This blog is dedicated to the sublime instruments called nose flutes and which produce the most divine sound ever. We have chosen to discard all the native models from S. Pacific and Asia, for they need fingering to be played. We'll concentrate on "buccal cavity driven" nose flutes : the well patented and trademarked metal or plastic ones, plus, by a condemnable indulgence, some wooden craft or home-made productions.

Oct 4, 2014

Was Harpo Marx a Noseflutist?

Our friend Harm Linsen sent a video link, commenting « Listen to it and see if you can confirm my suspicion ». The question is obviously, is there any nose flute played in Groucho's great success Lydia the Tattoed Lady ?
The song was first performed in the 1939 movie At the Circus, by Edward Buzzell and with the Marx Brothers. Lydia, the Tattoed Lady then became Groucho's signature song. The original movie sequence features two whistled parts.

In the video, the first whistled part starts at 1'14 and lasts 4 seconds. There, you can see Harpo whistling, on the right of the image. But despite a kind of optical illusion on some images which would (falsely) reveal the use of a nose flute, Harpo is just whistling with both his left pinkie and index, under the cover of his right hand.

For sure, the movie is "played back" on a pre-recorded soundtrack, and seeing no nose flute on the images doesn't mean none was used. But we also know how Harpo Marx was clever in whistling with his fingers (check this great video with Spike Jones). So, the excerpt is very short and it is difficult to have a definitive opininion. So I isolated the 4 seconds, "normalized" them, and made a sequence of it 4 times repeated. The whistling is a bit out of tune (positive fact for a nose flute opinion!!:) and could be a nose flute... or not. Judge by yourself:

The second whistled part stands at 2'47 and lasts 6 seconds. During this lapse, Harpo is jumping and dancing, not whistling. The whistling soundtrack is much more elaborated. First, we can hear a barrel organ. And "under" its music, there are differents "whistlings". I am sure to recognize a slide-whistle. It is the very first whistling, going up in tone, with its very peculiar sound, like plastic plumbery. Then, I'm also totally sure to listen to a musical saw, which is the one that provides the modulations (tremolo). But there is a third whistling sound. Was it produced by Harpo with his fingers, was it a recorder, or was it a nose flute? I sincerely am not able to discern enough to tell. But if one of you knows whether Harpo was a nose flute player, please please tell us!

Here is the excerpt, 4 times looped:

And here is the same sample, slowed down at 33% speed:


Oct 1, 2014

A Beautiful Early Humanatone

I recently had the great luck to acquire an old tin Humanatone, with its box and user manual. They are in very nice condition, regarding their old age. The nose flute is a chromed model, and its shiny coating (after some ultrasound cleaning) appeared to have kept its integrity in all of its beauty. The box has missing side flaps and is a bit worn on the edges, but has still its beautiful sticker on the top. And finally, the user manual, which was a bit wrinkled, shows a great conservation condition, after a soft ironing session.

The nose flute itself is beautiful. It's an early Stivers' era tin Humanatone in its whole beauty. The chrome plating is in a very great condition, with very few traces of corrosion (mostly in the nose rest).

The stampings are crispy, show the usual patent numbers, and are of the type "Trade Humanatone Mark" (meaning the mention 'Trade Mark" is symmetrically split on each side of the name Humanatone), contrarywise to later Humanatones, which wears a "Trade Mark Registered" line under the brand. It is also stamped with "Other Patents Pending" (which never will be registered...)

This Humanatone stampings, compared to two later models:
The other remarkable point is the shape of the two flaps which hold the rivets on the sides of the airway. Here, they are shaped like the tip of an ice cream stick (prolongated half disc), with a nice little dome rivet in the middle. I am not totally sure, but I think this is the second type of flap: the original one would have been the rounded rectangular one ("bolster" shape, with 2 rivets) and the later one (the most usual), half pear shaped (1 rivet).

This Humanatone flap, compared to the bolster shape (earlier?) and the pear shape flap:
But contrarywise to both rounded rectangle and half pear shape, the rivets ends are visible on the other side of the nose flute:

Last detail on this Humanatone: a little hole above the nose saddle. I am not able to tell if it is original or was made by the nose flute owner. The fact is I have never seen such a hole on another Humanatone, and when some people drilled or punched out their flute in order to pass a neck cord, they generally did it at the bottom of the mouth shield.

Despite its missing side flaps, the box is beautiful, with its gorgeous sticker applied on a grained paper. It is absolutely similar - a small detail and the color excepted - to the one we published here, but should be a little later, since the Humanatone contained in this other box was of the "bolster flap" type. Also, this earlier burgundy color box was printed with "Style No. 20" and "Price $1.00" :

This Humanatone box, compared to the earlier (?) one:

The user manual, as said above, is in great condition. It is a 5½ by 10¼ inch document, printed on one side only, contrarily to a later user manual (1920s?) that we published here.

This user manual, compared to a later (double-side printed) one:
The user manual is interesting at least on two points. First, it shows a little engraving of a woman playing a nose flute... which is a Magic Nose Flute! This drawing directly comes from the 1903 Magic Flute advertisement, being another evidence of a continuum from this early nose flute and the Humanatone (Couchois (?) having sold the brand and patents to the Stivers).

Detail of this user manual, compared to the 1903 Howe catalog Magic Flute ad:

Another detail is important. On this user manual (contrarily to other ones or boxes), the "Humanatone M'F'G Co." address is specified: 15 Ann Street. Booom! We know that the Stivers moved from 15 Ann Street to… 35 Ann St. in 1911 (see here), a small step for Geo. Stivers, one giant leap for nose flute historic research: we are able to date this chromed Humanatone.

This nose flute is prior to 1911, and posterior to 1905. Indeed, the trade mark design, with the heraldic lion rampant dates of Apr. 18, 1905 (filing the trade mark by J.J. Stivers). 1905-1911 is the time frame during which the nose flute was produced, but I guess the reality is in the second half, since, as shown above, there was a different model produced before this nose flute, but having the same lion logo. So, our shiny Humanatone should date of ±1908-1911, more or less...(but not more:)

Sep 29, 2014

Geert Leurink's Great Playing

We already had the opportunity to mention Geert Leurink as a great noseflutist in ou pages, notably here and here. Here is a new video, called Dag 36 - De Buitenpianist van Cultuurschip Thor: met Geert Leurink op neusfluit (which translation is somehow Day 36 - The Outdoor Pianist of Culture Ship Thor with Geert Leurink at the nose flute). The Cultuurshchip Thor is a floating concert scene for Jazz and cultural activities (check here, and here for a Google translation).

The pianist is Rik Elings, co-owner of the Thor, and the video is part of his project of playing outdoor piano every day, whatever the weather...

Sep 28, 2014

Nose Flute Physics - II

In a previous post, we began to analyse what would be the best acoustic model to be applied to nose flutes. The simplest model was provided by Mr. David Lapp, physics teacher, who published his study (available here), with a part devoted to the nose flute. The model used assimilates the nose flute to a closed pipe, which resonator (the mouth) is simplified to a (variable capacity) tube shape. The prediction of a frequency, depending on the volume of the mouth, is therefore the result of the equation F = v/4L. My experiments shown that the simplifications operated on the model lead to wrong results (in the proportion of 1 to 3!).

Thanks to our friend and Jew's harp expert Harm Linsen, I was driven to the reading of a 2010 Master thesis in Traditional Arts, produced by Mr. Sylvain Trias at Telemark University College: Helmholtz & coupled resonators acoustics in jew's harp playing (click on its title for a download).

This work deals with jew's harp, which is the other instrument that works as the nose flute: the pitch is driven by the mouth cavity size, with an external vibration production. Thus, the acoustic model used for the nose flute should be the same than for the ancient lamellophone: a Helmholtz resonator.

Helmholtz resonators:

The Helmholtz resonator is a simple apparatus: a sphere with a neck, and the Helmholtz resonance is the acoustic phenomenon that occurs when someone make a sound when blowing in a bottle. Hermann Helmholtz set up the equation predicting the frequency of the sound produced when blowing in the resonator. This frequency depends on the sphere volume, but also the dimensions of the neck.

I had the opportunity to have a chat with Sylvain Trias (very kind person!) to whom I wanted to ask if the Helmholtz resonator was the right model for the nose flutes. Mr. Trias confessed he didn't know much the nose flute and asked me if I could provide spectrograms. I bought a $3 spectrographic app, and produced 3 spectra: a glissando from the sharpest to the lowest note I can produce with a Bocarina, the lowest note held during some seconds, and an extract of Queen of the Night:

Sylvain Trias confirmed the Helmholtz resonator is the right model for the nose flute, adding (sorry, it's a bit serious):

« Tu peux voir page 14 qu'il est possible de moduler avec la cavité de Helmholtz des frequences proches de 500Hz. Cela signifie tout de même avoir le larynx dans une position extrèmement haute (p89). Au pire, vu les spectres au dessus, tu auras juste un renforcement possible du volume des frequences basses de ton jeu comme illustré par le graphique p76. Rien qui ne soit remarquable devant les changements de volume liés aux variations de ton souffle. Les modulations sont bien dues au changement de volume de la cavité resonnante avant. Cela est aussi confirmé par la bande des frequences que tu produits qui est la même que celle de la mélodie d'une guimbarde - les limites étant physiologiques. »

that is:

« You can see on page 14 that it is possible to modulate frequencies around 500Hz with the Helmholtz cavity. This means still have the larynx in an extremely high position (p89). At worst, given the spectra above, you just get a possible strengthening of the volume of low frequency of your playing, as illustrated by the graph p76. Nothing that is not noticeable regarding to volume changes associated with breath variations. The modulations are really due to the change of volume of the front resonant cavity. This is also confirmed by the band of frequencies that you produce which is the same as the melody of a Jew's harp - the limits are physiological. »

Well... the equation to predict the frequency for a Helmoltz resonator is built from the resonator measurements and "c", the speed of sound. So, I decided to measure (estimate) the parameters l1, l2, A1 and A2 for my mouth. I found around 7 cm for my mouth in depth while shaping it as I do when I reach my lowest note on the nose flute (having reduced the measure of the lips depth), and estimated to 1 cm the lips depth. The measurement of the mouth section was more tricky, but I estimated (as Mr. Trias did) at 9 cm2. The trickiest part was to estimate the surface of the small opening between the lips. Mr. trias used 1 cm2 in his calculation, but remember that when playing the Jew's harp, you can't close the lips as tight as you can with a nose flute, because the lamella has to be able to vibrate in between. I estimated my opening when reaching the lowest note at 0.25cm2. Finally, having made my experiment at around 20°C (68°F), I chose 343m/s for the speed of sound (that is 34300 cm/s, since I used centimeters as a unit).

A1 : 9 cm2
A2 : 0.25 cm2
l1 : 7 cm
l2 : 1 cm
c : 34300 cm/s

F = c/2π*SQR(A2/(A1*l1*l2) = (34300/(2*3.1416))*SQR(0.25/(9*7*1)) = 343.88 Hz

This result is incredibly accurate in comparison with my experiment (remember that I measured 347 Hz), and it is a great piece of luck since modifying just a little bit the parameters leads to very different results. Anyway, this result *does not invalidate* the Helmholtz model, contrarywise to the "slide whistle model" David Lapp used. This globally means that the lips forming a "neck" to the "bottle" of our mouth are very important in the pitching of the note (and dramatically impacts the model).


Accurate or not were my measurements and estimations, the calculations can provide anyway relative info. For instance, what happens when "c" evolves? Indeed, the speed of sound is not the same when the weather is cold or hot, and also depends on the altitude.

With the same mouth measurements, if I tried reaching this lowest note on the top of Mount Fuji (3776 m), the speed of sound would be 325 m/s, and my lowest note at 325.84 Hz, which is more than 5% lower, and represents a semitone (F4 at 349.2 Hz and E4 at 329.6 Hz).

Contrarywise, if I joined Mr Schuermans in South Africa on a very hot Winter day, with a 40°C (104°F) air temperature, the speed of sound would be around 355 m/s. My lowest note would be a 355.92 Hz sound, between a F4 and a F#4.

If all my dimensions were 10% larger (big head!), instead of my 347 Hz, I'd get a nice 312.62 HZ D#4, etc.