A memento: the medieval recorder

Primitive signal-pipes and whistles date back to Upper Palaeolithic times Megaw (1963). Amongst, the world’s oldest musical instruments is a 24,000-year-old duct flute from France, made from the bone of a vulture found in the 1920’s (Hamer 1996). Bone flutes, about 32,000 years old are known from Les Roches and La Roque, Dordogne, France. The latter date from the Upper Paleolithic (Perigordian) and were made by fully modern people like ourselves whose cave paintings, sculpture and jewellery also date from this period (Owen 2009). An almost complete bone flute recently found at Hohle Fels in the Swabian Alps of Germany has been dated as far back as 35,000 years (Seifert 2009). More controversial is the claim that this may be pushed back to at least 43,000 and possibly as far as 82,000 years ago by the discovery in Slovenia of a putative Neanderthal flute made from a femur bone of a bear cub (Fink 1997, Otte 2000), although this interpretation has been rejected convincingly by other investigators, most recently by Diedrich (2015).

Excavations at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu in the Henan Province, China, have produced six complete vertical flutes made from the ulnae of the red-crowned crane which, curiously, have variously 5, 6, 7 and 8 holes. On one of these 9,000-year-old flutes which has holes for 7 fingers, that for the lowermost finger is doubled with a very small vent immediately above the main hole. The latter instrument can actually be sounded and thus represents the world’s oldest playable musical instrument (Fountain 1999, Zhang et al. 1999, Castellani 2000). Note that these are all end-blown flutes rather than duct flutes. For a photograph and sound files, click here.

More internal-duct flutes  (sensu Picken 1975) have survived from the Middle Ages than any other kind of musical instrument (Munrow 1976). Crane (1972) lists no less than 140 of them in a great variety of forms. Moeck (1967) has also produced a comprehensive survey.

The recorder (as distinct from six-holed pipes, flageolets and other folk whistles) is an internal-duct flute with holes for seven fingers and a thumb hole which serves as an octaving vent. It is generally assumed that the development of the recorder as such from its simpler, six-holed ancestor was the result of a search for a stronger tone richer in fundamentals (Hunt 2002). However, Rowland-Jones (in Brown 1995: 22, footnote 8) argues that the recorder was a remarkable innovation in duct flute design, for the complication of having to use two more holes, including a thumb hole, did not result in any increase in the instrument’s range or improvement in its tone; what it achieved was that high notes could be played more softly ‘ – see also Rowland-Jones (1996, 1999).

Although more or less cylindrical-bore recorders are generally louder than other similarly sized duct flutes by virtue of their wider bore and greater cross-sectional area of the windway, the useful range of at least some reconstructions of medieval recorders, including those made by Fitzpatrick, Carlick and Miller & Anderson is limited to an octave and a sixth. On the other hand, reconstructions of medieval recorders by Bartram, Cook, Hanchet and Reiners play over a range of two or more octaves, though the latter departs markedly from a cylindrical bore (Reiners 1997). Doubtless much would depend on the skill of the maker and even the player. However, the fact remains that a six-holed pipe can easily ascend two octaves with very little effort necessary on the part of either maker or player, and need be neither unduly shrill nor lacking in volume.

Surely of far more value would be the sheer number of novel fingerings opened up by the addition of an extra finger hole and thumb hole which, whilst creating an instrument with possibly decreased range, made the recorder a truly chromatic instrument. The six-holed pipe, even in its modern form (the Irish whistle or faedog), is essentially a diatonic instrument. Thus, Tuschner (1983) has more convincingly discussed the transition from woodwind instruments with six upper finger holes into those with seven (including the recorder) in the light of the tetrachord system of the Musica enchiriadis and the later Guidonian hexachord system.

References cited on this page

  • Brown, Howard Mayer. 1995. “The Recorder in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Recorder, edited by John Mansfield Thomson and Anthony Rowland-Jones, 1–25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Crane, Frederick. 1972. Extant Medieval Instruments, a Provisional Catalogue by Types. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
  • Diedrich, Cajus G. 2015. “‘Neanderthal Bone Flutes’: Simply Products of Ice Age Spotted Hyena Scavenging Activities on Cave Bear Cubs in European Cave Bear Dens.” Royal Society Open Science. http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.140022.
  • Fink, Robert. 1997. “Neanderthal Flute: Oldest Musical Instrument’s 4 Notes Matches 4 of Do, Re, Mi Scale. Musicological Analysis.” Origin of Music. http://www.greenwych.ca/fl-compl.htm.
  • Fountain, Henry. 1999. “After 9,000 Years, Oldest Playable Flute Is Heard Again.” New York Times on the Web. September 28. http://www.nytimes.com/library/national/science/092899sci-archeology-china.html.
  • Hamer, Mick. 1996. “Haunting Tunes from Ghostly Players.” New Scientist 151 (2048): 12.
  • Hunt, Edgar H. (1962) 2002. The Recorder and Its Music. Revised and enlarged. Hebden Bridge: Peacock Press.
  • Megaw, J. Vincent S. 1963. “A Medieval Bone Pipe from White Castle, Monmouthshire.” Galpin Society Journal 16: 85–94.
  • Moeck, Hermann A. 1967. “Typen europäischer Blockflöten in Vorzeit; Geschichte und Volksüberlieferung [Types of European Recorders in Antiquity; History and Folklore].” Moeck Verlag und Instrumentenwerk.
  • Munrow, David J. 1976. Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. London: Oxford University Press:
  • Otte, Marcel. 2000. “On the Suggested Bone Flute from Slovenia.” Current Anthropology 41 (2): 271–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/300129?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
  • Owen, James. 2009. “Bone Flute Is Oldest Instrument, Study Says.” National Geographic. June 24. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/06/090624-bone-flute-oldest-instrument.html.
  • Picken, Laurence E.R. 1975. Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Reiners, Hans. 1997. “Reflections on a Reconstruction of the 14th-Century Göttingen Recorder.” Galpin Society Journal 50: 31–42.
  • Rowland-Jones, Anthony. 1996. “La flauta de pico en el arte catalán [The Recorder in Catalan Art]. 1a Parte. Alrededor de 1400: la invención de la flauta de pico [Around 1400: The ‘Invention of the Recorder’]. 2a Parte. El siglo XV [The Fifteenth Century].” Revista de flauta de pico, 6: 15–20; 7: 9–15.
  • Rowland-Jones, Anthony. 1997. “La flauta de pico en el arte catalán [The Recorder in Catalan Art]. 3a Parte. Después de ca 1500 [After ca. 1500].” Revista de flauta de pico 8: 9–13.
  • Seifert, Michael. 2009. “Pressemitteilung, Tübingen, 24. Juni 2009: Früheste Musiktradition in Südwestdeutschland nachgewiesen.” Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen. http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/uploads/media/09-06-24FloeteHohleFels.pdf.
  • Tuschner, Wolfram. 1983. “Die frühen Holzbasinstrumente im Lichte der mittelalterlichen Tonlehren [Early woodwind instruments in the light of the medieval modes].” Tibia 8 (3): 401–6. http://www.moeck.com/uploads/tx_moecktables/1983-3.pdf.
  • Zhang, Juzhong G., Garman Harbottle, Zhaochen Kong, and Changsui Wang. 1999. “Letters to Nature: Oldest Playable Musical Instruments Found at Jiahu Early Neolithic Site in China.” Nature 401: 366–69.

Cite this article as: Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2022. Recorder Home Page: A memento: the medieval recorder. Last accessed 20 May 2022. https://www.recorderhomepage.net/instruments/a-memento-the-medieval-recorder/