Several high D tin whistles
from left to right: Clarke Sweetone; Shaw (customised); O'Brien; Reyburn; Generation (customised); Copeland; Overton
(Open flute with internal duct and fingerholes)
The tin whistle, also called the penny whistle, English flageolet, Scottish penny whistle, tin flageolet, Irish whistle, feadóg stáin (or simply feadóg) and Clarke London Flageolet is a simple, six-holed woodwind instrument. It is a fipple flute, putting it in the same category as the recorder, Native American flute, and other woodwind instruments that meet such criteria. A tin whistle player is called a tin whistler or simply a whistler. The tin whistle is closely associated with Celtic music.
The tin whistle in its modern form is from a wider family of fipple flutes which have been seen in many forms and cultures throughout the world. In Europe such instruments have a long and distinguished history and take various forms; most widely known of these are the recorder, tin whistle, Flabiol, Txistu and tabor pipe.
Almost all primitive cultures had a type of fipple flute and is most likely the first pitched flute type instrument in existence. A possible Neanderthal fipple flute from Slovenia dates from 81,000-53,000 B.C., a German flute from 35,000 years ago, and flute made from sheep's bone in West Yorkshire dating to the Iron Age. Written sources that describe a fipple-type flute include the Roman and Greek aulos and tibia. In the early Middle Ages peoples of northern Europe were playing the instrument as seen in 3rd-century British bone flutes, and Irish Brehon Law describes flute like instrument. By the 12th century Italian flutes came in a variety of sizes, and fragments of 12th-century Norman bone whistles have been found in Ireland, and an intact 14 cm Tusculum clay whistle from the 14th century in Scotland. In the 17th century whistles were called flageolets; a term to describe a whistle with a French made fipple headpiece (common to the modern penny whistle) and such instruments are linked to the development of the English flageolet, French flageolet and recorders of the renaissance and baroque period. The term flageolet is still preferred by some modern tin whistle who feel this better describes the instrument, as this characterises a wide variety of fipple flutes, including penny whistles.
The modern penny whistle is indigenous to the British Isles particularly England when factory-made "tin whistles" were produced by Robert Clarke from 1840–1882 in Manchester and later New Moston, England. Down to 1900, they were also marketed as "Clarke London Flageolets" or "Clarke Flageolets". The whistle's fingering system is similar to that of the six hole, "simple system English flutes" ("simple" in comparison to Boehm system flutes). The six hole, diatonic system is also used on baroque flutes, and was of course well known before Robert Clarke began producing his tin whistles. Clarke's first whistle, the Meg, was pitched in high A and was later made in other keys suitable for Victorian parlour music. The company showed the whistles in The Great Exhibition of 1851. The Clark tin whistle is voiced somewhat on an organ-pipe with a flattened tube forming the lip of the fipple mouthpiece and is usually made from rolled tin sheet or brass. Manufactured tin whistles became available no earlier than 1840, and were mass-produced and widespread due to their relative affordability.
As the penny whistle was generally considered a toy it has been suggested that children or street musicians were paid a penny by those who heard them playing the whistle. However, in reality the instrument was so called because it could be purchased for a penny. The name "tin-whistle" was also coined as early as 1825. but neither the tin whistle nor the penny whistle name seems to have been common until the 20th century. The instrument became popular in several musical traditions namely: English, Scottish, Irish and American traditional music. Due to its affordability the tin whistle was a popular household instrument, as ubiquitous as the harmonica. In the second half of the 19th century, some flute manufacturers such as Barnett Samuel and Joseph Wallis also sold whistles. These had a cylindrical brass tube. Like many old whistles, they had lead fipple plugs, and since lead is poisonous, caution should be exercised before playing an old whistle.
The Generation whistle was introduced in the first half of the 20th century, and also featured a brass tube with a lead fipple plug. The design was updated somewhat over the years, most notably the substitution of a plastic fipple for the lead plug design.
While whistles have most often been produced in higher pitches, the "low" whistle is not unknown historically. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has in its collection an example of a 19th-century low whistle from the famous Galpin collection. During the 1960s revival of traditional Irish music the low whistle was "recreated" by Bernard Overton at the request of Finbar Furey.
Sample of music played on all plastic tin whistle in key of D.
Sample of music played on key of D metal tin whistle with wooden stop.
Sample of music played on key of D metal tin whistle with plastic fipple.
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The most common whistles today are made of brass tubing, or nickel plated brass tubing, with a plastic fipple (mouthpiece). Generation, Feadóg, Oak, Acorn, Soodlum's (now Walton's), and other brands fall in this category. The next most common form is the conical sheet metal whistle with a wooden stop in the wide end to form the fipple, the Clarke's brand being the most prevalent. Other less common variants are the all-metal whistle, the PVC whistle, the Flanna square holed whistle, and the wooden whistle.
Gaining popularity as a folk instrument in the early 19th century in the Celtic music revivals, penny whistles now play an integral part of several folk traditions. Whistles are a prevalent starting instrument in English traditional music, Scottish traditional music and Irish traditional music, since they are often cheap (under US$10), relatively easy to start with (no tricky embouchure such as found with the flute), and the fingerings are nearly identical to those on the traditional six holed flute (Irish flute, baroque flute). The tin whistle is a good starting instrument to learn the uilleann pipes, which has similar finger technique, range of notes and repertoire. The tin whistle is the most popular instrument in Irish traditional music today.
In recent years a number of instrument builders have started lines of "high-end," hand-made whistles, which can cost hundreds of dollars US each — expensive in comparison to cheap whistles, but nevertheless cheaper than most other instruments. These companies are typically either a single individual or a very small group of craftsmen who work closely together. The instruments are distinguished from the inexpensive whistles in that each whistle is individually manufactured and "voiced" by a skilled person rather than made in a factory.
The whistle is tuned diatonically, which allows it to be used to easily play music in two major keys and their corresponding minor keys and modes. The whistle is identified by its lowest note, which is the tonic of the lowest major key. Note that this method of determining the key of the instrument is different from the method used to determine the key of a chromatic instrument, which is based on the relationship between notes on a score and sounded pitch. Whistles are available in a wide variety of different keys.
The most common whistles can easily play notes in the keys of D and G major. Since the D major key is lower these whistles are identified as D whistles. The next most common whistle tuning is a C whistle, which can easily play notes in the keys of C and F major. The D whistle is the most common choice for Irish and Scottish music.
Although the whistle is essentially a diatonic instrument, it is possible to get notes outside the principal major key of the whistle, either by half-holing (partially covering the highest open finger hole) or by cross-fingering (covering some holes while leaving some higher ones open). However, half-holing is somewhat more difficult to do correctly, and whistles are available in many keys, so for other keys a whistler will typically use a different whistle instead, reserving half-holing for accidentals. Some whistle designs allow a single fipple, or mouthpiece, to be used on differently keyed bodies.
There are larger whistles, which by virtue of being longer and wider produce tones an octave (or in rare cases two octaves) lower. Whistles in this category are likely to be made of metal or plastic tubing, sometimes with a tuning-slide head, and are almost always referred to as low whistles but sometimes called concert whistles. The low whistle operates on identical principles to the standard whistles, but musicians in the tradition may consider it a separate instrument.
The term soprano whistle is sometimes used for the higher-pitched whistles when it is necessary to distinguish them from low whistles.
The notes are selected by opening or closing holes with the fingers. With all the holes closed, the whistle generates its lowest note, the tonic of a major scale. Successively opening holes from the bottom upward produces the rest of the notes of the scale in sequence: with the lowest hole open it generates the second, with the lowest two holes open, it produces the third and so on. With all six holes open, it produces the seventh.
As with a number of woodwind instruments, the tin whistle's second and higher registers are achieved by increasing the air velocity into the ducted flue windway.  On a transverse flute this is generally done by narrowing the lip/embouchure. Since the size and direction of the tin whistle's windway is fixed, like that of the recorder or fipple flute, it is necessary to increase the velocity of the air stream. (See overblowing).
Fingering in the second register is generally the same as in the first/fundamental, though alternate fingerings are sometimes employed in the higher end of the registers to correct a flattening effect caused by higher aircolumn velocity. Also, the tonic note of the second register is usually played with the top hole of the whistle partially uncovered instead of covering all holes as with the tonic note of the first register; this makes it harder to accidentally drop into the first register and helps to correct pitch. Recorders perform this by "pinching" open the dorsal thumb hole.
Various other notes (relatively flat or sharp with respect to those of the major scale) can be accessed by cross fingering techniques, and all the notes (except the lowest of each octave/register) can be flattened by half holing. Perhaps the most effective and most used cross fingering is that which produces a flattened form of the seventh note (B flat instead of B on a C whistle, for example, or C natural instead of C sharp on a D whistle). This makes available another major scale (F on a C whistle, G on a D whistle).
The standard range of the whistle is two octaves. For a D whistle, this includes notes from D5 to D7; that is, from the second D above middle C to the fourth D above middle C. It is possible to make sounds above this range, by blowing with sufficient force, but, in most musical contexts, the result will be loud and out of tune due to a cylindrical bore.
Traditional whistle playing uses a number of ornaments to embellish the music, including cuts, strikes and rolls. Most playing is legato with ornaments to create breaks between notes, rather than tongued. The traditional music concept of the word "ornamentation" differs somewhat from that of European classical music in that ornaments are more commonly changes in how a note is articulated rather than the addition of separately-perceived notes to the piece. Common ornaments and articulations include:
A number of music genres commonly feature the tin whistle.
A jig featuring the tin whistle, performed by Dancing Willow
Instrumental version, featuring low whistle and viola da gamba, performed by Dancing Willow
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Traditional music from Ireland and Scotland is by far the most common music to play on the tin whistle, and comprises the vast majority of published scores suitable for whistle players. While the tin whistle is very common in Irish music to the point that it could be called characteristic of the genre and fairly common in Scottish music, it is not "required" in either genre.
Kwela is a genre of music created in South Africa in the 1950s, and is characterized by an upbeat, jazzy tin whistle lead. Kwela is the only music genre created around the sound of the tin whistle. The low cost of the tin whistle, or jive flute, made it an attractive instrument in the impoverished, apartheid-era townships; the Hohner tin whistle was especially popular in kwela performance. The kwela craze accounted for the sale of more than one million tin whistles.
In the late 1950s, mbaqanga music largely superseded kwela in South Africa, and so it followed that the saxophone surpassed the tin whistle as the township people's wind instrument of choice. Kwela master Aaron "Big Voice Jack" Lerole continued to perform into the 1990s; a few bands, such as The Positively Testcard of London, continue to record kwela music.
Kwela sheet music is rarely published, and many of the recordings of founding kwela artists are out of print. One representative compilation is South African Jazz and Jive (Rhino Entertainment, 2000).
Tin whistle music collections are generally notated in one of three different formats.
It is common to score music for the whistle using standard musical notation. The tin whistle is not a transposing instrument - for example, music for the D tin whistle is written in concert pitch, not transposed down a tone as would be normal for transposing instruments. Nevertheless, there is no real consensus on how tin whistle music should be written, or on how reading music onto the whistle should be taught. However, when music is scored for a soprano whistle it will be written an octave lower than it sounds, to spare ledger lines and make it much easier to read.
The traditional music of Ireland and Scotland constitutes the majority of published scores for the whistle. Since the majority of that music is written in D major, G major, or one of the corresponding musical modes, use of the D major or G major key signatures is a de facto standard. For example, the "C whistle" edition of Bill Ochs's popular The Clarke Tin Whistle Handbook is scored in D and differs from the D edition only in that the accompanying audio CD is played on a C whistle.
Reading directly onto the C whistle is popular for the obvious reason that its home key or name key is the all-natural major key (C major). Some musicians are encouraged to learn to read directly onto one whistle, while others are taught to read directly onto another.
Tablature notation for the tin whistle is a graphical representation of which tone holes the player should cover. The most common format is a vertical column of six circles, with holes to be covered for a given note shown filled with black, and a plus sign (+) at the top for notes in the second octave. Tablature is most commonly found in tutorial books for beginners.
The tonic solfa is found in Ireland and possibly Wales, especially in schools. Many schools have printed sheets with tunes notated in tonic solfa, although in Ireland more have teaching by rote. With the availability of good standard notation tutor books, teaching is possibly moving in this direction.[original research?]
Since the majority of popular tin whistle music is traditional and out of copyright, it is common to share tune collections on the Internet. Abc notation is the most common means of electronic exchange of tunes. It is also designed to be easy to read by people, and many musicians learn to read it directly instead of using a computer program to transform it into a standard musical notation score.
During the 1960s, Tommy Makem played the tin whistle as a member of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, one of the most influential Irish folk groups, especially popular during the American folk music revival.
In 1973, Paddy Moloney (of The Chieftains) and Sean Potts released the album Tin Whistles, which helped to popularise the tin whistle in particular, and Irish music in general. Mary Bergin's Feadóga Stáin (1979) and Feadóga Stáin 2 (1993) were similarly influential. Other notable players include Carmel Gunning, Micho Russell, Joanie Madden, Brian Finnegan, and Seán Ryan. Many traditional pipers and flute players also play the whistle to a high standard. Festy Conlon, often considered the best slow air player.
Aaron "Big Voice Jack" Lerole and his band recorded a single called "Tom Hark", which sold five million copies worldwide, and which Associated Television used as the theme song for the 1958 television series The Killing Stones. But the most famous star of the kwela era was Spokes Mashiyane. Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland draws heavily on South African music, and includes pennywhistle solos in the traditional style, played by Morris Goldberg.
As a traditional Irish musical instrument, the Irish rock bands The Cranberries and The Pogues (with Spider Stacy as whistler) incorporate the tin whistle in some of their songs, as do such American Celtic punk bands as The Tossers, Dropkick Murphys, and Flogging Molly (in which Bridget Regan plays the instrument).
Andrea Corr of Irish folk rock band The Corrs also plays the tin whistle. Saxophonist LeRoi Moore, founding member of the American jam band Dave Matthews Band, plays the tin whistle in a few of the band's songs.
Lambchop uses the tin whistle in the song "The Scary Caroler."
The Unicorns use the tin whistle in the song "Sea Ghost".
Steve Buckley, a British jazz musician is renowned for using the penny whistle as a serious instrument. His whistle playing can be heard on recordings with Loose Tubes, Django Bates and his album with Chris Batchelor Life As We Know It. Les Lieber is a celebrated American Jazz Tinwhistle player. Lieber has played with Paul Whiteman's Band and also with the Benny Goodman Sextet. Lieber made a record with Django Reinhardt in the AFN Studios in Paris in the post Second World War era and started an event called "Jazz at Noon" every Friday in a New York restaurant playing with a nucleus of advertising men, doctors, lawyers, and business executives who had been or could have been jazz musicians. Howard Johnson has also been known to play this instrument. Musical polymath Howard Levy introduces the tune True North with a jazz and very traditionally Celtic-inspired whistle piece on Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' UFO TOFU.
Howard Shore called for a tin whistle in D for a passage in his "Concerning Hobbits" from The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The tin whistle symbolizes the Shire, together with other instruments such as the guitar, the double bass, and the bodhrán. The tin whistle also plays a passage in the main theme in the same trilogy.
The tin whistle also features prominently in the soundtrack of the film How to Train Your Dragon, and is connected to the main character, Hiccup.
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