I’ve been playing the pennywhistle for a number of years, and I started teaching one of my housemates to play this semester, so I decided to do some research on the origins of this instrument, which is common in Irish folk music.
The modern pennywhistle is typically made up of a brass tube with six holes and a plastic mouthpiece, although it can be all metal or all plastic, as well. It plays only two major scales. The most common whistle plays in the keys of D and G. It is known as a D whistle, because the lowest note is a D. There are also whistles made in other pitches, such as A, G, C, or a lower D. However, most traditional Irish music is in the keys of D and G, so these are not frequently played.
Robin Williamson’s The Pennywhistle Book tells us that “the whistle was first used in magic rituals; forbidden by the Medieval Church as being irresistible to women, it gave birth in later years to the flageolet and recorder…But the humble pennywhistle has proved immune to changing fashions”.
However, my research reveals that the pennywhistle, whose ancestors probably originated in China around 5,000 years ago and appeared in the Celtic world around the 1200’s, comes from the six-holed, wooden flageolet. In the late 1700’s, the flageolet began to be produced from tin plate, which was cheaper than wood and hence more accessible to a greater number of people. This new instrument had a wooden or lead plug at the end of the tube to create a mouthpiece. Supposedly, one could buy it for a penny, which is where the name came from.
At this point, the tube of the whistle was wider at the top and became narrower at the end. In the 1950’s, the plastic mouthpiece was invented, and this allowed the metal tube to be straight, as it is in most whistles today. Some modern whistles, such as the Clarke brand, are still made with a tapered tube and a wooden plug at the top for a mouthpiece.
If reading this post has inspired you to learn to play the pennywhistle, I would suggest buying a standard D whistle of the Oak brand, which costs about $10. There are several cheap brands of whistles, but in my opinion Oak whistles have the best sound.
Here is a link to somebody playing a couple Irish tunes on the pennywhistle: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5h9bsUGpAT8
The pennywhistle is also used in music outside the Celtic nations, including South African Kwela, heard here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAIzxeTQcHM