The whistle has been used in the scores of large-scale productions like Braveheart and the Lord of the Rings. It's also been featured in less-than-epic productions, such as the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants, and television commercials (the "beef, it's what's for dinner!" commercial theme is a direct descendent of the traditional tune Bonaparte's Retreat). Modern bands such as the Corrs are blending traditional Irish music with a modern sound. Their CDs feature many traditional tunes like Toss the Feathers and The Minstrel Boy, and Andrea Corr plays the whistle in much of their repertoire. It would be hard to be exposed to much media being produced today (in the form of movies, music, or television) without being exposed to the unique sound of this instrument. It is one of the simplest types of instruments to learn; you can play your first simple tune within minutes of picking one up. And yet mastering the sophisticated style of the whistle can take a lifetime.
As anyone who has seen the move The Titanic can attest, the movie is full of flowing melodies that evoke the feeling of the rolling green hills of Ireland. What they may not know, however, is that most of this music was recorded on the lowly tinwhistle. It seems almost inconceivable that an instrument less-sophisticated than an elementary-school recorder would be capable of expressing highly energetic and lively dance tunes, and also equally capable of rendering moving, haunting melodies. And yet, both tunes linked above were recorded using exactly that.
The tinwhistle has been known by many names. In older times, this family of instruments was known as "fipple flutes" or "flageolets". As they were first mass-produced from tinplate, it's easy to see how they got the name "tinwhistle". Less sure is how they came by their other common name, the "penny whistle". Some experts theorize that at one time it was customary to tip a street musician a penny. Others theorize that the whistle cost a penny at one time, and thus the name. Both theories are logical guesses, as there exists no written literature on the subject. These days, you're as likely to hear the instrument also called an "Irish whistle", or even more simply, "whistle". I will use tinwhistle and whistle interchangeably throughout this article.
As I mentioned, the whistle is a member of the fipple flute family, as is the recorder. A fipple was originally a block of wood that was used to direct your breath across the sound ramp of the instrument. The fipple was part of the mouthpiece, and together, the fipple and mouthpiece performed the same function as the lips of a flutist: To direct the stream of air and produce a sound. Flutists can spend months or years perfecting their lip position ("embouchure"). Whistles and recorders use technology. It's relatively certain that you'll be able to produce a clear, clean tone from a whistle almost immediately. These days, most whistle mouthpieces are one-piece affairs, made of injection-molded plastics, crafted from metal, or carved entirely from wood. For this reason, the word "fipple" has usually come to mean the entire mouthpiece of the whistle, as the fipple is often no longer a separate and distinct part of the instrument. In this homemade whistle mouthpiece, the wooden block you can barely see is the fipple.
The whistle shares may characteristics with the simple system flute. It has six holes, and can cover an entire two-octave range--suitable for most Irish music. Close all holes, and you get the lowest note of the scale. Open the first bottom hole, and you get the next note up. And so forth. By the time you have all holes open, you've covered an octave. You get the second octave by using the same finger pattern of the first octave, only blowing harder. It's relatively simple; thus the name simple system. Unfortunately, this also means that the instrument has limitations. The whistle is a diatonic instrument. This means it is only made to play in only one key. On the other hand, chromatic instruments such as pianos or recorders or Boehm flutes, are able to play in multiple keys--the piano does so using the white and black keys. The recorder does so using special finger hole arrangements and complicated finger patterns. This is really of no concern to us, however, as nearly all traditional Irish music is able to be played on a whistle in the key of D. As I don't wish to delve much into music theory in this article, you need only know that you can play in both the keys of D and G on the whistle, and almost all Irish music is in the key of D or G (and very rarely in A), and thus playable on a D whistle. We'll get into why that is in a later article, though those familiar with music theory can probably already guess.
Simple system flutes have been around since the dawn of recorded history. Chinese archaeologists recently uncovered a 6000-7000 year old simple system bone flute in Zhejiang Province. A 12th-century whistle-type instrument made of bone was also excavated in the Old Norman quarter of Dublin. However, as an instrument, the whistle was not standardized and mass-produced until the nineteenth century. In 1843, Robert Clarke of Suffolk, England, decided to sell his home-made whistles to improve his lot as a farm laborer. He eventually had enough demand to start a factory. Rather than carving his whistles, Robert Clarke rolled and soldered tinplate around a wooden fipple. Factory production meant that whistles could be made cheaply, and that they would each be relatively in tune. These whistles were affordable, and a vast improvement in quality over whistles that young boys whittled out of willow or bone. It is during this time that history starts taking note of professional musicians who use the whistle as their primary instrument. Special note is made of Whistling Billy, who made a living playing the Clarke tinwhistle in pubs and busking on street corners. It is said that he would often entertain the crowd by playing the whistle in his nose!
Today, there are dozens of brands of tinwhistles, most of them of modern manufacture. They generally fall into two categories, expensive and cheap. Cheap whistles generally cost $50US or less. The Clarke Tinwhistle Company still makes a whistle of rolled tinplate pretty much the same as the kind of whistle Whistling Billy would have played, costing close to $10US. With the modern interest in Irish music, the Clarke Tinwhistle Company has also made two other inexpensive whistle lines (The Sweetone and the Meg. More on those below). In addition, the Generation brand of tinwhistle can be found in most any music store for only a few bucks. They come in a variety of keys, but as mentioned, D is the most important. In fact, most of the great old masters of the Irish whistle play on a Generation. Of course fifty or so years ago, the selection of whistles was extremely limited. The problem inherent in cheap factory production is quality control. One hole drilled a fraction of a millimeter off can cause a large change in how in tune an instrument is. With most 'cheap' whistles, it is recommended that you try many of them to find one that's in tune. There are also websites and message boards devoted to how to tape, sand, cut, or modify these whistles to bring them into tune (known as 'tweaking'). Along with Clarkes and Generations are inexpensive whistles brands such as Oak, Soodlum, Walton, Acorn, Feadog, and Susato. Most of these can be found packaged with song and tutorial books in music stores, or at specialty shops
With the current high demand for Irish music and instruments, the modern whistle player has a greater choice of instruments than his forebears. Rather than buying a lot of cheap whistles, and learning to modify them to bring them in tune, the modern player can choose to buy a high-quality hand-crafted instrument. This leads us to "expensive" whistle, ranging anywhere from $50US to $400US (or more!), Craftsmen such as Bernard Overton, Michael Copeland, Paul Hayward, and Chris Abell make high-quality consistent instruments out of stronger metals (such as brass, nickel, or silver) or exotic hardwoods (like blackwood, coco bola, and rosewood). The price of these instruments can run the gamut from under $100US to well over $400US depending on what you buy. Some may say that these whistles lack the rustic imperfections of their traditional counterparts. To a large degree this is true, but one might wonder if those legendary greats might have bought better instruments if they were available. Indeed, many old and respected whistling legends have switched to the higher quality instruments--Mary Bergin now plays John Sindt whistles, for instance. Joanie Madden plays O'Riordan whistles, Larry Nugent plays Copelands, Paddy Keenan plays Grinters, Geraldine Cotter plays Sindts. It's easy to see that as whistles become more sophisticated, the still-living legendary players are tending to switch to the better-quality instruments. The advantage of an expensive whistle is threefold. First, you're getting a hand-crafted instrument, in which the maker has personally devoted time to voicing to ensure that the whistle is consistent and in tune. Secondly, you're getting customer service. Almost every high-end whistle craftsman that I know of has a very liberal return and repair policy. Thirdly, even the most expensive top-of-the-line whistle is cheaper than a top-of-the-line flute, bagpipe, guitar, or fiddle (all of which can cost thousands of dollars!)
For a beginner, however, a cheapie is just fine. You'll want to wait until your musical styles and tastes develop before plunking down the big bucks. Each craftsman produces whistles with a distinct sound, and until you get some practice under your belt, you may not know what sound you're looking for. Most experienced players like myself can recognize different brands of high-end whistles simply by ear. Until you know what you want, it's probably better to save your dough. Luckily, you can find decent-quality cheapies out there. The Clarke Tinwhistle Company now makes several brands of instruments. One of these is the Meg. The Meg is around $3.00US at most whistle outlets (such as The Whistle Shop or Shanna Quay Irish Books & Music. The Meg is a hybrid whistle. It has the rolled tinplate conical bore of the traditional Clarke. The mouthpiece, however, is molded plastic, but was designed by Michael Copeland. The same Michael Copeland who I list above as making many-hundred-dollar handcrafted instruments. The whistle is a bit fragile, being tinplate; you wouldn't want to sit or step on it. But at $3.00, if you did, it wouldn't be a big loss. These seem to be more in-tune than some of the other cheapies. I have an old and dented Clarke Sweetone--a slightly more expensive version of the Meg--that still gets a lot of play in my computer room.
For more information on whistles, both expensive and inexpensive, please see Chiff and Fipple. Dale Wisely, the site creator, has the most extensive list of whistle reviews out of any I have seen on the web. If you're interested in choosing a whistle, his site will help sort out the big assortment of whistles out there.