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An Introduction to the most Versatile of World Flutes

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  1. A Dream of Spring
  2. Fading Summer
  3. Winter Descends

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Most of the world flutes we encounter can only play one or two scales, some even limited to just a few pitches. Those that can play more than one scale take many years of strict discipline to master and may even require complicated cross fingerings, half-holes and even odd head movements to play more than four or five pitches.

But what if there was a flute that, even if you owned only one of them, you could play all the same scales as a Native American style flute, a Pueblo (Anasazi) style flute, a Bansuri, a Shakuhachi, a Mojave style flute –and it's extended cousin the Mojave-6?

What if this same flute could also play exotic scales like the Dominant Harmonic (aka Silk Road, Spanish Gypsy or Arabian scale), the Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Major, all the Chinese pentatonic scales (diao), plus several Japanese scales like the Minyō, Ritsu, Ryo, Kokinjoshi, Hirajoshi, Akebono and Ryukuan? Or even unusual scales from Ethiopia like the Tizita major and minor, the Batti major and minor, the Ambessel major or the wonderfully named Yematebela Wofe scale?

And what if this flute could play all of these scales without any odd cross fingering and could also play some of these scales starting on more than one note?

If such a flute existed in the pantheon of world flutes you'd want one, wouldn't you? I know I would. Well it turns out such a flute does exist and it's been around in one form or another for a very long time. Over 8,000 years in fact. That flute is the Xiao, , (pronounced: showh as in "shower").

Before we get to the nuts and bolts of the xiao, we should take a moment to review its history which is much longer than that of the Pueblo (Anasazi) flute's. While the earliest Anasazi flute found dates back about 1,500 years, the earliest known version of what became the xiao dates back to 6,000 BC and was made of bird bone. There are also proto-Pueblo (Anasazi) flutes that also were made of bone, so for a true comparison of the dates we should look at the flutes that resemble the ones we know today. The first xiaos that look similar to the ones we have today appeared during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), which is about 500 years earlier than the earliest Pueblo flutes. There is a clay figurine of a xiao player from the Han period in the Nanjing Museum. It is believed these flutes were imported from the Qiang culture, which is located in northwestern Sichuan, or Szechwan, province in western China. This area was part of the Silk Road. Traders might have had flutes with them for entertainment and these became one of the items being traded or sold. These early xiaos did not yet have the same hole placement or even the same number of holes as today. The number and placement of the holes was not standardized until the Jin dynasty (265-420 AD). These flutes also had different names. One of these ancient names was: shudi, or shuúzhúdi ( lit: “vertical bamboo flute").

Before the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) any flute made up of one tube was called a di. The name xiao was used for a group of tubes put together like a panpipe. During the Tang dynasty the transverse flute became increasingly popular and from that point on the name di became associated with transverse flutes. The name xiao began to refer to a vertical end-blown flute and the Chinese panpipe became called the paixiao, or a "row of xiao". However it was not until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that the name xiao became standardized for the specific instrument we know today.

Variations of the xiao include the qinxiao, which is a narrower version, and the fatter, shorter southern version called the nanyin dongxiao ("southern sound notched flute") or nanxiao, from Fujian and Taiwan which was imported into Japan in the 14th century and later became the Shakuhachi.

While traditionally xiaos are made of purple bamboo, which is wrapped to stabilize and prevent cracking, they can also be made of jade, porcelain and ivory. Domestic xiaos are made of wood.

The modern xiao has six or eight holes. The extra two holes on the eight hole version do not give the flute more pitches, but make some of the notes easier to play. In my experience, eight is the most common number of finger holes found in the U.S. Traditionally, xiaos are used as a solo instrument or paired with a guqin, a Chinese zither. The xiao's sound is rich and mellow like a Pueblo (Anasazi) flute but smoother, with less wind and air noise. Xiaos can also play two octaves with the same fingering for all but two of the highest notes.

In the West most xiaos come in either the key of C or D. The Chinese name these keys based on the pitch a 4th above, or F and G. Since most world flutes are bottom note centric we will name the key by the flute's bottom note. All examples will be shown for a xiao with C as the bottom note. Without having to half-hole, or use any bizarre cross fingering, a xiao can play 10 pitches. Here are the pitches a xiao in the key of C can play.
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Four Xiao
Left to right
Golden Xiao
(Geoffrey Ellis)
White Tiger
(Geoffrey Ellis)
Red Tiger
(Geoffrey Ellis_
(Vance Pennington)

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While the intervals in the example above are based on the bottom note, in this case C, the root is moveable depending on which of the 10 pitches a scale might start on. This is not unlike pianos, guitars or orchestral "silver" flutes, which are not limited to one scale based on their lowest note, but can play many scales starting on many different pitches. This is one of the most versatile features of xiaos.

Typically a player holds the xiao at a 45˚ angle to the face, although like the Pueblo style flute this will vary slightly from player to player and flute to flute. Also like the Pueblo style flute, the angle to the face/jaw is more crucial than the angle to the body. In other words, if the head is lowered or raised, the flute needs to move with it to maintain the angle.
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Holding a Xiao

The mouthpiece of a xiao is similar to a Pueblo (Anasazi) flute but with a deeper notch, like a South American Quena. Although there are many variations, the xiao discussed in this article is of the northern style and has a capped mouthpiece with a notch cut into it. Traditionally the cap is derived from a joint in the bamboo.
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Xiao Mouthpiece

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Xiao Holes

The xiao has eight holes. Seven in the front and a thumbhole for the upper hand in the back. The holes on the front are divided by three on the top and four on the bottom. We can label each hole for reference. (Note: This is not a TAB system.)
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Full Piper's Grip

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Modified Piper's Grip

Although technically not necessary, depending on the tonality of the scale, a player can elect to keep either hole #2 or hole #3 covered at all times for stability.
A free PDF showing the basic scales of the xiao is available to members of Cedar Mesa Music on the Member's Download page
In the videos below I am playing Geoffrey Ellis xiaos using a modified piper's grip.

The First Noel in three major scales
Download the sheet music for this song

A Dream of Spring

Wind of the Desert

Xiao Improvisation
(With full Piper's Grip)

Blank Xiao Finger Charts
For notating your own Xiao Songs

A free PDF of blank finger charts for the xiao is available to members of Cedar Mesa Music on the Member's Download page
Scott August is an award winning recording artist and world flute player. His seven album have won multiple awards, including a Native American Music Award (NAMMY), an Indian Summer Music Award and two Zone Music Reporter Awards. He was classically trained on cello and piano. Between 1990 - 2003 he composed and produced music for TV commercials and corporate films including NASA and The Discovery Channel. August is also the author of four books for North American Indigenous style flutes. His music and books can be found at his label, Cedar Mesa Music. He gives workshops and private internet (Skype) lessons for NAF, Pueblo (Anasazi) style and Xiao flutes, through the Santa Fe Flute School.

Finger diagrams courtesy of Clint Goss,