What is a Tin Whistle?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 April 2014
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The tin whistle, as pennywhistles or Irish whistles made of metal are called, is a six-hole straight woodwind instrument which is played in a position similar to that of a recorder, rather than that of a flute. Unlike the recorder, there is no thumb hole on the tin whistle, and the upper octave is reached by overblowing. The tin whistle is generally held with the left hand above the right hand, and with the index, middle, and ring fingers of the left hand covering the top three holes, while the same fingers on the right hand cover the bottom three holes.

The tin whistle, like all pennywhistles, may be conical, with a bore that is tapered, or cylindrical, with a straight bore. While "tin whistle" clearly refers to a metal instrument with a mouthpiece made of molded plastic, identical instruments in all but materials, called whistles or pennywhistles or Irish whistles, are made entirely of wood or plastic. The plastic whistles claim to have more pitch stability in the face of changing air temperature.

A tin whistle may or may not come with a thumb rest, but some companies sell a detachable thumb rest that can be added. Some tin whistles are tunable, but others are nontunable, and there are one-piece and two-piece models. In addition, some brands of tin whistle are available with 1 or 2 keys, rather than just open holes, making the holes easier to reach.


Popular keys for the tin whistle are low and high D and high C, but a number of other keys are available. The so-called “low whistles” have a place of their own in the repertoire. Storage bags for multiple whistles, extra mouthpieces, and polishing cloths are popular accessories.

The whistle is often used to play the melody line in traditional types of Irish music, such as airs, hornpipes, jigs, polkas, and reels. Embellishments or alterations, known by the name of “Irish whistle ornamentation,” are popular playing techniques.

Noted tin whistle players include Mary Bergin Feadoga Stain, Cathol McConnell, Willie Clancy, Paddy Moloney, Davy Spillane, and Sean Potts. Noted bands with tin whistle include The Chieftains and The Boys of the Lough.


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