Oldest flute sound

Roberto Velázquez Cabrera

First 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. 

  • Material. The flutes are made of bone, ulnae of the red-clowned crane ("Grus Japoneis Millen")
  • Type. Vertically held, with 5, 6 and 8 tone holes, Sachs and Hornbostel classification 421.111.12.
  • Date. Jihau was occupied from 7,000 BC to 5,700 BC. The flutes were found in a radiocarbon-dated (C14) excavation layers, along with fragments of others flutes.
  • Culture. Peiligans. Established in a very early Chinese Neolithic. 

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:

  • This flute has seven main holes plus a tiny hole near perforation 7. Two other seven-holed flutes were considered, but playing tests produced cracking sounds and were promptly discontinued. However, data were recorded for two players blowing twice each with their embouchures angled at 45·up and 45·down across the mouth of flute (eight scales altogether).
  • They used a "Stroboconn" (stroboscope) to measure the pitch of the sound of the flute free of cracks. They did not use the modern standard of A4 = 440 Hz, but instead adopted an arbitrary standard of hole 5 = 'C6'. (Based on A4 = 440 Hz, the actual tone of hole 5 was C6 + 2 Hz (20 Hz), averaged over eight trials.) Then the interval relationships of the sounds from hole 3 to hole 7 fitted reasonably well to the note sequence E6, D6, C6, B5, A5, with the tone of hole 1 = A6 and hole 2 = F#6. On this scale, the tone of the whole tube is G5 or F#5. In Table 1 three of the intervals in M282:20 are evaluated numerically.

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.

  • Without testing more flutes, they cannot say whether the tonal scale of the bone flute of Jiahu (M282:20) is the ancestor of either the six-tone Qing Shan scale or the seven-tone Xia Shi scale; in any case, the latter two scales are only documented six millennia later. 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. The carefully selected tone scale observed in M282:20 indicate that the Neolithic musician of the seventh millennium BC could play not just single notes, but perhaps even music. It is important in considering the possible role of these flutes in Neolithic society to recall that ancient Chinese tradition held that there were strong cosmological connections with music: that music is part of nature. In this context, the performance of rituals and music were specifically associated with matters of state and sound government. Excavation of only a small fraction (<5%) of the Jiahu site has revealed that, by the unexpectedly early date of 7000 BC, a complex, highly organized Chinese Neolithic society had already begun to evolve employing multinote musical instruments. Future excavation and research should help us to understand the technical aspects of one of mankind's earliest practices of musical expression, which probably took place in a ritual setting.
  • Flute M282:20 can be heard on the Nature web site. In the recording, made at the Music Institute of the Art Research Institute of China, Taoying Xu plays part of the folk song "Xiao Bai Cai" ("The Chinese small cabbage"). Recording engineer was Bobao Gu. Research for the recording was by Xiangpeng Huang (deceased), Xinghua Xiao and Zhongliang Tong.

General comments.

  • The previous archaeological-organological-musical analysis is outstanding. To study the tonal sequences of flutes is important and the stroboscope is very good to measure the pitch of a musical note, but there are other tools to make a complementary acoustic and signal analysis of ancient wind musical instruments.
  • In Internet, I found a picture of one "Stroboconn", technology developed in 1936, in a Band Museum [5]. In Mexico, a "Stroboconn" is in a museum of metrology, previously used in the National School of Music.

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:

  • The spectrogram of the Chines ancient bitonal musical phrase looks like a Greek or decorating stamp, a graphical symbol used by several ancient cultures to represents all kind of waving beings and phenomena as the sound. This finding is important, because it may indicate that ancient cultures knew the relation between their musical sounds and the frequency components or the graphical representation (spectrum) of the fundamental notes. This relation may be a coincidence, but they had other graphical representations for many sound artifacts and musical instruments, speech, singing, etc., some of them in colors.
  • The spectrogram shows a sweet noisy sound (may be by the effect of 9,000 years) recorded with more external noise of lower frequencies (of unknown origin, because it is included also between phrases, in silences).


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: garman@fnol.net) and requests for materials should be addressed to Peter Genzer (genzer@bnl.gov.). For further information see BNL page (http://www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/flutes.html).


  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. (http://www.nature.com). 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.
  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 was presented in the International Congress on Computing "CIC-2000", on November 13-17 of 2000.
  5. The Band Museum (href="http://www.wallickmusic.com/photo5.html)
  6. Horne, Richard, Spectogram V 5.0.9, Gram (http://www.monumental.com/rshore/gram.html). 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 (http://www.sakuhachy.com/K-9KchineseFlutes-Nature.html).
  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.