There are few who can whistle real music through their noses. For the rest of us, there’s the nose flute – also called a nose whistle or a Humanatone. This single-piece instrument relies on rhythmic breathing through the nose while maintaining or fluctuating the opening of the mouth.
This simple, classic gem isn’t to be confused with the nose flute that’s common in Hawaii, Africa, the Phillipines and New Zealand, all of which resemble mouth flutes and are usually made of bamboo.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the nose flute was made out of wood, metal or ivory, and were produced under names like Magic Flute, Humantone and Humanaphone. In the late-1930s, plastic nose flutes were introduced as kids’ toys, and they became quite popular.
The nose flute – regardless of style – is easy to play, but does take practice to master. As David Gouthro, founder of the Vancouver Noseflute Ensemble, puts it, you only need two things to play well: You have to be able to breathe, and “you have to let go of any need to look good.” For serious fluters, practicing breath spurts, mouth control and trilling of the tongue takes priority.
Gouthro shares with us the basics of playing in this video:
The nose flute is an inexpensive hobby, too. (Okay, it is a profession for some…) Many of the masters use simple plastic flutes that cost just a few dollars or less. And since the instrument fits in your pocket, you can take it anywhere.
The greatness of the nose flute is its utter simplicity coupled with the ability to produce fantastic sounds. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this performance of Bach’s Concerto in A minor, where a wooden nose flute is spotlighted as a solo instrument:
And, no, the soloist is not trying to look like Hannibal Lecter. Many seasoned players use straps to hold the instrument in place so they can go hands free, or use their fingers to cover additional holes to create different sounds.
In 1928 the tin Humanatone retailed for a dime, and for a quarter by 1931. With the introduction of cheaper plastics, nose flutes in the ’50s and ’60s retailed also for 10-cents to a quarter.
An interesting side note, the Snoot-Flute was produced by PAR Bev. Corp. in Cincinnati, Ohio. PAR was the predecessor to Kenner Toys. One of PAR’s other popular items was wacky whiskey bottles.
The best part about the plastic model is the price. At just about $1 each, nose flutes can be used for party favors, stocking stuffers, or as first instruments for the wee ones who are constantly changing their minds. And, hey, unlike drum sets, kids (and adults) can take these instruments outside to play!
Have you ever played – or heard of – a nose flute? We’d love to hear your story.