slide whistle

Also:       Swanee whistle      song whistle      piston flute or pipe      jazz flute      flute à coulisse      Lotosflöte      flauto a culisse      

Title: demo: slide whistle; David Miller, percussion. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

The slide whistle is a duct flute aerophone with an internal adjustable stop. It is an auxiliary band, orchestra and percussion ensemble instrument. A number of 20th century composers of European cosmopolitan orchestral music have occasionally written for the slide whistle (or multiple slide whistles) in their compositions. Members of the percussion section of bands and orchestras and jazz drum set players are typically entrusted with performing this instrument, which requires no specialized training. It is also occasionally heard in soundtracks for cartoons, where its sliding gestures match actions in the visual narrative. Models of this instrument, typically made of plastic, are sold as toys for children.


The body of the slide whistle consists of a single cylindrical tube, without fingerholes, made of nickel-plated sheet metal. One end, into which the performer blows, has been pinched until nearly closed to create an internal duct, which in turn directs the airstream against a sharp edge that has been made by punching out an elongated oval in the wall of the tube. The distal end of the tube is closed with a metal cap that has running through it a metal rod. Inside the tube this rod terminates with a snuggly-fitting, padded piston head with the same diameter as the tube’s bore. The other end of the rod is straight for much of its length until near its distal end, where it is bent a few times to form a handle.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer holds the slide whistle with one hand so that the duct end is positioned between her/his lips, through which the airstream needed to sound the flute passes. The other hand holds the piston handle. Moving the handle towards and away from the end of the tube makes the piston slide up and down inside the tube, effectively shortening and lengthening the air cavity of the standing wave and producing higher and lower frequencies/pitches. The range of the slide whistle pictured here is from approximately D3 to E5 (this being a closed-tube aerophone, it sounds an octave lower than an open-tube aerophone of the same length), and a performer is typically asked simply to produce portamenti (sliding pitch gestures without discretely sounded notes) from high to low, low to high, or combinations of both (listen to the audio clip). Discrete pitches, and therefore melodies, can be produced on this instrument, although in order to find the needed pitches for a melody the performer typically slides from one note to the next.


Folk versions of the slide whistle have been in existence far longer than the ‘professional’ model pictured here, which started to be used in jazz/dance bands of the 1920s as a novelty or sound-effects instrument. It was likely in the dance band setting that orchestral and soundtrack composers first encountered the instrument and appropriated it for their own use.

Bibliographic Citations

Davies, Hugh. 1984. NGDMI v.3: 480-481.

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.221.312 aerophone--single stopped flute with internal duct: the duct is inside the tube; with adjustable stopped lower end

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with closed 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: incremental lengthening with telescoping slide of air cavity in which the standing wave is active

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: single pitch - one pitch produced in single air cavity


12.6 in. length

Primary Materials

metal - sheet


Carroll Sound



Entry Author

Roger Vetter