This guide applies to six-hole woodwind instruments such as the Irish tin whistle (penny whistle), low whistle, or Irish flute. It explains the basics of the whistle as an instrument and guides you through all of its scales and keys. Letter notes and fingering charts will also help understand how to read tin whistle tabs, which can be very useful for those unfamiliar with sheet music notation.
Scales in traditional Western music generally consist of seven notes and repeat at the octave. Notes in the commonly used scales (see just below) are separated by whole and half step intervals of tones and semitones. The harmonic minor scale includes a three-semitone step; the anhemitonic pentatonic includes two of those and no semitones.
Unlike some classical music instruments (i.e. clarinet or flute), a single tin whistle can play only one standard (diatonic) musical scale of seven notes. Actually, two scales, by using a special cross fingering for an additional note (you will read more about it soon). It means that you will need several different whistles to cover every song in its original key. Or if you are likely to play with a band, you probably need different whistle keys to match the other musicians and their instruments.
If you are just getting started, you probably want to follow the fingering guide and notes for a whistle in the key of D. It is the most common key and probably the very first whistle you should get as most tunes and songs are played in this key. At least in terms of Irish traditional music.
Regarding fingers position, you should cover the holes with three middle fingers of both hands. As a rule of thumb, your strong hand goes to the bottom and the other one on top. There is also a tutorial on this website thatexplainshow to hold a tin whistle correctly in more detail. You may want to check it out as well as other useful whistle lessons.
The tin whistle has two octaves (usually named lower and upper). And while the fingering is the same for both of them, you reach the upper octave just by blowing harder. There is an exception for the key (root) note itself, which is available in 3 octaves. So, on a D whistle, you have a note D in its third octave too.
The simple graphic below should help to avoid any confusion about reading all of the charts on this page and any other tin whistle notes guide that you may come across.
The dark circle represents the holes covered with your fingers. The light circle is for open holes. There are also uncommon cases where you may want to half-cover the hole for semitones. The plus sign means that the note is in the upper octave, the fingering is the same, but you blow harder to achieve it.
D is the most common key among both high whistles and low whistles.
You should have in mind that every whistle, regardless of its key, has another note that doesn’t naturally belong in the scale, but can be played too. This special note is usually referred to as the crossing note or the flat 7th. On a D whistle, this is note C, which is a note between B and C# (notes 6 and 7). That way, it means you can play another scale (key) on the same whistle. So, having a note C available on a D whistle, you can play both D and G scales.
Below is the fingering chart for the “special” C note. There are a couple of finger position alternatives, as the pitch of that note varies depending on the whistle, and also its lower/upper octave.
C is a very common whistle key for an Irish whistle, but there are a couple of brands that offer a low C whistle too. By using a special note B flat (Bb) on a C whistle, you can also play the F scale.
Whistle in the key of A is a medium-sized, somewhere between a high and a low whistle, sometimes it’s called Alto A whistle. By using special fingering for the note G on an A whistle, you can play D scale too.
Bb whistle is also a common tin whistle key, offered by many manufacturers. By using special fingering for the note G#, playing Eb scale is possible.
Whistles in the key of B are rare and not available among most of the whistle makers. The special fingering can be used for the note A, providing a way to play E scale.
Whistle in the key of C# is also very rare and not a standard one. By using special fingering for the note B, you can play F# scale.
Whistle in the key of E flat (Eb) is a many players’ choice. And that applies to both high and low whistles. Its specific pitch usually provides a slightly more sharp and crispier tone than a regular D whistle by the same brand. By using special fingering for the note C#, you get Ab scale available fro playing too.
E whistle is usually a low whistle. However, some brands offer high E whistles as well. By playing a special note D, you have A scale playable too.
F whistle is more often found as a low whistle, but sometimes it is available as a high whistle too. Special fingering can be used for the note D#/Eb which provides a possibility to play Bb scale.
An F sharp whistle is rare to find. However, there are a couple of brands that offer them. Special fingering note is note E which provides a possibility to play B scale too.
G whistles are more used as low (alto) whistles. By playing a special fingering note F, you get C scale available with it too.
A very rare key of Ab (or G#). Not available as a high whistle at all. By playing special fingering for the note F#, the scale C# is available too.
Feel free to download our full tin whistle matrix chart, including all keys and letter notes in one place.