Indulge in the Melodies of the Tin Whistle- Ireland’s Popular Instrument

Updated On: April 26, 2022

Like everything else, cultures always develop their own individuality through things. These things extend to almost everything like music, food, architectural designs, and, sometimes, attires. Speaking of music, there is an audible language heard in its sound. No matter what language you speak, it always does speak to you. It is an instrument of harmony, literally and metaphorically. Music is capable of touching your soul even if it comes for a culture totally different from yours. And, that is actually the magic of it. We always hear about the fact that people have different tastes in music. To get to the main point, Ireland is actually one of the countries that have a unique heritage. It may have a lot of similarities with other European countries yet it maintains its own identity. Going back to the power of music, Ireland developed its own genre through the Tin Whistle instrument.

Ireland gives us tons of new stuff to learn about and the tin whistle is one of them. In this article, you will learn all you need to know about this special musical instrument.


What is the tin whistle?

The tin whistle is an instrument that belongs to the woodwind instrument. Thus, it is a simple woodwind instrument that has six holes in it. More precisely, it belongs to the branch of the duct flute family. These flutes are actually mouthpieces that resemble those of the ordinary whistle. The whistle works by the player guiding its breath into the cutting edge and that is how it produces sound. The mouthpiece thing made the flute very easy and enjoyable to play without requiring any special techniques of blowing.

This flute, in particular, has been highly associated with the Celtic heritage. The Irish have always been the ones who engage this instrument in their music. Those who play it are referred to as the tin whistlers. The woodwind instruments are plentiful; however, some of them have criteria different from others. The tin whistle falls into that category that holds the Native American flute, the fipple flute, and the recorder.

Other Names for the Tin Whistle

People refer to it with more than one name. This includes the penny whistle or the penny flute. Those are some of the most common names; however, there are much more than you expect. The names include the Scottish penny whistle and, in some cases, it is written that way, Pennywhistle. It is also referred to as the Irish whistle, Clarke London Flageolet, English Flageolet, tin flageolet, and Belfast Hornpipe. In the Irish language, people call the tin whistle the feadóg stáin or just the feadóg.

The Reason for its name- the Penny Whistle

The whistle had always been affordable, especially in the past times when it first appeared. Surprisingly, this popular instrument that shapes the Celtic music was once considered a toy. For that reason, children used to play them more than adults even did. There was a tradition in Ireland that suggested paying a penny for children or street musicians who played the whistle. That was where the name came from. People called it the penny whistle, for they paid a penny each time they heard the whistle. But, there are other sources that claim a different reason for the naming. In the 19th century, people used to purchase the whistle for only a penny. Hence the name.  Unexpectedly, the two names of the instrument- penny whistle and tin whistle- became popular only during the 20th century.


The woodwind instruments have a wide range of types. One of these types is the fipple flutes; they possess a wide family that includes the tin whistle. However, the fipple flutes have always had different forms according to the cultures they come from. This gave us the opportunity to witness a wider array of whistles and flutes from all over the world. Interestingly, every culture has had its own type of fipple flute. In fact, some of these flutes were ones that first came into being as well. In other words, each culture has nearly customized its own fipple flute throughout the years.

People of northern Europe started playing an instrument that resembled the flute in the early Middle Ages. However, it probably was not the first tin whistle since sources claim that the original one belonged to Ireland. With that being said, Ireland possessed remains of Norman bone whistles that people came to know in the 12th century.  Experts found those bones in a cave in Slovenia during that time. They believed that they were, at least, 45,000 years old. How the people blew the Slovenian flute for the first time remains mysterious. Conversely, over the time, the blowing methods of the flute developed to consist of more than one type. Different blowing methods of flute have included the notch flute, duct flute, side-blown flute and end-blown one.

The Whistle in the 19th Century

Whistles and flutes have actually been around since the beginning of time. However, the evolution of the tin whistle has taken place in the 17th century. During that time, people referred to whistles of a French origin as flageolets. They say that these instruments have a lot to do with the development and evolution of the English flageolet or the penny flute.

The development of the penny flute had taken place during the 17th and 18th centuries. They were around for a very long time. But, being around did not just grant this instrument the popularity that it gained during the 19th century. In the early period of the century, people had included the penny whistle a lot in their Celtic music. Finally, the instrument found its way to become an integral part of more than a few traditions. Not only that, but it also became the most popular instrument in the Irish Traditional Music. While the uniqueness of the instrument made it significant, there were popular whistlers that helped in that too. They were the most significant whistlers in the history of the tin whistle. Over and beyond, they aided in making the whistle one of the important mainstream instruments in the Irish music.

The list included Sean Potts, Sean Ryan, Mary Bergin, Joanie Madden, Micho Russell, and Paddy Moloney.


One of the things that assisted in the popularity of the whistle is its affordability. A lot of traditional music of different cultures adopted it, mainly Ireland, Scotland, and England. In the past, the fipple plugs of the tins whistle consisted of lead. However, the modern version updated the material used, for the lead was poisonous and had to be used with caution. The modern whistles are ones that consist of brass or nickel-plated brass yet they have the same mouthpiece. This makes the instrument safe and perfect for children to use.

Whenever a whistler improves in playing, he/she needs to possess a new whistle of a higher quality. Those ones of higher qualities have more features that help in exploiting the potentials of the player. Recently, a great number of builders of instruments produce tin whistles that are made by hand yet of a high-quality. Those ones are more expensive in price compared to the other whistles. However, this instrument remains the cheapest among all of the other musical instruments.


The tin whistle is a mouthpiece that contains six holes. You play the notes by using your fingers to either open or close these holes, simple as that. There are high and low notes that you control through your finger pads. It’s a special technique in order to produce all of the scale’s notes in their right sequence. For example, there is a technique known as the “Piper’s Grip.” It’s when the player closes all the holes of the whistle in order to get to the lowest note of the scale. On the other hand, the sequence of the notes requires going from the bottom and upwards. The first one, as we previously mentioned, is produced by closing all of the holes. You get to the second note with leaving the lowest hole open. Besides, you generate the last note, the seventh, with all of them open and so on.

Adding Ornaments

First, what do ornaments mean? In actual fact, ornaments are notes that you add in order to embellish the melody. However, they are not essential in producing the melody in the first place. Musicians also refer to them as articulations and they include seven main elements.


Cuts is an ornament that requires the player to lift his/her finger, but for a split second. It is very important that the player does not interrupt the flow of the air while lifting the finger. The purpose of this music embellishment is to shift the pitch upward slightly. Performing the cut should be at the beginning of the note or right after it begins to produce a sound.

Strikes or Taps

The second ornament is the strike. Some people refer to it as the tap as well; they both are the same. This ornament quite resembles the cuts; however, there are some differences. The only difference lies in lowering a finger slightly to the whistle in order to reach a lower note. Taps create additional notes to the melody, but they shall be very prompt. The listeners won’t even realize the slight difference this ornament creates in the note, for it’s not a separate one.


Here comes the third ornament; the rolls. This one is actually a combination of two other ornaments, which are cuts and strikes. The roll is a note that starts with a cut and then a strike follows. Over and beyond, there are two different types of this ornament; the long roll and the short roll. Definitely, there is a difference between both types. The short roll consists of two notes that are inaudible, for they’re both of the same duration and pitch. Those notes start with a cut and the second one is a strike. On the other hand, the long roll consists of three notes that last for the same duration. The first one starts normally without an ornament; the second one is a cut; the third one is a strike.


Slides are another ornament that existed in the classical music. It’s generated by fingering a note above or below the intended note. Following that, the player shall gradually shift the fingering, either below or above. The latter causes the pitch to smoothly lower or raise to the note that is required.


Vibrato is an ornament that requires either fingering or diaphragmatic technique. The achievement of the ornament is through closing and opening one of the holes. On the other hand, varying the pressure of the breath generates the vibrato too. However, fingering is the common method to achieve a vibrato.


Whistle players use this method by touching the roof of their mouth with their tongue. It usually takes place at the start of a note. The purpose of this ornament is to put emphasis on specific notes and produce a great rhythm. However, players of the whistle do not use this tonguing method this often.


The Uilleann piping tradition is the inventor of the Cranns ornament. Musicians refer to this ornament as either cranns or crans. They may be important in producing notes, but players of the whistle do not need it much. Whistle players only use cranns when it is impossible to use another ornament- the rolls.

Quick tips to learn while playing the tin whistle. Click here


Ireland is one of the countries that cherish music and make it a significant part of its heritage. The Irish culture values music a lot that they go for spontaneous performance among people in every day of life. Most importantly, it is all about the performance that goes along with the music. There is usually a social activity associated with music that’s purpose is raising awareness and sharing knowledge. For example, Christmas in Ireland is all about charity. People on Christmas Eve in Dublin city sing in the streets to raise money for the homeless. They also upload YouTube videos that get shared widely to inspire people around the world. It reveals the power of the Irish music. Undoubtedly, you will always hear the tin whistle among the important song on the streets. It is an integral part of showing off the Irish heritage.

Music is definitely influenced by culture. Pretty much like everything. For instance, you will realize that there is a difference between the Egyptian food and the Irish one. A great difference though; one that allows us to learn more about what the world has in store.

Check out the best dishes of the Irish food as well.

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