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What are Panpipes?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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For many people who know a little mythology, the name "panpipes" brings to mind the Greek god Pan, from whom they take their name. For those who watched television in the 1980s and 90s, the name Gheorghe Zamfir — a famous Romanian panpipe player — may come to mind instead, as the memories of television advertisements for his recordings, come to mind. And for opera buffs, the panpipe–playing character Papageno from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute may leap to mind.

The panpipes are also known as the "panflute," which refers to an instrument with tubes of varying lengths; or the "syrinx," an instrument with equal length tubes bound together and stops inside of them to alter the pitch. Panpipes date from between nine and ten thousand years ago. Early instruments were formed of tubes of cane, reed, or bamboo that were tied together with leather thongs — they look something like a raft — and played by blowing over the end of the pipes, with no mouthpiece. They were found in Greece, China, Burma, the Pacific islands, and Latin America, particularly in the Andes, where one could also find panpipes formed from feathers.

Panpipes may have a single tube or tubes numbering into the forties. Some panpipes feature a single layer of tubes, while some have a double layer, and may be referred to as two-rank. Today, in addition to the earlier materials, one can find panpipes made of glass, and besides the Romanian and South American models, there are circular panpipes available for purchase.

Panpipes are tuned to various scales, including pentatonic, diatonic, and alternate tunings. Andean panpipes, also known as siku or zampoñas, are made in a variety of sizes and tunings. They come in one or two rows, and some two row panpipes are made to be separated and played by two players. In addition, some panpipes feature a third row that allows chromatic scales to be played.

Other noted panpipe players include Romanian performers Simion Stanciu, Fanica Luca, Damian Luca, Simion Radu, and Nicolae Pirvu; French panpipe artist Jean-Claude Mara; and Jorge Rico. Panpipes have been used to reinterpret a wide range of music, from Baroque concertos to songs by ABBA, the Beatles, Christmas carols, and songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Musical Expert, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By anon85817 — On May 22, 2010

I tried looking up panpipes on another site, but I found this much more satisfying.

By elizabeth — On Mar 23, 2010

Thanks for the compliment. --Mary Elizabeth

By anon71846 — On Mar 20, 2010

Very well researched. I must admit it is quite an honor to be named along the great Rumanian panpipers. I'll have to get recording again soon! Stay tuned for the release of Bolero on itunes.

Keep up the good work. J. Rico

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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