pandean pipe, aulos, basset horn, basset oboe, bassoon, bombard, clarinet, contrabassoon, contrafagotto, cromorne, double bassoon, double reed, fife, fipple flute, flageolet, flute, hautboy, heckelphone, hornpipe, licorice stick, musette, oaten reed, oboe, oboe da caccia, ocarina, penny-whistle, piccolo, pipe, pommer, recorder, reed, reed instrument, sax, saxophone, shawm, single reed, single-reed instrument, sonorophone, sweet potato, syrinx, tabor pipe, tenoroon, tin-whistle, whistle, woods, woodwind, woodwind choir, woodwind instrument
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