tin whistle

Also:       feadóg stáin      pennywhistle      

Title: Traditional Music of Ireland, Vol.2, Songs and Dances from Down, Kerry, and Clare--Shakescone; Willy Clancey, penny whistle. Label: Smithsonian Folkway Recordings. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 79021. Track: 5.

Title: Sound Offerings from South Africa--Banjo Special; Spokes Mashiyane, penny whistle. Label: Gallo. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDREDD 623. Track: I-9.

Contextual Associations

The tin whistle is an end-blown duct-flute aerophone originating is 19th century Northern Europe that is today closely associated with Irish traditional music (where it is called the feadóg; listen to first audio clip). In the past a favored instrument of sailors, the instrument has traveled far and wide and been introduced to other cultures, such as that of the Zulu people of South Africa who have a vibrant urban popular music tradition of penny whistle (one of the alternate names of the tin whistle) playing (listen to second audio clip). It is an inexpensive, mass-produced instrument the manufacture of which has always been centered in England; the most famous British producer of this instrument has been the Clarke Company, in whose factory the instrument seen in the first gallery image was made. The second instrument, made more recently and in Ireland, is the model of tin whistle now favored by Irish musicians.


Tin whistles are end-blown duct flutes with either a tapering (the first instrument) or a cylindrical (second instrument) bore and six fingerholes--no thumbhole. The first instrument pictured on this page, which represents the original 19th century design of the tin whistle, uses a shaped plug of wood inserted into the blowing end of the bore to fashion the duct; the second instrument has a molded plastic mouthpiece inserted over the end of the tube, which is a more recent design.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player holds the flute with the fingers and thumbs of both hands, inserting the tip of the instrument’s mouthpiece between their lips. The thumbs are used to steady the instrument (there is no thumbhole) while the first three fingers of both hands are used to cover and uncover the six fingerholes. The player exhales into the mouthpiece and the duct insures that a sound will be produced. The first instrument pictured on this page has a fundamental pitch of C4 and produces a C major scale. It can be overblown at the octave, so has a range of approximately two octaves (C4 - C6). The second whistle has a fundamental pitch of D4, produces a D major scale, and can be overblown at the octave to produce a two-octave range (D4 - D6). The fingerings for the tin whistle are close to those for the Irish transverse flute and uilleann pipes, so players of these latter two instruments often double on the feadóg. It is easy to produce sound and simple tunes on this instrument, but in the hands of a gifted player it is also capable of producing graceful and ornate melodies.


Although whistle flutes made from a variety of materials (such as willow and sycamore) date back to antiquity in Ireland, the mass-produced metal whistle used in Irish music today dates back only to around 1825. The Clarke Company of England has been a major manufacturer of tinplate whistles since 1843, and many of their instruments were exported to Ireland and beyond. 19th century tin whistles bear all the essential design features of modern day tin whistles, with only changes in the materials of production being introduced mostly since the middle of the 20th century.

Bibliographic Citations

Hamilton, Colin, and Fintan Vallely. 1999. “tin whistle,” in The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. Fintan Vallely, ed. New York: New York University Press, pp. 397-398.

Hast, Dorothea E., and Stanley Scott. 2004. Music in Ireland. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Sean. 2010. Focus: Irish Traditional Music. New York: Routledge.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Northern Europe

Nation: Ireland

Formation: Irish

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.221.12 aerophone--single open flute with internal duct: the duct is inside the tube; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - tapering with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled edge in wall of instrument, indirectly blown against with aid of duct

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


12.6 in. length (first instrument) 11.6 in. length (second instrument)

Primary Materials

metal - sheet


Clarke (first instrument) Soodlum (second instrument)

Entry Author

Roger Vetter