What are Panpipes?

For many mythology buffs, the name “panpipes” conjures up images of the Greek god Pan, from whom they get their name. For those who grew up watching television in the 1980s and 1990s, the name Gheorghe Zamfir — a well-known Romanian panpipe player — may spring to mind instead, as do memories of television commercials for his recordings. The panpipe-playing character Papageno from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute may also come to mind for opera fans.

The panpipes are also known as the “panflute,” which refers to an instrument with varying-length tubes, or the “syrinx,” which refers to an instrument with equal-length tubes bound together with stops inside to change pitch. Panpipes are believed to have originated between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago. Early instruments were made of cane, reed, or bamboo tubes that were tied together with leather thongs and played blowing over the end of the pipes with no mouthpiece. Panpipes made of feathers have also been discovered in Greece, China, Burma, the Pacific islands, and Latin America, particularly in the Andes.

Panpipes can have a single tube or as many as forty tubes. Some panpipes have a single layer of tubes, while others have two layers and are known as two-rank panpipes. Panpipes made of glass are now available in addition to the earlier materials, and circular panpipes are available for purchase in addition to the Romanian and South American models.

Pentatonic, diatonic, and alternate tunings are among the scales used on panpipes. Andean panpipes, also known as siku or zampoas, come in many different sizes and tunings. They are available in one or two rows, with some two-row panpipes designed to be separated and played two people. In addition, some panpipes have a third row that can be used to play chromatic scales.

Simion Stanciu, Fanica Luca, Damian Luca, Simion Radu, and Nicolae Pirvu are Romanian panpipe artists, as are French panpipe artist Jean-Claude Mara and Jorge Rico. From Baroque concertos to ABBA, the Beatles, Christmas carols, and Andrew Lloyd Webber songs, panpipes have been used to reinterpret a wide range of music.