Which Key Tin Whistle Should I Get? Tin Whistle Keys Demystified!


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When you’re just starting the tin whistle it’s a little intimidating making a choice because there are so many different types of whistles.

The most common tin whistle is D–almost all fingering charts and tutorials are designed for a D whistle, therefore, a D whistle is the most ideal choice for a first whistle.

That sums up almost everything, but I imagine you will have some other questions if you are getting started playing the tin whistle. Let’s talk about a little more why the D whistle is a good first choice, and I’ll give you a leg up and give you some pointers so you can get started playing more quickly and have fun.

Why Is the D Whistle the Best Choice Starting Out?

Before we talk about why, it’s important to understand the reason why there is a “D tin whistle” in the first place.

Why Are There So Many Different Keys of Tin Whistles?

Tin whistles only have 6 holes, and the combinations of these holes don’t allow you to play more than 7 notes (over two octaves) with a couple of exceptions.

The fact that a particular tin whistle is designed for a single scale means that it is a diatonic instrument. If you want to learn more about what this means, check out our article that talks about tin whistles, diatonic, and chromatic, and other key terms.

Because of this, if a tin whistle player wants to more easily play other notes (such as if a song is in a different key), they will often have multiple tin whistles in different keys! It’s not uncommon for a whistler to have a tin whistle stash ready for many different songs.

The Most Common Tin Whistle Key

The biggest reason why D is the best choice for a starting tin whistle is because it is the most common.

Now, I don’t mean this because it’s good to be similar to others, but just that all the learning materials: books, YouTube videos, tutorials, etc, are often all designed for a D whistle. You have more resources to learn from if you choose a D whistle.

However, don’t think that if you get another key of tin whistle that you’ll have to get new sheet music because the tin whistle is a transposing instrument.

What Does It Mean to Be a Transposing Instrument?

When deciding on a key of tin whistle, you might think that the sheet music will change with whatever tin whistle you have. Well, actually, this isn’t the case. Sheet music writers decided to keep the sheet music the same.

I’ll give you an example.

On a D tin whistle, if you play with the first three holes uncovered, this would be a G:

The G Major scale on the Tin whistle for a D Tin Whistle

However, if you get a C tin whistle, and here is the key point, the sheet music doesn’t change, but the actual notes are different.

In other words, the scale looks like a G scale, and everything is written as if the notes didn’t change, but the actual notes you are playing is one note lower.

So if a C tin whistle playing alongside the D whistle playing that same sheet music for the G Major Scale, these are the notes that would be played:

D Tin Whistle C Tin Whistle
GF
AG
BA
CBb (B flat)
DC
ED
F# (F sharp)E
GF

If you don’t know exactly what this means, the key point is that you can use the same sheet music as a D whistle, but your notes will sound a note lower.

So, that’s fortunate, but it still can be a bit tricky learning how to transpose (change from one key to another) if you’re playing with different instruments–if you’re just starting out, the easiest thing to do is to play the whistle that matches the key of the song.

The D tin whistle can play the D Major scale and the G Major scale, which are very common for many songs. The C whistle can play the C Major scale and the F Major scale, also two very common scales for many songs. If you chose a D whistle or a C whistle, you would be in good shape for playing with your favorite music.

A Bundle of Whistles

It’s because of all of this that tin whistlers often accumulate many whistles in many different keys. It’s easiest to play songs in the same key as your tin whistle. Although it is possible to play more notes with special techniques (check out our post to learn which techniques you can use to play all the notes in the scale), it is cumbersome and difficult to play fast with these techniques.

Therefore, if you’ve ever wondered why tin whistlers love to share pictures of their tin whistle stash, that’s why.

(psst… plus… I should mention that tin whistles sound so different from one another–that’s one reason that makes them so fun and interesting to play. It’s hard to not want to catch them all.)

What is the Best Tin Whistle for Beginners?

There are many different tin whistles that are extremely inexpensive. (another reason why I think the tin whistle is so cool). You can find a tin whistle that sound beautiful and give hours of meaningful and happy music making for less than $20. This is so unusual for most instruments.

I did a lot of research on this subject for my comprehensive tin whistle buying guide, and compared the different whistles in this price category. There are dozens of whistle manufacturers out there that make inexpensive whistles under $30, but the three most popular are Clarke, Generation, and Walton.

Out of the three, my favorite tin whistle for beginners in the entry-level price category is Clarke’s Sweettone Tin Whistle. The Sweettone stays in tune as you play up and down the scale, is sold in the key of D, has a conical bore that doesn’t require a lot of air, and has a plastic mouthpiece that doesn’t swell with moisture as you play.

Did I mention it’s very inexpensive? You can pick it up on Amazon for less than the price of two movie tickets. So, tell your significant other that you will serenade them (after a month or so of practice of course) instead of taking them out to the movies.

But seriously, if you’d like to know what to expect from an entry-level tin whistle and would like to do some of your own research, take a look at my tin whistle buying guide. You’ll get an idea of what things to look for and watch out for

How Hard is the Tin Whistle to Learn?

One question you might have if you’re trying to pick up the tin whistle is… well… how difficult is it to play?

It’s a good question, because maybe you’re new to music or you are not sure how much time you have available to learn the tin whistle.

As an experiment, and also to answer this question, I practiced the tin whistle for 30 days in a row with extremely little tin whistle experience for an hour a day to see what level of skill you can get to in just 30 days.

A before and after 30 days of practicing the tin whistle

I learned a lot– and I learned that the tin whistle, while simple in concept is a deep instrument that has enormous potential.

Some people may even dismiss the tin whistle and even wonder if it’s a real instrument (see our article for more on that discussion). However, there’s so much you can learn, especially with the tin whistle ornamentations.

To get an idea of how long it might take you to learn the tin whistle, check out our post here which goes into detail and helps you see what to expect.

How to Play the Tin Whistle

It can be difficult to get started with an instrument… it’s hard to know where to start, sometimes. To help with this, I made a learning plan that goes into detail to make it as accessible as possible to know where exactly to begin, what to practice, and how to take your skills to the next level. Check out the tin whistle learning plan, here.

Peter Mitchell

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

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