Flute with mirliton membrane

Virtual Research Institute Tlapitzcalzin.

Flute with membrane and yellow flower. 20 cm length.

(Consultative document)
First version November 14, 2003.


The purpose of this article is to show the general characteristics of an experimental model of a clay flute with membrane. In Ancient Mexico existed aerophones of this type which were used to generate garbled, nasal or buzzing sounds similar to those produced by reed instruments, but in this case a membrane is used and located in a special hole placed between the embouchure and the tonal holes. These membranes and their sonorous effect also were used and appreciated in ancient cultures of other continents like Africa and Asia. Similar tubular aerophones without tonal holes are called Kazoo or Mirliton and their copies have been patented, industrialized and commercialized.

A blown membranophone without tonal holes is still being played in several countries. In Spain one was played that was just a hollow cane with a perforation at the middle of the tube and one end is covered with a "smoking" paper or wet onion skin tied with a cord. At present this membrane is made of plastic. In Mexico and other zones of America similar aerophones were used with a hole or none to call animals, which were known as gamitaderas. They could operate like the Kazoo or like a whistle of balloon vendors, and like that of Spain. In the case of balloon vendors' whistles the membrane tied at one end of the tube has a small aperture, a cut, at one side and it is exited blowing or sucking air trough the tube to make the membrane vibrate. In the Kazoo type the membrane can be fixed to a small hole or tube over the resonating tube like in the case of the Pame flute and of the experimental one shown here.

It has been seen that the Gamitaderas, besides having simple designs and without tonal holes can generate a great variety of sounds being able to match with the acoustical possibilities of the vocal tract, with the operator's hands and with other resonators, but this type of aerophones is matter of other special study.

Similar ancient clay aerophones have disappeared from folk and indigenous celebrations in this country. Only a few are still being used made of hollow cane (carrizo) like the singular Pame flute, which has a spider-web membrane glued with bee's wax and a tubular bird-bone air duct. It is played in San Luis Potosi, North of Queretaro and in Verazcruz States. Guillermo Contreras made public the picture of three Pame flutes in his "Atlas Cultural de México. Música" and he commented that in the storage rooms of the National Museum exist clay flutes of that type. Similar flutes have been seen in other small museums like the one of Xochimilco, but they have not formally studied. The ancient flutes that have been recuperated have no membrane, because they were made of non durable materials like bat's wings, trips, etc.

Pame Mirliton's flutes, SLP (the ones with corn leaf) and Nahua, Veracruz (the one with metallic air duct)
Photo of Guillermo Contreras. Used with his permission.

Experimental models.

Several experimental models were made like the flute with yellow flower and it was found that the membrane functions well with different designs and dimensions of tubular and globular aerophones. The membrane can be of several materials industrialized or synthetic like plastic, wax paper, cellophane, latex, etc., with the corresponding variations in timber of the generated sounds. The slightly rigid materials like those that make noise when handled, like those from plastic bags, can generating buzzing sounds. The membrane without a hole or cut can be tied to the tube or secured with bee's wax or tied to the tube and its function is to add the special timber without altering the pitch F0 of the resonating sounds. The low tension of the membrane must be adjusted so it works properly. It must be loose or almost free so it can easily vibrate with the variation of the pressure at resonance of the air inside the tube. The conical form of this resonating tube generates the sound similar to those of the globular aerophones like the ocarina but with the special timber of the membrane, the experimental model in the page is operated like a conventional flute.

Produced sounds.

Spectrogram of a sort phrase with sounds of the yellow flower flute.

The membrane's effect is not shown in the previous spectrogram, because the frequency components generated are of greater pitch and lower intensity than the F0s of the main resonating sounds. The F0 of the flute is between 570 Hz and 980 Hz.

Spectrogram that shows the high frequency components generated, changing the Hz and dB scales.

The radiated acoustic power of this flute is not high. The greatest sonorous intensity is produced in the open mode and it is around 80 - 82 dB (at 1 m and 0 degrees), which is equivalent to a radiated acoustic power of ~ 0.001-0,002 Watts. Sounds of this power and F0 can be heard very well in closed places, even if the harmonics extended the distance at which they can be received. Timber is the distinctive characteristic of this type of flute's sounds and can be very beautiful..