Deciphering Whistle Keys

or

Binkie the Wonder Possum

Revised & Expanded 11/28/99 & updated slightly 7/6/00

Playing whistles in different musical keys can be confusing, even for people with music theory background. In fact, sometimes I think it's MORE confusing for people with music background. Here's a little primer.

Diatonic vs. Chromatic Instruments.

Chromatic instruments are those that will play musical scales including the "accidentals," commonly referred to as sharps and flats. Sometimes whistle makers will refer to whistles as chromatic because, technically, they can and do play accidentals. But, in reality, the whistle is not built to naturally play these-- you have to "trick" the instrument into playing them. You do this by either playing a note with the lowest non-open hole only partially covered by the finger. An alternate method is to cross-finger. This simply means that you close two or three holes that are lower on the whistle than the OPEN hole which actually sounds the note. Hmmm. Say that again, Dale. You might play a A-flat (on a D whistle) like this.

 

Or you could play the same note like this

Where you can see that the third hole is sorta half-covered.  The best way to choose to play an accidental depends upon (1) the specific whistle's characteristics, (2) personal preference and (3) the context of the note.  In the case of context, this just means that you have to move your fingers from their position on the PREVIOUS note and also move them to the NEXT note and that may make one of the methods much easier than the others.

So, the point is accidentals (sharps & flats) can be played on a whistle. But, the accuracy of the pitch is tricky and it's not really "natural" to the instrument. Don't get me wrong, I'm FOR it and everything.

A diatonic instrument is one that can only play the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti notes of a scale and can't play the sharps and flats. It's just out of luck, so to speak. A one-row Irish Melodeon (button accordion)  would be a typical example.

Whistles are naturally diatonic, unnaturally chromatic, so I like to refer to them as semi-diatonic, in my continuing quest to confuse things.

By the way, and this is important--the whistle's lack of natural ability to play accidentals in scales is not as handicapping as you might think. MUCH folk music, and MOST Irish music is diatonic! Hooray.

So, what's a D whistle? And a C whistle?

Well, a whistle is called a "D" whistle, for example, when the lowest note it can play (all holes covered) is a "D". It also means it can play the scale of D-major by the basic do-re-mi fingering. Like this:

(This is the basic fingering of all whistles. Don't be deceived by that tiny dot in the 2nd Ti. This is a notation to remind you that you CAN close the bottom hole to stabilize the whistle when you play the "all fingers off" note.)

So, the D whistle plays the Do-Re-Mi scale in the key of D major.

A C whistle, when fingered the same way, will play C major

A Bb whistle , Bb major. And so on. 

If you learn a tune on a D whistle and you finger the tune in D major, you can pick up a Bb whistle and finger the tune exactly the same way--it'll just come out in Bb-Major instead of D.

This basic and simplest of scales on the whistle we can call the 1st Major Key. Or you can call it the primary key if you want. Or you can call it "Binkie The Wonder Possum." It really doesn't matter.

 But, there's more......

Every whistle can also play in other keys, with varying degrees of difficulty. We'll focus here on what I call the 2nd Major key and the Basic Minor key.

The 2nd Major key begins with the note that you play by covering the top three holes only. This is G on a D whistle. It's F on a C whistle. There's a handy table below which will show you how these keys relate

The 2nd Major key is played like this:

 

Note the fingering of "fa." (Hey.  You know, "The Fingering of Fa" would be a good name for a CD).  This turns out to be an important note on the whistle. Some players, such as Mary Bergin and Cathal O'Connell, really prefer to finger it by half-holing the top hole. I tend to do whichever fits into the context of the tune, namely which fingerings surround that note. Oh never mind. Just try it both ways.

In this guide, we'll abbreviate this fingering OXX. It means a note you play with the top hole open and the next two covered. I should note here that, on many whistles, it sounds better to cover the next THREE holes. Try it.

Refer now to the 1st and 2nd columns of the table below and you'll see which 2nd Major scale can be played on the various keys of whistles.

 

1st Major Key (Key the whistle is named after)

2nd Major Key (scale begins with note played with top 3 holes covered and uses OXX note)

Basic Minor Key (scale begins with all holes covered but bottom hole, and fingers the 0XX note.)

F

Bb

Gm

Eb

Ab

Fm

E

A

F#m

D

G

Em

C

F

Dm

Bb

Eb

Cm

A

D

Bm

G

C

Am

 

The third column refers to the basic minor scale that the whistle can play. This scale begins with the next to the lowest note (all holes covered except the bottom hole) and then proceeds up the basic fingering. Use the OXX fingering rather than the "all holes off fingering" for that note about midway through the scale.

 

And now,

 

The Chiff & Fipple Tinwhistle Table

by Dale Wisely

 

This table is the (mostly) comprehensive guide to the available keys on the Tinwhistle.  It is my baby, and named Tinwhistle Table in honor of the original name of the Chiff & Fipple website.  

 

 Let’s review,  As you probably know by now, whistles are made in a number of “keys” which correspond the the scale that one plays with the most basic fingering, which is the first fingering appearing on the table below.  So, a “D” whistle produces a D-major scale with the standard fingering.  But, using the additional scale fingerings pictured down the first column, one sees that a D whistle can also play a G-major scale, an E-minor scale, and so on. Down the first column are the six most common scale fingerings—three major keys and three minor keys.  The actual musical scale produced by each of these fingerings depends on the “bell note” of the whistle.  The cycle of whistle keys begins with the standard D whistle and progresses through all the possible makes of whistles.  This covers high and low whistles.

 

Example of how to use this table:  Look at the first fingering.  This fingering produces the D major scale on a “D” whistle and the Eb major scale on an Eb whistle.  The second fingering produces the G major scale on a D whistle and an Ab major scale on an Eb whistle, etc.

 

Incidentally, I’ve included every possible “key” of whistle that can be made, based on your basic Western music.  Some of these (F#, Ab, E,  B, and C#) are actually relatively rare and only are made by custom whistle makers such as Colin Goldie, Bernard Overton, Phil Hardy, and Mike Burke.  The more standard keys (D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C) are all here as well.

 

NOTE:   The fingering chart uses half-hole fingering.  Remember that there are other ways of sounding these notes, in most cases.

 

 

Fingering

Whistle Keys (the bell note or lowest note sounded)

 

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

 

D

 

Eb

 

E

 

F

 

F#

 

G

 

Ab

 

A

 

Bb

 

B

 

C

 

C#

 

Major

G

 

Ab

 

A

 

Bb

 

B

 

C

 

C#

 

D

 

Eb

 

E

 

F

 

F#

 

Major

A

 

Bb

 

B

 

C

 

C#

 

D

 

Eb

 

E

 

F

 

F#

 

G

 

Ab

 

Major

E

 

F

 

F#

 

G

 

Ab

 

A

 

Bb

 

B

 

C

 

C#

 

D

 

Eb

 

Minor

A

 

Bb

 

B

 

C

 

C#

 

D

 

Eb

 

E

 

F

 

F#

 

G

 

Ab

 

Minor

B

 

C

 

C#

 

D

 

Eb

 

E

 

F

 

F#

 

G

 

Ab

 

A

 

Bb

 

Minor

 

 

Whistles listed by first major keys

High/Low Designation

Key

Comment

High

G

Generation makes one.  It’s a novelty, really.  I've heard (Summer 2000) that this has been discontinued by Generation.  No one else makes one, that I know of.

High

F#

Never seen one

High

F

Generation makes one, as does Jon Swayne, and Chris Abell.

High

E

Shaw, Glenn Schulz, Mike Burke.  Shaw is the only inexpensive one.

High

Eb

Standard key, just about everyone makes one

High

D

Standard

High

C#

Rarely made, Burke makes one

(High)

C

Standard

 

B

Rare—Burke makes one

 

Bb

Standard

(Low)

A

Sometimes designated “low” and sometimes not.  Has to be distinguished from the “really low” A (the A below Low D) made by both Overton craftsmen.  Useful key because of ease of playing D-major scale

(Low)

Ab

Rare

Low

G

Commonly made. Easy playing of C-major.

 

F#

Rare.  The only one I have was an accident.  It was supposed to be a G whistle.

Low

F

Low Fs are fairly common and are useful because they often have the timbre and resonance of the lower low whistles, but are easier to handle.  I think the Low F is a better low whistle for a beginner than the Low D.

Low

E

Fairly rare

Low

Eb

A favorite of mine. My Low Eb by Burke rocks out.

Low

D

Riverdance!  The King of the Lows

Low

C#

Brian Howard makes these.  I have one.

Low

C

Howard, Burke, Overton, Hardy

Low

B

These subwoofer monsters are made by Colin Goldie and Bernard Overton.  They require small teams of people to play.

Low

Bb

Really Low

A

 

 

 

 

If you want to explore the whistle keys further and learn about scales that can be played on a D whistle, I recommend Cathal O'Connell's tutorial with CD (Homespun Tapes). You can link to Homespun's site at www.chiffandfipple.com/links.html

 

--Dale Wisely with special thanks to Andrew De Witt, L.E. McCullough, and former Senator Bob Dole.