Tin whistle

Tin whistles in a variety of makes and keys
Tin whistles in a variety of makes and keys

The tin whistle, also called the feadóg, pennywhistle, Irish whistle, simply whistle or, anachronously, the flageolet, is a simple six-holed breath instrument. It can be described as an end blown fipple flute, putting it in the same category as the recorder, Native American flutes, and many other wind instruments found in traditional music.



The Irish feadóg (literally "flute") is first evidenced in literature and on High Crosses from the 11th century. Bone whistles are also known to have been played in 12th century Viking Dublin. The names tin whistle and penny whistle date from when the instrument was first mass produced in tinned sheet metal. Early mass production of the metal itself occurred in Wales, in the United Kingdom. The best known early producer of tin whistles was Robert Clarke (? - 1882) who lived and worked in England. Norman Dannat boasted in The Penny Whistle (The Clarke Tinwhistle Co c1993) that Robert Clarke’s whistles "produced a unique sound which, though attempts have been made to copy it, no-one has ever improved." In his tutor Timber (ISBN 0951156918) Fintan Vallely called the whistle’s fingering system the ‘simple’ system. It is also the system used by the side-blown six-hole flute and was of course well known before Robert Clarke began producing his tin whistles circa 1843.

Contemporary tin whistles

The most common tin whistles today are made of brass tubing, or nickel plated brass tubing, with a plastic mouthpiece, or fipple (Generation, Feadóg, Oak, Acorn, Soodlum's (now Walton's), and other brands fall in this category). The next most common form is the conical sheet metal whistle with a wooden stop in the wide end to form the fipple, the Clarke's brand being the most prevalent. Other less common variants are the all-metal whistle, the PVC whistle, and the wooden whistle.

Whistles are a prevalent starting instrument in Irish traditional music, since they are often cheap (under US$10), relatively easy to start with (no tricky embouchure such as found with the flute), and the fingerings are identical to those on the traditional six holed flute (Irish flute, baroque flute). The whistle is widely taught to schoolchildren in Ireland.


Whistle keys

The whistle is tuned diatonically, which allows it to be used to easily play music in two major keys and their corresponding minor keys and modes. The whistle is identified by its lowest note, which is the tonic of the major key. The most common whistles are called D whistles, and can easily play notes in the keys of D and G major. Although the whistle is essentially a diatonic instrument, it is possible to get notes outside the principal major key of the whistle, either by half-holing (partially covering the highest open finger hole) or by cross-fingering (covering some holes while leaving some higher ones open). However, half-holing is somewhat more difficult to do correctly, and whistles are available in many keys, so for alternate keys a whistler will typically use a different whistle instead, reserving half-holing for accidentals. Some whistle designs allow a single fipple, or mouthpiece, to be used on differently keyed bodies.

The next most common whistle tuning is a C whistle, which can easily play notes in the keys of C and F major. The C whistle is widely used in American folk music, whereas the D whistle is the most common choice for Celtic music.

Low whistles

There are larger whistles, which by virtue of being longer and wider produce tones an octave lower. Whistles in this category are likely to be made of metal or plastic tubing, with a tuning-slide head, and are almost always referred to as low whistles but sometimes called a concert whistle. The low whistle was first produced by Bernard Overton, but is now available from most whistle makers. The low whistle operates on identical principles to the standard whistles, but musicians in the tradition may consider it a separate instrument.

The term soprano whistle is sometimes used for the higher-pitched whistles when it is necessary to distinguish them from low whistles.

Tuning adjustment

Whistles may or may not be tuneable. If they are, tuning is done by moving the mouthpiece in or out, either the mouthpiece itself sliding over the whistle body, as in the metal tube/plastic body model, or else with a tuning slide such that the mouthpiece and the upper part of the body form the 'head' of the whistle which fits into the main body.

Playing technique

Fingering and Range

The notes are generated by opening or closing holes with the fingers. With all the holes closed, the whistle generates its lowest note, the tonic of the scale. Successively opening holes from the bottom upward produces the rest of the notes of the scale in sequence: with the lowest hole open it generates the second, with the lowest two holes open, it produces the third and so on. With all six holes open, it produces the seventh.

The second octave is achieved with the same fingerings as the first, by over-blowing (blowing more forcefully), although the octave of the tonic itself is an exception: it can be produced by covering all the holes and overblowing, but gives a better tone if the top hole is opened. The note at the top of the second octave is also played with this fingering, but with more intense breath pressure.

The standard range of the whistle is two octaves. For a D whistle, this includes notes from the second D above middle C to the fourth D above middle C. Music for the soprano whistle is always scored an octave lower than it is played, which makes the score more easily readable. (It is possible to make noises above this range, by blowing increasingly forcefully, but the resulting sound will often be loud and out of tune.)


Traditional Irish whistle playing uses a number of ornaments to embellish the music, include cuts, strikes and rolls. Most playing is legato with ornaments to create breaks between notes, rather than tongued. Vibrato can be achieved on most notes by opening and closing one of the open holes.

Well-known performers

In 1973, Paddy Moloney (of The Chieftains) and Sean Potts released Tin Whistles, which helped to popularize the tin whistle in particular and Irish music in general. Mary Bergin's Feadóga Stáin (1979) and Feadóga Stáin 2 (1993) were similarly influential. Other notable players include Sean F. Ryan. The low whistle rose to public prominence thanks to its use by Davy Spillane in the stage show Riverdance and Tony Hinnigan on the soundtrack to the 1997 film Titanic. Many traditional pipers and flute players also play the whistle to a high standard.

Other types of whistles

A whistle can be made to produce a glissando effect by fitting it with a slide which can be moved up and down within the central cavity of the instrument, changing the frequency at which it resonates. These kinds of whistles are known as slide whistles, and the sounds that they are capable of making are referred to as chirps. A chirp is a sound that has a frequency that changes while it is sounding.

See also Whistle, Whistling

External links

nl:Tin-whistle pl:Tin whistle


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