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Playing the Tin Whistle

Updated on October 16, 2014
robertzimmerman2 profile image

Robert is from south-east Florida and serves the world as a reference librarian. Also a musician, Bob plays bass in a Indie cover band.

Irish Whistles
Irish Whistles | Source

Let's Play the Tin Whistle!

Hey, all you have to do is blow on one end and cover the holes with your fingertips, right? Hold on! There is much more to playing the Tin Whistle than that! The Tin Whistle, also known as a Penny Whistle and Irish Whistle, is one of the World's most basic and inexpensive musical instruments, yet also one of the most versatile, expressive and beautiful.

Join me in this look at the Tin Whistle including the history, how it is played and music featuring the Tin Whistle. It's not just for St. Patrick's Day!

Whistle Mouthpiece
Whistle Mouthpiece | Source

History of the Tin Whistle

Tubular fipple wind instruments date back at least 50,000 years, likely many more. These were made of bone, often the wing bone of storks or cranes. Think about that for a moment. These birds are large but mostly in height so their bones are long but not overly thick. Animal bone Fipple Flutes have been found all over Europe from the Neanderthal Age into the Iron Age. Later examples have been found made of clay and wood.

The Recorder was the culmination of the Fipple Flute and could play chromatic scales (sharps and flats) unlike the Tin Whistle which is diatonic (scale notes mainly). Many people have been introduced to music in elementary school by learning the Recorder or the Tin Whistle.

The modern Tin Whistle comes from England, manufactured by Mr. Robert Clarke, 1840 - 1882, and were very inexpensively made. A piece of thin metal wrapped into a tube around a wooden plug to form the mouthpiece. The whistles sold for a penny so they also became known as Penny Whistles. Other manufacturers joined in and this increased the spread of the Tin Whistle into all strata of English society.

Since these instruments were so affordable, many people transferred the traditional music they already knew. As well, since the Tin Whistle is so portable, people could keep one with them to play whenever they liked. Thus, the Tin Whistle became an integral part of folk music of England, Scotland and Ireland during the 19th century.

Currently, Whistles are made of many materials including wood, metal, PVC and plastic in all price ranges. One development that helps modern Whistles sound more consistent and in tune with other instruments is injection molding. With a well designed original mold, the fipple mouthpiece can be made very accurately in the thousands and attached to various sized tubes to maintain a signature sound over a range of whistles in different musical keys.

Playing the Tin Whistle
Playing the Tin Whistle | Source

How the Tin Whistle Works

Sound ridiculous, telling you how a Whistle works? Well, accuracy is important to me and I think once you have more information you'll say "Wow, I didn't know that!"

Tin Whistles are members of the aerophone instrument family. This means it makes sound by vibrating air. There are many types of aerophone instruments, the simplest would be a siren but others include Harmonica, Trumpet and Woodwinds.

The Tin Whistle is a tube of thin metal, wood, or plastic with a mouthpiece on the top end and six holes along the tube facing up when played. The holes are covered in different combinations with the fingertips to sound the notes of a standard musical scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do). The length of the Whistle and the spacing of the holes set each Whistle in a musical key. The most common Whistle key is D major (B minor) but they are made in every key. Each Whistle can play in a major key and the relative minor key. Experienced players can add sharps or flats for other keys as well.

The mouthpiece of the Tin Whistle is NOT just a hole you blown across (like a Flute). The Whistle mouthpiece is shaped to force the air along a restricted path (to speed it up) and direct the air to the edge of a thin wedge within the mouthpiece at a ninety degree angle. This edge is called the Blade. There is an opening at this edge from which the sound comes out. Changing which holes are covered changes the "length" of the Whistle thereby changing the note. This type of mouthpiece is called a Fipple. Other wind instruments that use a Fipple type mouthpiece include the Recorder, Ocarina and the Pipe Organ (really!).

The Tin Whistle can play notes in a range of two octaves but to play in the second octave the player must increase the speed of the air going over the blade. This is called overblowing and is progressively applied as the notes go higher. If the music calls for the player to jump from a high note to a low note the air pressure must be adjusted lower quickly as well. Like any other musical instrument, this takes practice! When I finally figured this out it made a world of difference in my Whistle playing.


Celtic Thunder is a modern musical group and theatrical troupe that mixes thrilling Irish music with stage presentations of Celtic mythology.

Emerald: Musical Gems  Deluxe CD/DVD
Emerald: Musical Gems Deluxe CD/DVD

Created by the Musical Director of Riverdance, Celtic Woman is five ladies who perform traditional Irish tunes as well as modern songs.


Ornamentation (Fancy Playing)

As Whistle players advance they often add ornamentation to the basic notes of a melody. There are many types of Whistle ornamentation but here are the common ones. This but one way folk music and traditional music gets it's "flavor!"

  • Grace Notes - are very short notes played just before the main note. Grace notes can be higher or lower than the main note.
  • Cuts - the player briefly uncovers a hole above the fingers of the main note. The cut makes the note go up slightly.
  • Taps - same as the cut but the hole below the main note is uncovered causing the note to go down slightly.
  • Rolls - a cut then a tap played as one sequence. These can be long or short in duration.
  • Slides - the player slowly and smoothly changes from one note to the next.

Watch the Fingers!

Here you can clearly see the dexterity involved when an experienced player takes on a fast paced tune. Watch and listen to how he adds the extra ornamentation notes.

With just three instruments these musicians create a complete sound with ease!

What about Today?

The Tin Whistle faded from popularity (except in Ireland!) during the twentieth century, overshadowed by the Piano, Guitar and Mandolin. However, it never disappeared, showing up in the 1950s in South Africa among street musicians playing a happy kind of music called Kwela. Unfortunately, there are very few recordings of original Kwela music of that period.

What really gave the Tin Whistle a boost was it's use for the theme song of the 1997 movie "Titanic". Played by Tony Hinnigan, this beautiful melody became known world wide and renewed public interest in the Tin Whistle. Another movie featuring Whistle music was "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy from 2001 - 2003. Since then, musical groups like The Corrs, The Cranberries, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, The Dave Mathews Band and Railroad Earth have featured the Tin Whistle in various songs.

Also, the Whistle is commonly used as a first instrument for children. Kids love music and providing them with early opportunities to learn a musical instrument can have a positive impact on other areas of learning. Whistles also work well in group educational environments. Why not start you child's love of playing music with a Tin Whistle or catch up on one yourself?

Dreams: The Ultimate Corrs Collection
Dreams: The Ultimate Corrs Collection

The Corrs are a modern Irish family group (by birth and marriage) that are popular around the World.


And for those of you who prefer music slightly more aggressive check out Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly!

You KNOW you WANT to!

Going Out In Style
Going Out In Style

Originally from Quincy, Massachusetts, Dropkick Murphys are an American Celtic Punk Rock band who dreamed of being the AC/DC of Celtic Punk!

Drunken Lullabies
Drunken Lullabies

Flogging Molly! - This seven piece Celtic Punk band is from Los Angeles, California of all places!


Where to get Help

One thing I have learned in many years of computer/Internet use is that user forums are often the best place to really find out what is going on in a particular area. Musical instruments are played by real people of all skill levels and when they get together on the Net they share what they have learned.

For the Tin Whistle, THE place to go is the Chiff & Fipple ( You have read about the fipple being the mouthpiece of the whistle. What is the "Chiff?" Well, chiff is the breathy part of the whistle sound. Hard to hear unles you know what you are listening for!

Chiff & Fipple: The Tinwhistle Internet Experience

And the Fantabulous Chiff & Fipple Forum

What Do You Think?

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    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 2 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Awesome instrument! I like the sound it produces!

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 4 years ago

      Well, my dear ... I literally knew nothing about the tin whistle, other than the part about blowing. You have opened my eyes!

    • pauline60 profile image

      pauline60 4 years ago

      I love the tin whistle and have had one for years but all I have managed to master on it is Molly Malone! Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains is amazing on them.

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 5 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      @anonymous: Thanks, I will!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Check out a song called Special Star by a band called mango Groove on you tube for an excellent pennywhistle riff

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 5 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      @Lady Lorelei: I think you have hit on one of the reasons many people love this music! Thanks for visiting, as well!

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      I imagine standing in the middle of a forest glen when I hear the tin whistle play. Love the Irish sounds. They are impish and lyrical all at once. Definitely make one want to do a little Irish jig. Fun.

    • yayas profile image

      yayas 5 years ago

      I bought my Tin Whistle years ago when I began researching Penny Whistles. I love playing it.

      Thank you so much for your visit an' Squid Like. Much appreciated.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I surely enjoyed this lens. I have not heard of a tin whistle before.

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 5 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      @aishu19: You would pick it up very quickly I bet, thanks for visiting!

    • profile image

      aishu19 5 years ago

      I don't believe I have seen a tin whistle before. This looks lovely! I used to play the flute as a kid and am sure I would enjoy this too

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Yeah this thing, we played in our childhood

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

      My son Jason loved his tin whistle I bought for him at the Gift Shop at Minute Man National Park. As we were walking the park, sometimes ahead of him, we sometimes lost track of him. All we had to do to find him was to ask people if they had seen a preteen boy playing a tin whistle. Then we'd know exactly where he was. I think in his imagination he was back in Revolutionary days. Great lens.

    • blue22d profile image

      blue22d 5 years ago

      Nice lens. Never heard of a tin whistle. I have a small pan flute and a plastic flute, which is fun to play around with (especially for my granddaughters). I play piano by "ear" - never took lessons but play mostly for my own enjoyment. Love classical music and I want to thank you for visiting my lens on the Hang Drum. When all else fails and I feel down, music always brings me back up!

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 5 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      @anonymous: Do you mean 8 different KEYS?

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I would like to buy a set of whistles - preferably one note each and I want 8 notes - any ideas please?