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A party whistle. Party whistle on radio.jpg
A party whistle.
A metal pea whistle. Pea Whistle.jpg
A metal pea whistle.

A whistle is an instrument which produces sound from a stream of gas, most commonly air. It may be mouth-operated, or powered by air pressure, steam, or other means. Whistles vary in size from a small slide whistle or nose flute type to a large multi-piped church organ.


Whistles have been around since early humans first carved out a gourd or branch and found they could make sound with it. In prehistoric Egypt, small shells were used as whistles. [1] Many present day wind instruments are inheritors of these early whistles. With the rise of more mechanical power, other forms of whistles have been developed.

One characteristic of a whistle is that it creates a pure, or nearly pure, tone. The conversion of flow energy to sound comes from an interaction between a solid material and a fluid stream. The forces in some whistles are sufficient to set the solid material in motion. Classic examples are Aeolian tones that result in galloping power lines, or the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (the so-called "Galloping Gertie" of popular media). Other examples are circular disks set into vibration. [2]

Depending on the geometry, there are two basic types of whistles: those that generate sound through oscillations of fluid mass flow, and those that generate sound through oscillations of the force applied to the surrounding medium.


Early whistles

Carved whalebone whistle dated 1821. 8 cm long. Carved whalebone whistle dated 1821. London. 8 cm long.jpg
Carved whalebone whistle dated 1821. 8 cm long.
Quillacinga clay whistle, circa 1250 - 1500 AD, at the Museum of Texas Tech University. Quillacinga clay whistle.jpg
Quillacinga clay whistle, circa 1250 - 1500 AD, at the Museum of Texas Tech University.

Whistles made of bone or wood have been used for thousands of years.

Whistles were used by the Ancient Greeks to keep the stroke of galley slaves. The English used whistles during the Crusades to signal orders to archers. Boatswain pipes were also used in the age of sail aboard naval vessels to issue commands and salute dignitaries. [3]

Joseph Hudson

Joseph Hudson set up J Hudson & Co in Birmingham, UK in 1870. With his younger brother James, he designed the 'Acme City' brass whistle. This became the first referee whistle used at association football matches during the 1878–79 Football Association Cup match between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield. Prior to the introduction of the whistle, handkerchiefs were used by the umpires to signal to the players. [4]

A police whistle being blown

In 1883 he began experimenting with pea-whistle designs that could produce an intense sound that could grab attention from over a mile away. His invention was discovered by accident, when he accidentally dropped his violin and it shattered on the floor. Observing how the discordant sound of the breaking strings travelled (trill effect), Hudson had the idea to put a pea in the whistle. [4] Prior to this, whistles were much quieter, and were only thought of as musical instruments or toys for children. After observing the problems that local police were having with effectively communicating with rattles, [5] [6] he realised that his whistle designs could be used as an effective aid to their work. [7]

Hudson demonstrated his whistle to Scotland Yard and was awarded his first contract in 1884. Both Ratchet rattles and whistles were used to call for back-up in areas where neighbourhood beats overlapped, and following their success in London, the whistle was adopted by most police in the United Kingdom (UK).

This police whistle monopoly gradually made Hudson the largest whistle manufacturer in the world, supplying police forces and other general services everywhere. His whistle is still used by many forces worldwide. His design, was improved as the 'Acme Thunderer', the first ever pea whistle, which remains the most used whistle in the world; for train guards, dog handlers and police officers. From the 1880s and 1890s, J. Hudson & Co began facing greater competition, as other whistle manufacturing companies were established, including W. Dowler & Sons, J. Barrall, R. A. Walton, H. A. Ward and A. De Courcy & Co. In 1987, Ron Foxcroft released the Fox 40 pealess whistle, designed to replace the pea whistle and be more reliable.

Typical sources and uses

Human whistling unaided by any instrument can be used for musical recreation or as a whistled language for communication over distances too great for articulate speech, among many other purposes. Musical instruments include the nose whistle or nose flute, the tin whistle and the slide whistle. Since a whistle produces a loud sound that carries over a great distance, whistles are useful for signalling. On ships, the boatswain's call is used to alert members of the crew. A dog whistle can be used to train a dog for hunting, herding, or other occupations. Industrial plants often use a steam whistle to signal shift changes or to give alarms of emergencies; steam locomotives were equipped with train whistles for warning and signalling. A small-scaled steam whistle is found on a whistling kettle, to alert the user that the water is boiling. Storage tanks may be equipped with a whistle vent which sounds continually as the tank is being filled; when the tank level covers the vent pipe, the whistle stops and the tank is full.

They also occur as accidental byproducts of fluid flow such as supersonic jets, cavity resonances, whistling telephone wires, and idling circular saws.

See also

Related Research Articles

Pipe may refer to:

Percussion instrument Type of musical instrument that produces a sound by being hit

A percussion instrument is a musical instrument that is sounded by being struck or scraped by a beater including attached or enclosed beaters or rattles struck, scraped or rubbed by hand or struck against another similar instrument. Excluding zoomusicological instruments and the human voice, the percussion family is believed to include the oldest musical instruments.

Hornbostel–Sachs or Sachs–Hornbostel is a system of musical instrument classification devised by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, and first published in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1914. An English translation was published in the Galpin Society Journal in 1961. It is the most widely used system for classifying musical instruments by ethnomusicologists and organologists. The system was updated in 2011 as part of the work of the Musical Instrument Museums Online (MIMO) Project.


An aerophone is a musical instrument that produces sound primarily by causing a body of air to vibrate, without the use of strings or membranes, and without the vibration of the instrument itself adding considerably to the sound.

Nose flute

The nose flute is a popular musical instrument played in Polynesia and the Pacific Rim countries. Other versions are found in Africa.


A fipple is a constricted mouthpiece common to many end-blown flutes, such as the tin whistle and the recorder. These instruments are known as fipple flutes and are indicated by the code 421.2 in the Hornbostel–Sachs classification.

Ratchet (instrument)

A ratchet, rattle or noisemaker is a musical instrument of the percussion family. It operates on the principle of the ratchet device, using a gearwheel and a stiff board mounted on a handle, which rotates freely. Variants include the gragger or grogger used in Judaism, the raganella, the football rattle and the policeman's rattle.

Siren (alarm)

A siren is a loud noise-making device. Civil defense sirens are mounted in fixed locations and used to warn of natural disasters or attacks. Sirens are used on emergency service vehicles such as ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks. There are two general types: pneumatic and electronic.

Steam whistle Audible warning device powered by steam

A steam whistle is a device used to produce sound with the aid of live steam, which acts as a vibrating system.

The Acme siren is a musical instrument used in concert bands for comic effect. Often used in cartoons, it produces the stylized sound of a police siren. It is one of the few aerophones in the percussion section of an orchestra.

Maya music

The music of the ancient Mayan courts is described through native and Spanish 16th-century texts and is depicted in the art of the Classic Period. The Maya played instruments such as trumpets, flutes, whistles, and drums, and used music to accompany funerals, celebrations, and other rituals. Although no written music has survived, archaeologists have excavated musical instruments and painted and carved depictions of the ancient Maya that show how music was a complex element of societal and religious structure. Most of the music itself disappeared after the dissolution of the Maya courts following the Spanish Conquest. Some Mayan music has prevailed, however, and has been fused with Spanish influences.

Train horn

A train horn is a loud, powerful air horn that serves as an audible warning device on electric and diesel locomotives, electric or diesel power cars, and in electric and diesel multiple units. The horn's primary purpose is to alert persons and animals to an oncoming train, especially when approaching a level crossing. The horn is also used for acknowledging signals given by railroad employees, such as during switching operations.

Hydraulophone Hydraulic musical instrument

A hydraulophone is a tonal acoustic musical instrument played by direct physical contact with water where sound is generated or affected hydraulically. The hydraulophone was described and named by Steve Mann in 2005, and patented in 2011. Typically, sound is produced by the same hydraulic fluid in contact with the player's fingers. It has been used as a sensory exploration device for low-vision individuals.

Joseph Hudson (1848–1930) was an inventor in Birmingham, England during the late 19th century and the founder of J Hudson & Co in 1870, later to become the world largest whistle manufacturer.

Nose whistle

A nose whistle is a wind instrument played with the nose and mouth cavity. Often made of wood, they are also constructed with plastic, clay, or sheet metal.

J Hudson & Co

J Hudson & Co was founded in the 1870s in Birmingham by Joseph Hudson (1848–1930) and his brother James Hudson (1850–1889). The company became a manufacturer of whistles and continues as Acme Whistles. Acme is the world's largest and most famous producer of whistles. They are headquartered in the Jewellery Quarter district of Birmingham, England.

Wind instrument Class of musical instruments with air resonator

A wind instrument is a musical instrument that contains some type of resonator in which a column of air is set into vibration by the player blowing into a mouthpiece set at or near the end of the resonator. The pitch of the vibration is determined by the length of the tube and by manual modifications of the effective length of the vibrating column of air. In the case of some wind instruments, sound is produced by blowing through a reed; others require buzzing into a metal mouthpiece, while yet others require the player to blow into a hole at an edge, which splits the air column and creates the sound.

Musical instrument Device created or adapted to make musical sounds

A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can be considered a musical instrument—it is through purpose that the object becomes a musical instrument. A person who plays a musical instrument is known as an instrumentalist. The history of musical instruments dates to the beginnings of human culture. Early musical instruments may have been used for ritual, such as a horn to signal success on the hunt, or a drum in a religious ceremony. Cultures eventually developed composition and performance of melodies for entertainment. Musical instruments evolved in step with changing applications and technologies.

Vessel flute Vessel-shaped flute

A vessel flute is a type of flute with a body which acts as a Helmholtz resonator. The body is vessel-shaped, not tube- or cone-shaped.

A whistle is a device that makes sound from blowing air. The physical theory of the sound-making process is an example of the application of the science of fluid dynamics. Knowledge of the geometry, dimensions and fluid properties can allow prediction of the properties of the whistle. The principles relevant to whistle operation also have applications in other areas such as fluid flow measurement.


  1. Arroyos, Rafael Pérez (2003). Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids (1st ed.). Madrid: Centro de Estudios Egipcios. p. 28. ISBN   978-8493279615.
  2. Chanaud, Robert C. (1970). "Observations of Oscillatory Radial Flow between a Fixed Disk and a Free Disk". The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 47 (5B): 1471–2. doi:10.1121/1.1912065.
  3. "Whistle". How Products are Made. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  4. 1 2 "History of the Whistle". Gdfra.org.au. Retrieved 12 January 2021.
  5. Cross, David (2011-02-17). "On the Beat in Birmingham - Rules and regulations". BBC. Retrieved 11 March 2014. Police whistles came much later; the early Victorian constable would have carried a small wooden rattle.
  6. Taylor, J. "The Victorian Police Rattle Mystery" The Constabulary (2003) Archived February 18, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  7. "The First Whistle". Acmewhistles.co.uk. Retrieved 12 January 2021.