Are Tin Whistles Chromatic?


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Have you ever noticed that tin whistle players usually have a stash of tin whistles just in reach? Are tin whistle players just kleptomaniacs? Or is there a reason why they have so many?

The reason why tin whistle players have so many tin whistles is because tin whistles are not chromatic instruments (12-notes). Instead, tin whistles are diatonic instruments (7-notes). This means that tin whistles cannot easily play every note.

So, a tin whistle is meant to have 7 notes, which is one scale–does this mean that it physically cannot play any more notes? Well no, actually. Tin whistles can actually play more than 7-notes. Read on to learn the secrets.

How Many Notes Can a Tin Whistle Play?

A tin whistle is generally meant to be played within two octaves. Without any special techniques, a standard tin whistle can play 7 notes in one octave, and the same 7 notes in the 2nd octave.

If you count the root note being repeated, then the tin whistle can comfortably play 16 notes (see the below diagram to see how this works out)

A tin whistle has 6 holes on the front of the instrument, as is shown here:

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The 7 notes are played by various combinations of covering these 6 holes. As the tin whistler goes up in pitch, the whistler has to breathe air out faster, because it is the speed of the air that changes the pitch.

What Does it Mean to Be a Chromatic Instrument?

A chromatic instrument can play every note (12-notes), including half steps. Chromatic instruments can often play multiple octaves.

An example of all the notes of the chromatic scale: C, C#, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, Bb, B.

A chromatic instrument, such as a recorder, can play all of these notes.

An example of a chromatic instrument is a trumpet, or a recorder, which is similar in shape and design to a tin whistle. To see all the differences between a tin whistle and a recorder, check out our article on this subject, here.

A tin whistle can play all the notes in the scale as well, but you have to use special techniques as discussed below–however, the difference is that a recorder or a trumpet is easily able to reach these notes without any pitch bending.

What Does it Mean to be a Diatonic Instrument?

A diatonic instrument can play all the notes in one scale (7-notes). A diatonic instrument, such as the tin whistle, can play multiple octaves (a standard tin whistle can play 2 octave)

An example of the diatonic range of a tin whistle in the key of C: C, D, E, F, G, A, B

An example of the diatonic range of a tin whistle in the key of D: D, E F#, G, A, B, C#, D

The tin whistle itself is generally capable of being played within two octaves.

An example of the full range of a tin whistle in the key of D: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D

Is it Possible for a Tin Whistle to Play More than 7 Notes?

There is a super secret among tin whistle players: It is actually possible to play more than the notes of a single scale. There are two methods (that I know of at least) to achieve more than 7-notes. Both of them involve something called “pitch-bending”.

A word of caution: pitch-bending is a tricky art and is not for the faint of heart. I just rhymed!

Method 1: Half-Covering the Holes

I use the word “half” loosely, here. The key is to uncover a hole just enough to get the note that you need. This is a very tricky technique to master, and really should only be used for the occasional accidental. It’s definitely more difficult to do than a regular fingering, and is even more difficult when played at speed.

Here is an example of how you can use a half-hole technique to achieve an F from an F# for a tin whistle in the key of D.

How to use a half-hole to make an F note with a D tin whistle

Method 2: Mouth Shaping

You can easily get the feel of using your mouth shape to change the pitch if you put the tin whistle to your lips, and then proceed to make a steady pitch. Change the shape of your mouth, and you will notice the pitch will bend slightly as the velocity of the air changes. This can be used to bend the pitch just enough to hit an accidental.

Why does this work? A tin whistle works by resonance of the metal tube as air is passed through the mouthpiece. The size of the tube affects the resonance–therefore, if you cover a hole with your finger, you change the size of the tube. If you change your mouth shape slightly, you are in effect, changing the resonance chamber which affects the pitch. Pretty cool!

Is There a Tin Whistle for Every Key?

Because tin whistles are not chromatic instruments, and because pitch-bending is difficult and isn’t practical for more than the occasional accidental, it’s common for a tin whistler to have many different tin whistles in several keys.

Doing some research, I found tin whistles in the following keys on Amazon.com:

  • C
  • D
  • Eb
  • F
  • G
  • Bb

Doing more research, I found that you can buy whistles in every key direct from some manufacturers–burkewhistles.com is one example.

By far, the most popular tin whistle keys are C and D. Many songs are in these keys, especially in music that feature tin whistles.

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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