Instruments | Whistles | Woodwind

Whistles, or duct flutes, have a device to channel the player’s breath, so a narrow air stream hits a sharpened edge, causing the necessary turbulence to vibrate the air column without the player using any special embouchure.

Usually this duct is created by inserting a block, known as a fipple, into the end of the tube, with one side shaved. This allows a narrow air stream that emerges into a usually rectangular or ‘D’-shaped window cut in the tube to hit the sharpened tone-producing edge on its far side.

No-Holed Whistles

It is possible to make a whistle by sliding the bark off a sappy willow stick, cutting a notch in the bark tube, and reinserting a short length of the stick with one side shaved as a fipple to direct air at the notch. Blowing progressively harder produces an ascending series of harmonics. Alternately opening and partially closing the lower end with a finger allows the gaps between those harmonics to be bridged by intermediate whole steps and half steps.

No-holed whistles like this, and less ephemeral ones of wood or other more robust material, have been made for millennia, often as a pastime by animal herders. In Norway, for example, this type of whistle is known as a seljefløyte, in Sweden a sälgpipa (both meaning ‘sallow flute’), elsewhere vilepill (Estonia), svilpas (Lithuania), koncovka (Slovakia), tilinca (Romania), and among the Hutsuls of the Carpathians, tylynka or telenka.

Instrument Sizes

Drilling finger holes in the tube produces an instrument that can play in a range of modes and keys. Generally no attempt is made to make a single instrument cope with all possible key signatures (though it is possible – the recorder is one such). A six-hole whistle, for example, copes easily with complete diatonic scales in two keys, plus their related minors; for others, the player simply swaps to a different-sized whistle. Thus the well-known European tin whistle (not necessarily made of tin) much used in ‘Celtic’ music comes in a range of sizes down to the C or D of the low whistle.

External Ducts

While tin whistles and recorders have a beak-shaped mouthpiece, many of the world’s duct flutes are flat-ended. In some, such as the Javanese suling, rather than the breath passing inside the tube to the tone-edge, it is channelled via a short external duct formed by tying a loop of palm-leaf, bamboo or other material around the tube just above the rectangular edge-aperture.

In another external-duct flute, the Native American courting flute, the air passes out of a hole into an external duct formed by a small piece of wood tied to the flute body, which directs it against the edge of a second aperture.

Many duct flutes have the edge-window on the back. If it is sufficiently near the top, this makes it possible to affect the air stream with the lower lip or chin. This creates a breathier tone,...

To read the full article please either login or register .

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


An extensive music information resource, bringing together the talents and expertise of a wide range of editors and musicologists, including Stanley Sadie, Charles Wilson, Paul Du Noyer, Tony Byworth, Bob Allen, Howard Mandel, Cliff Douse, William Schafer, John Wilson...


Classical, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country and more. Flame Tree has been making encyclopaedias and guides about music for over 20 years. Now Flame Tree Pro brings together a huge canon of carefully curated information on genres, styles, artists and instruments. It's a perfect tool for study, and entertaining too, a great companion to our music books.

Rock, A Life Story

Rock, A Life Story

The ultimate story of a life of rock music, from the 1950s to the present day.

David Bowie

David Bowie

Fantastic new, unofficial biography covers his life, music, art and movies, with a sweep of incredible photographs.