The Irish tin whistle is one of the greatest instruments in the world. Lightweight, accessible and affordable, this small yet iconic instrument is my go to recommendation for anyone hoping to learn traditional Irish music for the first time!
It comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with many different price tags. There’s a surprising amount to know about this versatile instrument.
That’s why I’ve put together this handy Tin Whistle FAQ to answer any and all questions you may have about one of Ireland’s most popular instruments.
If you have a whistle related question, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s start with the basics…
What is a Tin Whistle?
The tin whistle is a simple six-holed woodwind instrument. A type of fipple flute closely associated with traditional Irish music, it also known as a penny whistle, Irish whistle, Celtic whistle or feadóg stáin (the Irish word, pronounced fa-dohg-stawn).
While most people are familiar with traditional metal whistles, modern tin whistles can be made from a variety of materials including brass, nickel, aluminium, Delrin, polymer or wood.
Each material produces its own unique timbre or tonal quality. Nickel plated brass whistles usually produce a brighter tone than their brass counterparts which produce a more mellow sound. Delrin whistles on the other hand produce a surprisingly woody tone, similar to a wooden tin whistle.
No matter what material your whistle is made from it will require some care and maintenance. You can learn more about caring for your whistle in my handy blog post: Irish Tin Whistle Care & Maintenance
Soprano, Alto, Tenor – Irish Whistle Voice Categories
Modern tin whistles come in a range of sizes and a variety of different keys.
These keys are are divided into three categories:
- Soprano Whistles – Bb up to High G
- Alto Whistles – Low F to Low A
- Low Whistles or Tenor Whistles – Low C to Low E
Soprano, Alto and Tenor are simply terms which refer to the key or range the whistle plays in.
Choosing a Key for Your Irish Tin Whistle
Tin whistles are available in a wide variety of keys, generally from Low D to High G.
A tin whistle in the key of D is considered to be the standard concert pitch tin whistle and is recommended for beginners and intermediate players alike.
D is the standard key for the majority of Irish whistles. It produces the iconic tone associated with traditional Irish music. Have a listen to the video below to hear this characteristic Irish sound:
A standard D tin whistle will allow you to play comfortably in the keys of D major and G major – two of the most common keys found in traditional Irish music – and their relative minor keys: B minor (natural minor) and E minor (natural minor).
You can also play some limited accidentals by half covering toneholes, but this is only recommended for passing notes as it can affect speed and tuning.
What Keys Can I Play in on the Irish Tin Whistle?
Playing in a variety of keys on the tin whistle couldn’t be easier. There’s no need to relearn tunes or fingerings – you can simply buy another whistle in a new key.
The tin whistle is actually a transposing instrument. That means the notes it can play are dictated by the key your whistle is in. What does this mean?
When you play the lowest note on a D whistle – six fingers down, with one covering each hole – it will sound as a D.
The same fingering on a C whistle however will produce a C instead.
The easiest keys to play in on any whistle without the use of cross fingering or half covering tone holes are the tonic (the key the whistle is made in) and the subdominant (a fourth above the tonic), in addition to their relative natural minor scales.
On a D whistle for example, you can comfortably play in D major, G major, B minor (natural minor) and E minor (natural minor).
You can also play in A major (the dominant – a fifth above the tonic) by half covering the G tonehole to produce a G# accidental (remember, this is only recommended for occasional passing notes).
For a quick breakdown of the most comfortable keys to play in on each whistle, see my handy list below:
Tonal Qualities of Different Tin Whistle Keys:
If you want to explore playing whistles in other keys, here are two important things to remember:
- The higher the key, the brighter the sound; the lower the key, the more mellow the sound.
- The higher the key, the smaller the instrument; the lower the key, the larger the instrument.
Some of the most popular tin whistle keys besides the key of D (and my personal favourites) include:
- Soprano C whistle – produces a rich, sweet tone that is more mellow than a standard D whistle. It will add warmth and depth to your playing.
- Soprano/Alto Bb whistle – offers a warm, mellow tone. It will add an air of sweetness to your playing or allow you to groove along at a Bb session.
- Alto F whistle – an incredibly popular key amongst professional whistle players. Produces a rich, warm, mellow tone.
- Low D whistle – the rich, iconic Irish low whistle sound that is recognised all over the world.
Here’s an example of a Wild Irish Whistle in Bb being played by the masterful Brian Hughes. You can hear how its mellow tone differs to the brightness of a the standard D tin whistle played about by Robert Harvey:
Irish Low Whistles
Some people often mistake the low whistle and its iconic sound with that of the Irish wooden flute. The low whistle is far more closely related to the tin whistle however.
A low D tenor whistle is tuned an octave lower than the soprano D whistle. Therefore, its body is wider and twice as long as that of a standard soprano whistle.
Its tone is also deeper, and more mellow than that of a standard D whistle. You can hear a great example of the contrast between the two in the video below:
Like its soprano and alto counterparts, the low whistle also comes in a variety of keys. The most popular is the standard low D as D major is arguably the most commonly used key in traditional Irish music.
To learn more about this popular style of whistle, check out my popular blog post Everything You Need to Know About the Low Whistle.
Should I learn the soprano tin whistle before I learn the low whistle?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. It mostly comes down to personal preference, but there are a few deciding factors.
Younger players for example will usually find it easier to learn on a smaller soprano whistle as their fingers won’t yet be able to stretch to reach the toneholes. Remember, the low whistle is similar in size to the Irish wooden flute, so there’s a big difference in the stretch required to play.
If you really have your heart set on the low whistle however, and you can reach the holes, there’s no problem at all with diving right in. With the right instrument in hand you’ll be on your way in no time.
What is the best low whistle for a beginner?
A higher quality, well-made instrument is going to sound better and be easier to play than a cheap instrument. You’ll also be more motivated to practise if you’re making a pleasant sound right from the start.
With this in mind, my top recommendation for the best low whistle for any level of player is the Kerry Optima Tuneable Low D or a Setanta Low D Whistle.
If budget is an issue at the beginner level, the Tony Dixon Tuneable Low D Whistle is a great option for any beginner musician that will happily see you through to the intermediate stages of tin whistle playing.
Polymer or plastic whistles can also provide a lightweight, budget-friendly option for those just starting out. Then, whenever you’re ready to take your playing to the next level, you can invest in a new instrument.
Tunable Whistle vs Non Tunable Whistle
Like all musical instruments, tin whistles are also affected by changes in the weather – specifically the temperature. The higher the temperature, the warmer your whistle and the sharper the sound of the pitch produced.
So if you’re playing at a session in a crowded pub, chances are, after a while your whistle will be playing at a higher pitch than when you began.
The opposite also applies. If you’re playing outdoors or in colder temperatures, chances are your whistle may sound a little flat.
How do you combat this? With a tunable whistle.
Tuneable tin whistles come with a tuning slide that allows you to adjust the pitch of the instrument. Extending the tuning slide flattens or lowers the pitch, while closing it sharpens or raises the pitch.
Why would you need to adjust your tuning?
While none of the issues I’ve raised above matter too much if you’re playing solo, when playing in a group it’s important that all the instruments are in tune with each other. Irish music is after all a social music genre. Your end goal is usually not to play in isolation, but to join in at a session.
A tuning slide will allow you to match your fellow musicians’ pitch and make some great sounding music together.
How Much Does a Tuneable Whistle Cost?
- Beginner Whistles
If you’re not worried about tuning and you just want to play at home for your own enjoyment, then an entry level non-tuneable penny whistle might be just the thing for you. This shouldn’t cost you more than €20.
- Intermediate Whistles
If you play in sessions or in groups then you’re more likely to be conscious of your tuning. Tuneable tin whistles start from around the €25 mark.
- Advanced and Professional Whistles
As a general rule, more expensive whistles will have better internal tuning and will also have superior tone. While a basic soprano D tin whistle can cost as little as €10, a professional whistle can cost well over €250.
Which Tin Whistle Is Right For Me?
Check out my Top 10 Recommended Tin Whistles. This handy buying guide is guaranteed to help you find the whistle of your dreams!
How Do I Play The Tin Whistle?
The tin whistle is a wonderfully accessible instrument for all ages and abilities. Like all instruments it takes hard work and practice to fully master, but it’s easy to get started.
Check out my handy guide with step by step instructions here: How To Play The Irish Tin Whistle
McNeela Tin Whistle Lessons Series
Here at McNeela Instruments, we’re committed to ensuring that our customers become the best musicians they can be. My team and I care deeply about your musical journey and want to help you every step of the way.
So when I realised the plight of my tin whistle customers – floundering without access to expert tuition and guidance – I decided to team up with professional whistle player and maker, and my longtime friend, John O’Brien. Together we created a series of tin whistle lessons that is accessible to musicians everywhere.
Drawing on his vast experience as both a performer and teacher, John has put together this carefully crafted series of lessons that can take you from beginner to master tin whistle player. These lessons will equip you with all the skills and tools you need to sound good, right from your very first note.
John has developed an extraordinary teaching method which helps you learn in record time, without compromising on technique and style. In fact, you’ll be session ready in just ten weeks!
John’s tried and tested teaching method guarantees results. The best part is, you can work entirely at your own pace. Work around your busy schedule, press pause, replay a lesson – you’re fully in control.
Even better, these lessons include access to our specially designed session player which allows you to play along with other Irish instruments at your desired speed. So you can get the full Irish session experience from the comfort of your own home:
[Featured Image: Daniel Fernandez]