Tin whistles and Irish flutes are both used in Irish folk music. You play them similarly, and if you’ve mastered one, you can usually pick up the other easily.
The Irish flute and the tin whistle do have some differences; the way you hold them, the required embouchure, and the tone of the music they make.
Picture yourself in Ireland.
Maybe your mind takes you to the grand, imposing Cliffs of Moher. Or maybe you’re watching sheep graze in rolling green hills. Perhaps you imagine a busy street corner in Dublin.
The soundtrack for all these musings is usually the same: the lilting, jubilant music of Irish wind instruments. Absolutely beautiful!
Whether you’re an instrumentalist with interest in playing Irish music, or someone like me who loves to listen but can’t play music myself to save my life, it can be fun to take a closer look at the mechanics of these instruments. Let’s dive in!
Holding the Instrument Properly
When you play a tin whistle, you hold it directly out in front of you. Tin whistles come in different keys. A letter like D or C will usually be printed on the whistle, indicating its key.
Related: Best Low D Whistles
Regardless of the key you choose, though, you will hold it straight out from your body.
If you’re playing a tin whistle properly, your left hand will generally be above your right.
When you play an Irish flute, you hold it out your right side, with your right hand reaching out farther and your left hand wrapped around the front and closer to your face.
I’m left-handed, so I’ve always wondered how this would impact me if I ever decided to play. While left-handed flutes do exist, they’re very expensive and hard to find.
Most left-handed Irish flute players use a traditional right-handed flute, but adjust their hand positioning for comfort.
Both the tin whistle and the Irish flute have six holes, which you can cover with three fingers from each hand. Each combination of covered and uncovered holes makes a different note.
Embouchure is a fancy word (derived from French) that refers to your mouth positioning when you play an instrument. With practice, your mouth muscles develop and your embouchure improves — who knew?
Have you ever blown air over the rim of a glass bottle to make a sound?
This trick was one of my favorite ways to impress my friends in elementary school. I had no idea that I was practicing a skill I could use to learn to play an Irish flute.
When you play an Irish flute, you create the sound by blowing across the mouthpiece.
With a tin whistle, on the other hand, you put the very tip of the mouthpiece into your mouth, sealing it with your upper lip. Then, you blow air gently through the whistle.
Differences in Tonality
While the music made by a tin whistle and an Irish flute may sound quite similar to an untrained ear, there is a difference between the tones that you’ll notice more and more as you listen closely.
If you’re interested in training your ear to better recognize the difference in tones between these two instruments, it’s a great idea to listen to traditional Irish songs. They’re easy to find online.
If you want to test yourself with an example of these instruments in popular music, listen to Ed Sheeran’s hit track “Galway Girl.” It features both a tin whistle and an Irish flute. See if you can tell them apart!
But what if you’re a musician playing these instruments?
Because of the embouchure, many musicians who have experimented with these instruments comment that they feel they have more control over the sounds they make when they play the Irish flute as opposed to the tin whistle.
I’ve also heard, though, that it’s a bit harder to master the Irish flute because it takes a while to learn how to blow the air across the mouthpiece just right for the sound you want to accomplish.
If you can overcome this challenge, you’ll have more control over the volume and quality of your music than you would with a tin whistle. Irish flutes also tend to be more widely accepted in the music world.
A Beautiful Tradition
Whether you’re learning to play these Irish instruments or you’re simply appreciating them through your headphones, you’re taking part in a beautiful, centuries-old tradition.
Irish and Celtic music originated as a form of storytelling and community-building long before modern technology made it accessible to the rest of the world. It stands as a respected homage to Ireland’s history and culture.
Any time you play or listen to an Irish flute or a tin whistle, you’re taking part in something much greater than a single song.