Oldest flute sound

Roberto Velázquez Cabrera

Firts version June 2000, Last actualization September 30, 2001


The state of the art for the analysis of ancient aerophones in archaeology, can be shown with the extraordinary discovery and study of six 9,000 years old flutes (Figure 1), found in an excavation at Jiahu of the Neolithic site in Henan Province of China. The study was published by Nature magazine [1]. Jiahu lies in the Central Yellow River Valley'3. It was discovered by Zhu Zhi in 1962.

Figure 1. Six bone flutes of 9,000 years. Top to bottom: M341:2, M341:1, M78:1, M253:4: M282:20, M282:21 (this is 24 centimeters long). Photo from Nature magazine.


Main archaeological-organological findings included in the original study.



Musical analysis included in the original study.

The music research team made the analysis of the best preserved flute (M282:20), supervised by Huang Xiangpeng from the Music School of the Art Institute of China. The main results are:

TABLE1: Location Av'g value (Cents) Description


Btwn hole 1&2 284 minor 3rd

Btwn hole 2&3 244 >maj2nd (whole tone)

Btwn hole 7&tube 260 <minor 3rd but >whole tone


Tests revealed that the tiny hole next to hole 7 (Fig. 1) was probably drilled to correct the off-pitch tone of the original hole 7; thus a tone of G#5 + 16 Hz was corrected to A5 - 11 Hz, which is much closer to the octave of A6 - 36 Hz.

General comments.

One example of basic sound analysis.

With a bitonal musical phrase of the Wav file of the ancient song from China "Hiao Bai Cai", available in Nature and the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) Websites, and the freeware program Gram [6] from Richard Horne, used in previous studies [2, 3 & 4], it is possible to obtain the spectrogram of the oldest flute sound (Figure 2) and to provide some remarks:


Figure 2 Spectrogram of the oldest flute sound

In relation to the comment that It should be possible, by constructing exact replicas of the Jiahu flutes in material whose density approximates bird-bone, to study the tonal sequences of all these instruments without endangering the valuable artifacts themselves, it is relevant to mention that the use of replicas to study wind instruments is a method already adopted by the author to study Mexican ancient aerophones, because in Mexico City is not permitted to study the ancient artifacts directly by independent researchers.

There are similar bone flutes in other countries as Peru and Mexico, but their technical analysis remain to be done. Similar situation exists in the rich organology of thousands of ancient wind artifacts from all over the word, with the exception of modern wind musical instruments.

Acknowledgements from the original paper (and corrections). The project was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China. In addition, C.W. was supported by the Department of Science & Technology of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Structure Research Laboratory at USTC. Research at NBL is supported by the US Department of Energy. We thank Huang Xiangpeng of the Music School of the Art Institute of China who supervised these important tests and the personnel of the same Music School who carried them out: Xiao Xinghua, Xu Taoying, Gu Bobao, Tong Zhongliang, Qiu Ping and Liu Haiwang. Correspondence should be addressed to G.H. (e-mail: [email protected]) and requests for materials should be addressed to Peter Genzer ([email protected].). For further information see BNL page (


  1. Juzhong Zhang, Garman Harbottle, Changsui Wang & Zhaochen Kong, Oldest playable musical instruments found at Jiahu early Neolitic site in China, NATURE, Vol. 401, Num. 6755 pp 366-368, 23 sep. 99. ( Nature Magazine (c) Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1999 Registered No. 785998 England.
  2. Velázquez-Cabrera, Roberto, "Estudio de Aerófonos Mexicanos Usando Técnicas Artesanales y Computacionales. Polifonía Mexicana Virtual", CIC, IPN, Marzo 2000. Last draft of a MD Thesis in computation. In Annex 2 are included some comments on the oldest playable flutes. Available in Internet location: (
  3. Velázquez-Cabrera, Roberto. "Virtual Analysis of Gamitadera", May 200. Study with replicas of an extraordinary aerophone with tree resonating chambers, from the Olmec culture of Gulf Zone. The spanish version will be presented in the 7th. Mexican Congress on Acoustics, in Veracruz, Ver, Mexico in october 26 annd 27 of 2000. (
  4. Velázquez-Cabrera, Roberto. "Black Stone Aerophone". Study of an extraordinary Mexican ancient aerophone using computational techniques. The spanish version will be presented in the International Congress on Computing "CIC-2000", on November 13-17 of 2000. (
  5. The Band Museum (href="
  6. Horne, Richard, Spectogram V 5.0.9, Gram ( Richard Horne autorized me to use his excellent freeware program in my studies, to obtain spectrograms in two dimensions.



  1. The original paper with supplementary Information was obtained from Nature´s Website and a summary was used in this article with their permission (Marie Williams), providing that the authors agree and Nature is acknowledged as the source of the article. Now, it seems that the paper is not freely available in Internet. A copy of the article is posted in Monty Levenson´s Website (
  2. I got the permission from the authors (Garman Harbottle, chemist at the BNL) to use the photo and music file in my article, provided that it is for me only and nobody else, and that its use is educational and scholarly and not commercial in any way. The original photo and music file are posted in Brookhaven National Laboratory Website.
  3. My brother Guillermo Velázquez made some corrections to my Spanglish.
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