What is overtone flute

Tapani Varis. Photo by Jorma Airola

Finnish overtone flute “Pitkähuilu” is a flute which is closed from the blowing side and open from the another side. Pitkähuilu is a side-blown overtone flute. The flute has many names. In Finland it has been called e.g. lötkö, pajuhuilu, pajupilli, kävelykeppi, leppäpilli, soropilli, putkipilli, yläsävelhuilu, luonnonsävelhuilu and pitkähuilu.

The overtone flute without finger holes is known among various cultures in the world. For example in Norway the flute is called seljefløyte, in Sweden sälgflöjt, in Estonia pikkvile, in Tansania filimbi, in South-Africa lekgodilo flute, in Tuva murgu, in Germany schwegel, in Hungary tilinkó, in Romania tilincă, in Russia kalyuka and in Poland zurav. The names willow bark flute, willow flute and natural flute are often used in texts describing this flute in English. The flutes with a specific function can have a name that describes the usage of the flute e.g. sacred flute in Papua New Guinea.

Overtone flutes can be made without metallic tools for example by detaching bark from a wood branch in spring time and working with it by using teeth and stone. So the flute type have been makeable even thousands of years ago.

It is estimated that the side-blown overtone flute would have been played already in the bronze age. Though because of the wooden material of the wooden flutes none of them have remained to present day. So it is hard to define the earliest days of the Finnish overtoneflute pitkähuilu. There has been found certain information from different parts of Finland that the pitkähuilu has been played in the 19th and the 20th century. The flutes were mainly made by professional shepherds and played by normal folk for their own pleasure.

Finnish professional musicians found the overtone flute as late as around the decade 1970. Piirpauke band’s album ”2” includes overtone flute. In the end of the 70’s Rauno Nieminen organized several overtone flute playing and building courses in Finland.

New building materials have brought improvement to the lifetime, moisture tolerance and variations in structure of the overtone flute (e.g. bass overtone flute). Nowadays overtone flute is earning its’ place among “proper” musical instruments. Today it is possible to study overtone flute in several schools representing different educational levels e.g. musical playschools, conservatories, Sibelius Academy and folk music camps.

© Janne Ojajärvi