Whistles are a cheap and easy way to begin music. Just buy a D-whistle (for playing music in the key of D).
Irish traditional music has many simple but lively tunes in the key of D.
For diagrams showing how to finger the whistle, see the index for Whistle fingering D.
Or click here for a slightly different set of D fingerings.
Click for whistle fingering chart in key of F.
Description of the whistle
Learning for beginners
History and Types
Irish and Scottish music
Standard musical notation
The tin whistle is a simple six-holed woodwind instrument with a range of 2.5 octaves. The second octave is attained with usually the same fingering, but by blowing harder. The whistle is an end blown fipple flute flageolet. The fipple is mouthpiece which consists of the windway, a narrow slit you breathe into, to compress your breath. This breath then hits the labium lip or windcutter, a sharp edge, splitting it into two streams, one above and one below to go down the tube. The air flowing over the windcutter creates a flow-controlled valve, or "air reed." Interaction between the air reed and the air column in the body of the instrument produces oscillation in the flow of air at the windway. This oscillation results in the "whistle sound". Since the pitch or note deepens with increasing length of tube (distance from windcutter to first open hole, and the tube can be effectively lengthened by closing the holes, the player varies the pitch by closing finger holes along the bore of the instrument.
The tin whistle is in the same category as the recorder, American Indian flute, and other woodwind instruments.
A tin whistle player is called a tin whistler or whistler.
The tin whistle also called:
The tin whistle is usually associated with Celtic music.
- tin whistle
- penny whistle
- English Flageolet
- Scottish penny whistle
- Tin Flageolet
- Irish whistle
- Clarke London Flageolet
To learn any instrument:
You will not master an instrument in a week, a month, a year - so settle in for years of daily practice. An instrument can change your life, but only if you change your life to learn it.
- begin with easy music; use tablature notation to learn fingering
- quickly progress to standard music notation to learn to read music
- listen carefully to CDs
- listen to and watch live bands
- daily practice all scales; how clean are your notes ? how consistent ?
- daily practice with sheet music; how good is your rhythm ?
- mentally sing along to your playing
- learn pieces by rote; play without written music
- listen to yourself, your rhythm, your timing
- play along to CDs
- have your mind at least 1 bar ahead of your fingers
- use a metronome to time your beat
- again and again, listen to and watch live bands.
These beginner lessons will get you started, learning Irish traditional music on the tin whistle, including scales, a simple ornament, and a good first tune.
- Lesson 1: The D Scale
The D scale is the first scale to learn because it is the standard key of the whistle itself. What that means is that it is the simplest scale to learn as there are no accidentals to worry about. The scale is played by simply lifting the fingers off from the bottom to the top.
- Lesson 2: The G Scale
The G scale is very similar to the D scale except that we are beginning on the note G and there is a C natural instead of a C sharp as is found in the D scale. As always, make sure to practice slowly so all the notes sound with good clear tone.
- Lesson 3: The A Scale
The A scale is a bit more tricky as we introduce the concept of "half-holing" or covering only a part of the hole. This is necessary to produce the G sharp that is found in the A scale. Definitely practice this scale slowly so you can make sure that your G sharp sounds correctly.
- Lesson 4: Tonguing
Tonguing is the act of using your tongue to interrupt the flow of air going into the whistle's mouthpiece which has the effect of separating notes as they're played. It creates a staccato sound when used frequently but can also be used sparingly as a simple ornament.
To tongue, do NOT touch the fipple or mouthpiece with your tongue. Lift your tongue to the join betweeen teeth and palate. This stops the air-flow. That is all that is needed.
When 2 consecutive notes have different values, there is no need to tongue. The resulting slide from one note to the other is pleasant. However, when consecutive notes have the same value, tonguing separates them so that the rhythm is maintained.
- Lesson 6a: Taps
Taps are played by tapping the hole immediately below the one that is being played to give the effect of playing the note twice.
- Lesson 6b: Cuts
A cut is a single gracenote typically played with either the top-hand ring finger or index finger, depending on preference and whistle. This is a prerequisite technique leading to more complicated embellishments.
- Lesson 6c: Rolls
A roll is a combination of the previous two ornaments, cut and tap, which gives the effect of playing the note three times. Play it slowly and in rhythm so that all notes sound properly.
- Lesson 7: Slides
A slide is a very common embellishment used to change between two notes. It gives the tune a more open sound, as opposed to tighter or "bubblier" ornaments.
Tin whistle songs from the world of folk and traditional music,free songs from America Ireland Scotland England and beyond all with sheet music. Many beginers have problems reading the music notation on standard sheet music, the covered notes mean to place your fingers over the holes, a +sign means to blow that little bit harder to reach the second octave or get the high notes, to play the sharp notes (ex: A#, G#) half cover the lowest hole. (All instructions say 'half cover the hole' but I find that you uncover only a small fraction of the hole.)
The plastic mouth piece can be sterilised and cleaned by inverting the whistle to insert the plastic in a glass of warm water with Milton sterilising fluid for a few hours. Or use several drops of washing-up liquid in warm water.
Rasping is caused by:
- poorly made mouthpiece, as in some cheap whistles
- by not playing cleanly
- by not blowing consistently on the mouthpiece
- by not covering the holes properly
- saliva in the mouthpiece.
Uilleann Pipes Music
The very same notes are used when playing the uilleann pipes and the penny whistle. The notes are in the same position on both instruments
History of the penny whistle
The modern tin/penny whistle inherits a tradition of thousands of years, and is but one of a wider family of fipple flutes that have been seen in many forms and cultures throughout the world.
Almost all primitive cultures had a type of fipple flute and
is most likely the first pitched flute-type instrument in existence. The oldest examples include:
- 81,000-53,000 BCE a Neanderthal fipple flute from Slovenia
- 35,000 BCE a German flute
- Iron Age Britain - flute made from sheeps bone in West Yorkshire
- fipple-type flutes of Roman and Greek aulos and tibia
- 3rd-century British bone flutes, common across northern Europe
- 12th-century Italian flutes of various sizes
- 12th-century Norman bone whistles found in Ireland
- 14th century in Scotland, a 14 cm Tusculum clay whistle
- 17th century flageolets - a name used to distinguish the French whistle with fipple headpiece (as in the modern tin whistle)
Modern Tin Whistle
The modern penny whistle began with Robert Clarke from (1840–1882) in Manchester and later New Moston, England. The six hole, diatonic system had been used on baroque flutes, and was well known before Robert Clarke began mass-producing his tin whistles c.1843, but the cheapness (one penny), compactness and ease of use, brought Clarke's whistle popularity and fame.
Clarke's first whistle, the Meg, was pitched in high A and was later made in other keys suitable for Victorian parlour music. Modelled after an organ pipe with 6 holes added, and a flattened tube forming the lip of the fipple mouthpiece, Clarke's whistle was made from rolled tin sheet or brass. Unfortunately it had lead fipple plugs, which made it poisonous.
Gaining popularity as a folk instrument in the early 19th century in the Celtic music revivals, penny whistles now play an integral part of several folk traditions.
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 lowest major key. Note that this method of determining the key of the instrument is different from the method used to determine the key of a chromatic instrument, which is based on the relationship between notes on a score and sounded pitch. Whistles are available in a wide variety of different keys.
The most common whistles can easily play notes in the keys of D and G major. Since the D major key is lower these whistles are identified as D whistles. The next most common whistle tuning is a C whistle, which can easily play notes in the keys of C and F major. The D whistle is the most common choice for Irish and Scottish music.
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 other 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.
There are larger whistles, which by virtue of being longer and wider produce tones an octave (or in rare cases two octaves) 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 concert whistles. 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.
Fingering and range
The notes are selected by opening or closing holes with the fingers. With all the holes closed, the whistle generates its lowest note, the tonic of a major 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.
As with a number of woodwind instruments, the tin whistle's second and higher registers are achieved by increasing the air velocity into the ducted flue windway.  On a transverse flute this is generally done by narrowing the lip/embouchure. Since the size and direction of the tin whistle's windway, like that of the Recorder or fipple flute is fixed, it is necessary to increase the velocity of the air stream. (See overblowing).
Fingering in the second register is generally the same as in the first/fundamental, though alternate fingerings are sometimes employed in the higher end of the registers to correct a flattening effect caused by higher aircolumn velocity. Also, the tonic note of the second register is usually played with the top hole of the whistle partially uncovered instead of covering all holes as with the tonic note of the first register; this makes it harder to accidentally drop into the first register and helps to correct pitch. Recorders perform this by "pinching" open the dorsal thumb hole.
Various other notes (relatively flat or sharp with respect to those of the major scale) can be accessed by cross fingering techniques, and all the notes (except the lowest of each octave/register) can be flattened by half holing. Perhaps the most effective and most used cross fingering is that which produces a flattened form of the seventh note (B flat instead of B on a C whistle, for example, or C natural instead of C sharp on a D whistle). This makes available another major scale (F on a C whistle, G on a D whistle).
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. It is possible to make sounds above this range, by blowing with sufficient force, but, in most musical contexts, the result will be loud and out of tune due to a cylindrical bore.
Traditional Irish whistle playing uses a number of ornaments to embellish the music, including cuts, strikes and rolls. Most playing is legato with ornaments to create breaks between notes, rather than tongued. The Irish traditional music concept of the word "ornamentation" differs somewhat from that of European classical music in that ornaments are more commonly changes in how a note is articulated rather than the addition of separately-perceived notes to the piece.
Ornamentation words to learn:
- strike or tap
- finger vibrato
Tonguing is used sparingly as a means of emphasizing certain notes, such as the first note in a tune. Tin whistle players usually do not tongue most notes. To tongue a note a player briefly touches their tongue to the front of the roof of the mouth at the start of the note (as if articulating a 't'), creating a percussive attack.
Cuts are very briefly lifting a finger above the note being sounded without interrupting airflow into the whistle. For example, a player playing a low D on a D whistle can cut the note by very briefly lifting the first finger of his or her lower hand. This causes the pitch to briefly shift upward. The cut can be performed either at the very start of the note or after the note has begun to sound; some people call the latter a "double cut" or a "mid-note cut."
Taps or strikes are similar to cuts except that a finger below the sounded note is briefly lowered to the whistle. For example, if a player is playing a low E on a D whistle the player could tap by quickly lowering and raising his or her bottom finger. Both cuts and taps are essentially instantaneous; the listener should not perceive them as separate notes.
This ornament is actually fairly simple but it's one best attempted once you have learned a few others up to speed. It's nothing more than a tap followed by playing the tapped note itself - the effect is that the note has a subtle but noticeable accent.
A roll is a note with first a cut and then a strike. Alternatively, a roll can be considered as a group of notes of identical pitch and duration with different articulations.
There are two common types of rolls:
- The long roll is a group of three slurred notes of equal pitch and duration, the first sounded without a cut or strike, the second sounded with a cut, and the third sounded with a strike.
- The short roll is a group of two slurred notes of equal pitch and duration, the first sounded with a cut and the second sounded with a strike.
Slides are similar to portamentos in classical music; a note below or above (usually below) the intended note is fingered, and then the fingering is gradually shifted in order to smoothly raise or lower the pitch to the intended note. The slide is generally a longer duration ornament than, for example, the cut or the tap and the listener should perceive the pitch changing.
three cuts [gracenotes] played in succession - the last finger of the top hand, followed by the first finger of the bottom hand, then the middle finger of the bottom hand.
Cranns (or crans) are ornaments borrowed from the Uilleann piping tradition. They are similar to rolls except that only cuts are used, not taps or strikes. On the tin whistle they are generally only used for notes where a roll is impossible, such as the lowest note of the instrument.
- finger vibrato, variations
Vibrato can be achieved on most notes by opening and closing one of the open holes, or by variation of breath pressure. Of the two, fingered vibrato is much more common than diaphragmatic (breath) vibrato, except on notes like the lowest note on the whistle where fingered vibrato is much more difficult.
The tone of the tin whistle is largely determined by its material, thickness of wall and diameter; all part of the manufacturing. Play before you buy.
- Leading Tone
Leading Tones are the seventh just before the tonic, so named because melodic styling often uses the seventh to lead into the tonic at the end of a phrase. On most tin whistles the leading tone to the lowest tonic can be played by using the little finger of the lower hand to partially cover the very end opening of the whistle, while keeping all other holes covered as usual for the tonic.
While a player will usually play a given instrument only in its tonic key and possibly in the key beginning on the fourth (e.g. G on a D whistle), nearly any key is possible, becoming progressively more difficult to keep in tune as the player moves away from the whistle's tonic, according to the circle of fifths. Thus a D whistle is fairly apt for playing both G and A, and a C instrument can be used fairly easily for F and G.
Irish and Scottish traditional
Most whistle music comes from traditional music of Ireland and Scotland where the whistle accompanies a small band. The whistle in a band makes a definitive contrast and balance to the lowe-pitched instruments like the badrun.
Kwela is a genre of music created in South Africa in the 1950s, and characterised and dominated by an upbeat, jazzy tin whistle lead. The genre was created around the sound of the low-cost whistles, known as 'jive flutes'.
Kwela was mostly superseded in South Africa by the mbaqanga genre in the late fifties, and with it the saxophone largely supplanted the tin whistle as the lead instrument for music from the townships.
Kwela musical scores and recordings are hard to find. Check the internet for South African Jazz and Jive.
The tin whistle is occasionally used in other types of music, such as film soundtracks, folk rock and folk metal.
Tin whistle music collections can use four notations:
- Standard musical notation
Music for the whistle is usually scored using standard musical notation (with the staff of 5 lines for pitch, EGBDF, and signs indicating lengths of notes: quaver, crochet, minum, breve, etc). Music for a soprano whistle is written an octave lower than it sounds, to make it easier to read by reducing ledger lines.
The traditional music of Ireland and Scotland constitutes the majority of published scores for the whistle. Since the majority of that music is written in D major, G major, or one of the corresponding musical modes, use of the D major or G major key signatures is a de facto standard.
Reading directly onto the C whistle is popular for the obvious reason that its home key or name key is the all-natural major key (C major). Some musicians are encouraged to learn to read directly onto one whistle, while others are taught to read directly onto another.
To read music for all whistles, learn how to transpose music, taking music with one key signature and rewriting it with another. [See chapter: Transposition.]
- Tablature notation
Tablature notation for the tin whistle is usually a vertical column of six circles, with black circles for finger-covered holes and open circles for holes not fingered. A plus sign (+) at the top indicates the same note in the second (higher) octave. This tablature notation is most commonly found in tutorial books for beginners.
When learning, it is helpful to use tablature notation for about 5 tunes, till the fingering is mastered, then concentrate on standard musical notation to learn to read music.
- Tonic solfa
The tonic solfa is found in Ireland, especially in schools. Many schools have printed sheets notated in tonic solfa. This is being superseded by standard notation.
- Abc notation
Since the majority of popular tin whistle music is traditional and out of copyright, it is common to share tune collections on the Internet. Abc notation is the most common means of electronic exchange of tunes. It is also designed to be easy to read by people, and many musicians learn to read it directly instead of using a computer program to transform it into a standard musical notation score.
D scale: F# C#
G scale: F#
A scale: ......G#
What if I want a fingering chart for a C-whistle ?
Fingering charts are usually set up for only a D-whistle.
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The D Chart: What you need to know to finger your whistle as it ought to be fingered. Like it wants to be fingered. If you are a new whistler, I strongly recommend that you learn the fingerings as given in the D chart. This is the standard chart for most music that is played on the tinwhistle. The "D" fingerings will let you play music with ease in:
and their modes.
Music in other keys can be easily transposed to one of these keys. Most music for tinwhistle is arranged for "D" fingerings. Most traditional music of Ireland, Scotland, and England is in one of these keys or their modes. A large amount of American folk music is in one of these keys.
If you learn the D fingerings first and become comfortable with the notion of transposing other keys in D, you will save yourself a mountain of work later.
Click for whistle fingering chart in key of F.
For any key, use the same chart and substitute the notes of the key for which you want the fingering.
|G||A||B||C||D||E||F#||G||Key of G uses D-whistle but with C, not C#.|
|C||D||E||F||G||A||B||C||C whistle can play keys of C and F# major.|
See Music/major scales
Notes that are not in the key, fall where you would expect them to fall:
As long as you follow the pattern of:
tretrachord – whole step – tetrachord
the D-chart can work for any whistle by substituting the correct scale.