irish flute penny whistle differences

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What is the difference between an Irish flute and a tin whistle?

Often, when people think of Irish flute, they think about another instrument. The Irish flute usually refers to 2 types of flutes: the Irish wooden flute and the tin whistle. What is the difference between an Irish flute and a tin whistle?

The tin whistle, people’s Irish flute

Irish music is and has always been a popular music, in the noble sense: the music belongs to the people, and back in the days, most people were living off the farm and not willing to spend much on what was then considered a “simple” instrument.

The tin whistle, which is bearing several names (penny whistle, Irish whistle), is what most people refer to when they mention the Irish flute: a small recorder-type flute, made of a fipple (the whistle that makes the sound), and the chiff, usually bearing 6 holes.

irish penny tin whistle
The irish penny whistle

The penny whistle has many benefits :

  • It’s very cheap (back in the days, most people were crafting their own whistle out of old pipes, although those offered very personal tunings). You can get one from $/€15 up to a few hundred dollars.
  • It’s quite easy to find in any music store
  • It’s durable and can stand the assaults of your dog, or the beating sun on your car.
  • It’s light, meaning you can drop it in a pocket and walk to your closest session.
  • It’s powerful and can be easily heard in a session.
  • It’s quite intuitive and easy to pick up (although like any instrument, it takes years to truly master).

This instrument can be as pleasant as it can become a massive destruction weapon in the wrong hands (yes, it goes up the third octave). If you want to learn the Irish tin whistle, we recommend listening to some of the great tin whistle players, for instance (and not limited to):

  • Micho Russel, one of the great masters of tin whistle (see here)
  • Mary Bergin, who also happens to play baroque music (see here)
  • Brian Finnegan, for something more modern (see here)
Brian Finnegan, one of the “modern” tin whistle players.

The “wooden” Irish flute

The “true” irish flute per say is another instrument : the wooden transverse flute, played by the greats like Matt Molloy, Kevin Crawford, Josie McDermot etc.

The wooden Irish flute can be keyless or keyed (usually 6 or 8 keys), and is the ancestor of what we know as the metal concert flute played by orchestras.

Matt Molloy, one of the greatest player of Irish flute

Back to our story: remember that 100 years ago, most people in Ireland were living off farming and could not always afford a more expensive instrument. In the early 1900s, the Boehm flute (or concert flute as we know it) starts to emerge. It shows superior acoustic characteristics, and all the classic flute players sell their old wooden flute for nothing in order to move to the new metal flutes. That’s how the wooden flute starts spreading in Irish music sessions.

The Irish flute, although sharing some of the whistle foundations, is a completely different instrument, with a subtle, richer tone, but a much steeper learning curve (see our article on how hard it is to learn the Irish flute).

What are the differences ?

Here’s a quick summary showing the main differences between the penny whistle and the Irish flute:

Tin whistleIrish flute
EasinessEasyHard
SoundPowerfulRich tone
Pricefrom €15 to €300from €500 to €10,000
PossibilitiesReducedBroad

Which instrument is for me?

So, are you wondering whether you should start the tin whistle or the Irish flute? In the end, the choice comes down to your own preference. Here’s our piece of advice from our own experience.

Start with the whistle: it’s cheap, easy to start, and it gets you into the world of Irish music. You’ll learn several new tunes, and improve your musical ear (yes, learning by ear is the best way to learn Irish music).

However, if you’re attracted towards the wooden flute, then go for it! The price tag can be a little scary at first, but you’ll be able to sell your flute easily if you finally decide it’s not for you. Don’t be afraid by the instrument, it does take a while to get used to the instrument, but after a year practicing, you’ll start to really have fun. So keep at it!

Still have questions?

Feel free to join the conversation in the comments below, we’re happy to share with our community and help you decide whether you want