Keys, range, tones

Tin whistles are tuned diatonically. This means that the Tin whistle has been invented in such a way that the range of a given tuning can be played using only simple grips. To put it simply: if starting from C, we strike the white keys of the piano alone, we get the C major scale. If we have a tin whistle in C major, we can play the same notes on it that we could play on the white keys of the piano.

The lowest sound of the instrument indicates its tuning. The standard tin whistle tuning is D major, the lowest sound of these instruments of this tuning is D. Tin whistles can be played not only in the major scale but also in the parallel minor scale because both scales consist of the same sounds (they differ only in the first sound – the tonic). In the case of tin whistle in D major, the parallel minor scale is B minor.

Thanks to the simple grip, we can play not only the standard major seventh and the leading sound of the key, but also the minor seventh, which enables us to play in yet other keys. This means that on the tin whistle in D major you can easily play not only the C sharp sound but also the C sharp sound. In this way, we can also play the keys G major and E minor. C major and A minor can only be played partially – in fact only the f sound is missing. In any case, the C major and A minor chords alone can be played without any problems.

We have created a table with the most popular tunings, so you can tell which tones can be played on which instrument. Whoever is looking for a tin whistle for a piece in major should look primarily at the first and third columns. Those who want to play a piece in minor should look at the fourth column first because these minor keys are played most comfortably on tin whistles in major. Here is the table:

Tin whistleParallel minor keyMajor keysMinor keysDoric tonalityMixolydian key
CaC / Fd / gdg
DhD / Ge / aea
EcisE / Af / hfh
FdF / Hg / cgc
GeG / Ca / dad
AfisA/DB / EsBEs
BgB / Esh / ehe
HgisH / Ec / fcf

The Doric scale is one of the ecclesiastical scales which were widespread in the Middle Ages and which are not classified as either major or minor; however, depending on whether their third degree is a minor or a major third, these scales can have the character of a major or a minor key. The Doric tonality differs in one interval from the minor, namely at the secant – it is major and not minor as in the minor scale. So the sixth degree of the Doric scale is not “b”, but “h”. If you want to listen to a Doric key, you can listen to the piece Stella Splendens.

Mixolydian scales are characterized by a minor seventh which lies not a semitone but a whole tone below the tonic. An example of this is Scottish music played on bagpipes, in which the lowest tone does not quite match the usual scale. The best-known song from pop and rock music in which a Mixolydian scale is used is probably “Norwegian Wood” (the line “She once had me”) by The Beatles (in the verse “She once had me”). Another example might be the Irish song “She moved through the fair”.

Although the tin whistle is not a diatonic instrument, it can almost always be played chromatically, i.e. with all semitones. However, playing in non-standard keys requires partial covering of the finger holes and the use of pitchfork grips. The half-covering of the holes is difficult to master precisely, besides its sound is not pure.

It is much easier to play chromatically on the recorder. Tin whistle players usually do not strain themselves with the use of fork grips, but simply use the instrument in a different tuning. One of the advantages of tin whistle is that, regardless of the tuning, all the grips remain the same.

Some tin whistle makers offer instruments with interchangeable bodies and fixed heads, in addition, it is possible to purchase a set of variable bodies. Susato, for example, offers triple packs in the scales C, D, and Es, and B, C, and D.

The most important leading sound in the major scale is the seventh note. Unfortunately, the instrument lacks this sound below the main sound, which means it cannot be played from below. On most models, the only trick is to cover the finger hole at the bottom of the instrument with the little finger only halfway, while covering all the others completely.

(machine translated eglish version based on: