The Proposition of a Constant "Flutistic Awareness" Tying Prehistoric and Contemporary Mental States

Daniel Fawcett

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The proposition that I present here is based upon four arguments. First, we can suppose that musical awareness existed far back in proto-human evolution. Second, we know that during much of the last hundred millenia of human evolution, an important component of our ancestors' musical awareness was the flute. Third, we have strong grounds for concluding that many of the objective attributes of prehistoric flute music were highly similar to those of modern flute music, and these parallels lead us to suggest that the artistic aspects of flute performance may also have been highly continuous. Fourth, we can suppose that the subjective character of a flutist's mind while involved in flute performance is tied to the objective and artistic attributes of his flute performance. Finally, due to the possibly uniform nature throughout human history of these objective and artistic attributes of flute performance, it is suggested that the state of mind of prehistoric and modern flute players and listeners may be considered a constant. This assertion is interesting, because it represents one of the only realms of human activity in which any mental continuity between prehistoric and modern humans may be assumed to exist.

We will consider each of the four arguments in order.

1. To begin with a parallel in another art form - dance - it is not terribly bold to assert that dancers can claim a degree of extremely long-term continuity in creative kinesthetics, based upon commonalities of human morphology in both prehistoric and modern times. In other words, prehistoric and modern dances share kinesthetic commonalities, which to some extent have to have been mirrored by continuities of kinesthetic awareness. It may be speculated that in the realm of sound, in general, a nascent species of "prehistoric musical awareness" or "early human intuitive musical intelligence" existed, and dates hundreds of millenia to its earliest and crudest origins in the proto-human mind. Prehistorian John D. Barrow writes in "Evolutionary Aesthetics" that, "the landscape of the universe has profoundly influenced the development of philosophy and mythology, and millions of years of evolutionary history have fashioned our attraction to certain colors and sounds," - in what amounts to an almost trans-species attribution of aesthetic awareness. In paleontology, Howard Gardner theorizes in "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences," that seven proto-human modular intelligences existed early in the time-frame of human evolution: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and two forms of personal intelligences.

Let's now ask, what were the mental nature and physical manifestations of "early human intuitive musical intelligence?"

2. Songs and percussion instruments played important roles in "early human intuitive musical intelligence." But we'll focus this discussion on a distinct element - the flute. Let's recall the great prevalence of flutes in prehistoric cultures. Wind music historian Anthony Baines writes in "Woodwind Instruments and Their History" that early human cultures showed "extraordinary inventiveness in the matter of flutes." Even in the flute's earliest stage when it is scarcely more than a little one-note whistle, "its variety in form is astonishing. Almost every known flute sounding-arrangement is employed somewhere or other in the world ..." The most intriguing evidence of the incredible antiquity of the flute is also the most recent - news that broke last year of the discovery of a bone flute in Slovenia, in a sedimentary strata deemed by archaeologists to determine that the flute is between 43 and 82,000 years old, and was fashioned by Neanderthals. What is as amazing as the antiquity and provenance of this flute is its relative sophistication: the instrument's four finger holes permit the production of a tetratonic scale - and the consequent performance of melodies which could plausibly have surpassed in scalar complexity some of the melodies performed by indigenous tribespeople today. So the extreme antiquity, sweeping prevalence and surprising sophistication of flute culture during much of the last 100 millenia of human evolution implies that the flute represented a significant part of "early human intuitive musical awareness." But what did the obsession with flute playing mean to the earliest prehistoric flute-makers?

To answer the question, let's look at the "nature" of the flute - in musical terms, the flute's "idiomaticism." Idiomaticism means the sound and style of music that a musical instrument - itself - "wants" to create. It is founded upon acoustic laws which derive from physical principles inhering in the dimensions and design of a musical instrument. The important point, however, is that idiomaticism is perceived, not scientifically, but intuitively as an attribution of a "personality" to a flute, harp, trumpet, oboe, and so on. This kind of attribution is very likely to have been assigned by the earliest makers of musical instruments to all the instruments they constructed - a conjecture relying upon archaeologist Steven Mithen's theory of the increasing capability of early modern humans to merge formerly discrete "modules" of general, social, tool-making, and natural history intelligence. Thus, to early modern humans the first musical instruments were not just an unusual tool, but borrowed their nature from animals or human beings. To the earliest flute-makers, it's not unlikely that the flute to some extent had a "birdlike" nature, and we know that to the pre-civilized Greeks, flutes were the voice of the pastoral god Pan.

3. The next step is to review evidence establishing significant physical continuities throughout prehistoric and modern times in the dimensions and designs of the flute, as determined by archaeological and acoustic research.

Flutes come in a multiplicity of physical variations. Nonetheless, in the analytical terms of acoustics and musical theory, flutes represent rudimentary, and highly uniform sources of sound. Acoustically, the flute is rudimentary due to the simplicity of its physical design - the simplest design of any wind instrument, in fact, one which excludes a reed, a mouthpiece and a barrel - all of which represent sonic-complexifying factors found on other wind instruments, such as the oboe and saxophone. Lacking these complexifying components, analysis of flute waveform behavior proves that flute sound - in all phases of its "envelope" from attack to release - is extraordinarily elementary, scarcely more complex than that of the sine wave produced by a tuning fork.

In theoretical musical terms, the flute also proves rudimentary. First of all, the flute's a melody instrument, generally producing only one note at a time, and such melody can, in its most primitive manifestations, represent a very rudimentary phenomenon. Unlike the chess-board, which has 64 squares, the most complex musical scale generally used today - after thousands of years of musical advancement - has only 12 tones, the chromatic scale. Aboriginal flutes, such as the bansuri of India and many more, typically produce natural scales of at most 5 tones, forming a pentatonic scale. Archaeological evidence suggests that the "idiomaticism" of the bansuri, and its multitude of ethnic and regional relatives, was probably recognized by and to some degree perfected by humankind as early as 8000 B.C., when the practice of plucking hollow cylindrical marsh reeds and boring mouthpiece and finger holes to fashion a flute with a physical design essentially identical to that of the bansuri, was presumably practiced by early-ancient shepherds in the area of modern-day northern Iraq. (This presumption is based on archaelogical finds of bone flutes in numerous locations in Europe dating as early as 82,000 B.C. Prior to the discovery of the "Neanderthal" flute, the most prolific prehistoric flute finds derived from the Magdalenian culture of present-day southern France and northern Spain, and consisted of one-note whistles fashioned from a reindeer foot-bone, and termed phalange whistles. The continuity, in flutistic terms, between these neolithic cultures and the succeeding early shepherding cultures of the Near East was examined in my book "Mobius Music - The European and Afro-American Flute Traditions." Due to decomposition, no specimens of early presumptive cane flutes dating from the early shepherding cultures circa 8000 B.C. have survived to the present.) A cruder yet still acoustically significant congruence exists even between such distant cousins as the modern-day bansuri and the "Neanderthal" flute. Both rely identically on the flute's proprietary sound production mechanism - acoustically termed the "edge tone" - both have mouthholes, and both have finger-holes. In essential principles of physical design, they are indistinguishable.

The inference of the acoustic and musical interpretations of the archaeological evidence summarized above is that relatively little objective variability is possible in virtually any fundamental aspects of flute sound. And, of course, this conclusion of objective invariability is valid throughout every period of human history.

4. This conclusion - of a relatively insignificant invariability in the objective parameters of flute sound - is paralleled in an examination of flute craft and artistry.

Our examination of flute craft and artistry will settle around flute performance techniques, ie. the various corporeal/acoustic/artistic methods flutists use to create flute music.

I made a strong effort in writing "Mobius Music" to emphasize all of the ancient/modern, and popular/classical continuities in Western flute performance techniques, because I feel these chronological and cultural continuities have been egregiously overlooked. In contrast to the oft-insistent "deification" of "classical" flute music of the period roughly from 1700 to the present, in the widest possible view of flute music - one which comprehends the gamut of ethnological, archeological and historical knowledge regarding the instrument - I and many like-minded observers believe that chronological and cultural continuities in flute performance techniques are numerous, and highly suggestive.

Let us allow a few examples to suffice to establish the point. In regard to the flute performance technique known as natural harmonics, I wrote in "Mobius Music" that, "jazz flutists, suggesting some African ancestral memory at work, tend to play natural harmonics by overblowing across sets of partials, in "harmonic flute" fashion, (ie. in the same manner as African players of indigenous flutes. In regard to the flute performance technique known as vocalization, I wrote that, "it is the ultimate means by which a flutist can conjure the roots of jazz ... but the roots of flute vocalization reach beyond Afro-American folklways, to the musical traditions of the mother continent, Africa. In regard to the flute performance technique known as "fretless" bending, I wrote that, "on flute, the most radical of contemporary practices are often also the most ancient. Fretless playing ... is almost identical to age-old habitudes of the Oriental transverse flutes ti-tze, shinobue, bansuri and kural. In regard to the contemporary flute performance technique known as hollow tones, I quote that they are characterized by an "empty non-resonant tonal quality like that often associated with primitive instruments." In regard to the musical genre termed New Age, I wrote that, "among wind instruments, the flute utterly dominates New Age music, for reasons which bear considerably upon the prehistory of Western music." In regard to the flute performance technique known as multiphonics, I wrote that, "these innovations in Boehm flute multiphonics backtrack to venerable precursors found in several ethnic flute traditions," and represent, "another example of contemporary Western flute music reverting to ancient archetypes. And so on.

Consequently, premised upon commonalities of flute physics and design, and continuities in flute techniques and artistry, the final step in our proposition is to assert that - paralleling dance - there has existed between prehistoric and contemporary eras an unbroken "flutistic awareness," ie. a continuity between modern musical consciousness and "early human intuitive musical intelligence."

This assertion takes an imaginative leap, but as philosopher Georg Hegel said, "with accuracy only, you can never reach the truth." In effect, numerous outstanding writers and flutists have alluded to feelings of flutism's extraordinarily long-term continuity, in fanciful recreations of ancient flute music, anecdotal accounts of primordial recollections while playing the flute, and further direct and indirect verbal and musical allusions.


Baines, Anthony. Woodwind Instruments and Their History. London: Faber & Faber, 1967.

Barrow, John D. Evolutionary Aesthetics. London: Oxford, 1996.

Fawcett, Daniel. Mobius Music: The European and Afro-American Flute Traditions. Burlington, Canada: Brighton Publications, 1996.

Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Mithen, Steven. The Prehistory of the Mind. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.