The pan flute's tubes are stopped at one end, at which the standing wave is reflected giving a note an octave lower than that produced by an open pipe of equal length. In the traditional South American style, pipes are fine-tuned to correct pitch by placing small pebbles or dry corn kernels into the bottom of the pipes. Contemporary makers of curved Romanian-style panpipes use wax (commonly beeswax) to tune new instruments. Special tools are used to place or remove the wax. Corks and rubber stoppers are also used, and are easier to quickly tune pipes.
The pan flute is an end-blown flute. Sound is produced by the vibration of an air-stream blowing across an open hole at the end of a resonating tube. The length of the tube determines the fundamental frequency. An overblown harmonic register is near a 12th above the fundamental in cylindrical tubes, but can approach an octave jump (8th) if a decreasing taper is used.
According to the Fundamental Principle for pan flutes, the frequency and the length of the tube are inversely proportional. Every time the pitch goes up one octave, the frequency doubles. Because there are 12 notes in a chromatic scale or a full octave, every half-step in a chromatic scale is multiplied by the 12th root of 2 to get the note next to it. By this, it is possible to calculate the length of any pipe, given that one knows the length of any one pipe. The formula for calculating the length of a pan flute pipe is L = (c / f) / 4 (the "theoretical length" L equals the speed of sound c = 343 m/s, divided by the desired frequency in hertz f, that quantity divided by 4; this simplifies and rearranges to: Length of pipe (in centimeters) × Frequency (in hertz) = 8575). Because of a property of compression within the tube, the length must be a little shorter to correct flat pitch. The extra length is helpful for a maker, who can use a cork or plug at the bottom to adjust the pitch. Some instruments use wax or pellets to tune the fundamental pitch of each tube. A tube that has a diameter 1/10 of its length yields a typical tone colour (see Timbre). An inner diameter range between 1/7 and 1/14 of the length L is acceptable. A narrow tube will sound "reedy", while a wide one will sound "flutey". If you are a perfectionist, multiply the bore diameter by 0.82 and subtract this value from the tube length. This compensates for internal compression slowing frequency and the lips partially covering the voicing. Only tiny adjustments will be needed then to adjust fundamental pitch for air density and temperature.
A Peruvian-American Airman playing an Incan zampoña.
The pan flute is played by blowing horizontally across an open end against the sharp inner edge of the pipes. Each pipe is tuned to a keynote, called the fundamental frequency. By overblowing, that is, increasing the pressure of breath and tension of lips, odd harmonics (notes whose frequencies are odd-number multiples of the fundamental), near a 12th in cylindrical tubes, may also be produced. The Romanian pan flute has the pipes arranged in a curved array, enabling the player to easily reach all the notes by simply swiveling the head. These instruments can also play all the sharps and flats, with a special technique of both tilting the pipes and jaw movement, thus reducing the size of the pipe's opening and producing a change in pitch. An advanced player can play any scale and in any key. There are two styles of vibrato possible, hand vibrato and breath vibrato. In hand vibrato, the player applies a gentle motion to one end of the pan flute (usually the high end) in much the same way as the violin vibrato is achieved by rocking the hand from the wrist. Breath vibrato is the same technique used by players of the flute and other woodwinds by use of the player's diaphragm.
The curved-style pan flute was popularized by the RomanianmusicianGheorghe Zamfir, who toured extensively and recorded many albums of pan flute music in the 1970s, and by several other artists who began recording at the same time. Today there are thousands of devoted players across Europe, Asia and the Americas. Both the curved and traditional South American variations are also very popular in Peruvian traditional groups and other it is also made from oak trees in admen Andean music.
In Laos and Thailand, there is a cylindrical version called the wot, used in folk music from the Isaan region of the country. The player alters notes by rotating the instrument with the hands, rather than by head movements.
A small panflute called chiflo or xipro was used by Galician mobile knife sharpeners in Spain, Argentina and Mexico, who blew quick, loud scales to announce their arrival in the neighborhood. They were traditionally bored from a block of wood, but more recently have been cast in plastic.