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Ancient Flutes in Egypt
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SHOW 304: Ancient Flutes of Egypt

The very latest technology is helping illuminate some of the oldest mysteries of the Middle East. At Cairo University, a computer and oscilloscope help decipher the sound produced by an ancient flute. When the instrument is played for the first time, the notes and scales call into question popular theory about the earliest crossroads of music and mathematics.

Activity 1: Physics of Music: Making Panpipes
Activity 2: Musical Q & A


As you see on FRONTIERS, precise reconstruction of instruments from many thousands of years ago gives an Egyptian flutist the opportunity to breathe life into bamboo flutes, and gives us a clue to what ancient Egyptian music sounded like. Even without the benefit of advanced mathematics, music theory and computer technology, ancient peoples were still able to make many types of working musical instruments. You can, too.

  • Traditionally made from bamboo or hollow reeds, panpipes are an ancient instrument dating back at least 4,000 years. You can make a modern version with about 5 feet of nominal half-inch CPVC water pipe from the local hardware store, which can probably cut the pipe for you. Cut and assemble according to the diagram. Use masking tape to hold the pipes together and ordinary modeling clay to close the bottom of each tube and fine tune the pitch of each pipe.


  • As you blow across the open end of each tube, you create a column of vibrating air that produces a clear sound of a definite pitch. The tube's length determines the length of the sound wave and the number of waves produced per second. Longer tubes produce longer sound waves, fewer wave vibrations per second and a lower pitch; shorter tubes create shorter wavelengths, more per second and a higher pitch.

  • The speed with which sound travels in the tube is equal to the number of sound wave vibrations per second multiplied by the length of the wave. It might surprise you to know that the sound of your pipe blast moves at least 340 meters per second.

  • When you blow into the pipe, you create a "storm" of what is called a standing wave. The wave creates a disturbance in the pipe, bounces off the closed end and is reflected back. If you blow gently, the wave is simple and less turbulent; a harder blow creates a more complicated wave as well as a higher shriek.

  • You can visualize the actual pattern of the storm inside the sounding pipe by twisting a fat piece of rubber band. Vary the number of twists to portray the standing wave pattern inside the tube. The places where the storm is raging match the wider wave patterns; the quiet regions occur at the nodes. The standing wave is always violent at the antinode by the open end, and always calm at the node made by the closed end.

  • Given that each musical sound has a corresponding mathematical equation that "describes" pitch, loudness and sound quality, how might mathematics play a role in the creation of synthesized, or computer-generated, music?


What is a scale?

A scale is a specific arrangement of musical tones. The simplest scales have only two while some scales have 24 or more different tones. A scale is the basis for musical composition, much like an alphabet is the basis for written language.

What did Pythagorus contribute to music theory?

The Greek mathematician Pythagorus (c. 582-507 B.C.) is usually considered the first person to analyze musical sounds mathematically. Experimenting on a harp-like stringed instrument. Pythagorus observed that musical tones are related to the length of the string by exact ratios. He found that certain simple ratios gave the most harmonious intervals, and thus "discovered" the basis for the scales we use today. You can test Pythagorus's theory on a cello or other stringed instrument. Hold down a string at its midpoint and pluck the free half; you get a tone exactly one octave above the tone of the whole string. Try it with other ratios such as 2/3 and 1/4. The same principle applies to wind instruments and the length of the air chamber.

Could the Egyptians have produced a so-called Western musical scale before Pythagorus, as the research with the ancient flute suggests?

Some music historians maintain that the Egyptians were very advanced musically and must have possessed a written music theory at least 1,500 years before Pythagorus. Their assertions are based on the design of the instruments left behind and the fact that music was such an important part of Egypt's religious, work and social life. Also, Pythagorus studied in Egypt and it's possible his knowledge was partly derived from Egyptian priests.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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