Station: [5] The Fipple Flute Family of Instruments

Have you ever heard of a family of instruments called fipple flutes – or duct flutes? Maybe not – but you’ll probably be familiar with examples. They’re wind instruments. Take the recorder, which you may well have seen or even played at one time or another. It’s one member of the fipple flute family. These instruments don’t have a reed. The sound is produced by directing the breath against a bladed edge. Take a look at the display case, where we have a recorder that’s been sawn in half lengthways. You can see very nicely how fipple flutes work – the air flow is guided through a gap onto the labium lip, or wind-cutter. 

Not all flutes and whistles are members of the fipple flute family. The Turkish ney, for instance, is what’s known as an edge-blown, or end-blown, flute. Nor is the transverse flute a member of the family, with its embouchure hole on the side of the hollow cylinder.

The two display cases feature our diverse collection of different side-blown flutes – such as wooden transverse flutes – as well as end-blown flutes. The colourful instruments on the right of the display case are simple penny whistles from the fairground. They’re still being made today on the same machines as a century ago. The most recent instrument is at the bottom left of the left display case – a carbon flute. And there’s a real curiosity on display in the showcase on the right – a snakeskin flute from East Africa. 

There’s hardly any other instrument that has a history going back as far as the flute. The most ancient instruments known today – though unfortunately, we don’t have them in our museum – are the flutes from the Geißenklösterle and the Hohle Fels in the Swabian Alb region of Germany – they’re 35,000 years old. 

We’ll leave you with the folk song "Down by the Sally Gardens", played on an Irish low D whistle. This example is a modern fipple flute made of brass.

All depictions: © Dagmar Trüpschuch