What is a Pan Flute? - History, Origin & Types

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Pan flutes are very popular instruments found in folk music around the world. In this lesson, we are going to look at pan flutes and see how they were used in different civilizations.

Pan Flutes

What does medicine and ancient music have in common? Syringes! We'll explain that in a minute, but for now just know that the common denominator here is the pan flute. What's that? A pan flute is a musical instrument composed of numerous pipes, lined in a row.

One version of a modern pan flute.
pan flute

The pipes are either of different length or are blocked at different points. Either way, when the musician blows across the top of the pipes, each one produces a different note. In that way, you can perform an entire melody with this ancient instrument. So, what's that have to do with syringes? For that, we get to hear a story.

Syrinx and Pan

The pan flute is our modern name for this instrument, but it was developed long ago in ancient Greece. According to Greek mythology, the pan flute owes its existence to a god named Pan, the patron of shepherds.

The story goes that Pan fell in love with the nymph Syrinx. Syrinx, however, did not return Pan's love and so she asked Zeus (or the river nymphs in some versions) to save her from the shepherd-god.

Zeus did so by turning her into reeds, which made Pan so angry that he smashed the reeds to bits. Of course, he was instantly filled with remorse and collected the reeds, trying to kiss them. As he did, his breath blew over them and created a melody. To honor his love, Pan named this instrument the syrinx. The plural of syrinx is syringes, which is where the reed-shaped medical tool gets its name.

The Greek Syrinx

The syrinx was one of the oldest and most popular instruments in ancient Greece. In fact, it seems to be about as old as Greek civilization itself. The oldest examples of it were found on the Cycladic islands as far back as the third millennium BCE.

It seems to have been primarily a popular folk instrument, associated closely with the shepherds who played it while tending their flocks. However, there is some evidence that it was at times incorporated into the ensembles that provided the music for Greek theater and poetry.

Roman mosaic of a shepherd with a syrinx
pan flute mosaic

The syrinx was made of four to eighteen pipes, generally of different lengths. On the rare occasion that the pipes were of the same length, wax was used to create blockages, altering the pitch of that particular reed.

The syrinx can be seen across Greek art, played by a number of figures and deities, but was always most associated with Pan. As a god of shepherds, Pan was generally depicted with the lower body of a sheep or goat, just like the mythology creatures called satyrs. Because of this, satyrs in general were closely associated with the syrinx as well, an association that remains to this day.

Types of Pan Flutes

The syrinx remained popular in Greece and spread across Europe, particularly in the medieval era. You may sometimes hear it referred to by other names (it's called a nai in Romania and a muskal in Turkey), but the basic form of the instrument is the same. In essence, all European pan flutes are derived from the syrinx.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that ancient Europeans were the only ones to develop a pan flute-like instrument. In China, this instrument was called the paixiao. The paixiao was a bamboo pan flute generally composed of 16 pipes, arranged in a semicircular shape. This shape was said to be inspired by the wings of the fenghuang, a mythical bird often called the Chinese Phoenix in the West.

The paixiao became popular in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), although there is evidence that the instrument existed since much earlier times and perhaps even as far back as the 6th century BCE.

One type of a Chinese paixiao

Perhaps the most famous non-European pan flutes, however, are those of the Andes. Andean music is strongly influenced by pan flutes to this day, which are a legacy of Inca civilization.

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