A whistle is a musical instrument that makes a high-pitched sound when air is passed through a small opening or a narrow passage. Today, whistles are used by police officers, sports referees, lifeguards, leaders, campers, and all those people that may need to attract attention. It is a great tool for your survival.
In emergency situations, whistles come in handy as you can make a loud sound to alert others over a great distance. In a matter of seconds, a fun outdoor trip can turn into a life-threatening one. If you find yourself in a situation where you get lost, abandoned, or injured, you can always signal the need for help via a whistle. Natural disasters can occur at any time and anywhere; in case of a flood or an earthquake, you can let others know that you need help by whistling.
It is interesting to note that this survival tool has been in use for thousands of years. People have been using whistles for practical, spiritual, and entertainment purposes. The earliest form of the whistle was made of wood or bone and was used by the Ancient Greeks to maintain the strokes of galley slaves. The first time the English used whistles were during the Crusades – religious wars in medieval times. At that time, it was used for assembling English crossbowmen on a ship for an attack. Whistles were also used in the age of sail (1571 – 1862) to run their commands and salute their foreign dignitaries.
The contemporary model of whistles is produced by the Acme Whistle Company of Birmingham, England. However, the oldest model was created by the company’s owner, Joseph Hudson, in 1868. In the modern era, the use of whistles started around 1878, when a referee first blew a whistle during a sports event. Hudson – a competent toolmaker – had always been captivated by the sound of whistles, which led him to make a fashionable brass device. This tool was then used in a match at the Nottingham Forest Soccer Club. The whistles he constructed proved to be way better for signaling than the usual referee’s signal (waving of a white handkerchief).
The practicality and popularity of whistles reached the police force in 1883 when the London police made an announcement that they would be using a whistle instead of a hand rattle. For them, Hudson manufactured a compact whistle that could easily be heard from miles away. The design was soon adopted by others and has been in use in a similar design since then.
Over time, many types of whistles have come about for different uses and purposes. In this article, we have gathered all the types of whistles that you should know about, especially if you are interested in expanding your knowledge about whistles.
Table of Contents
Common Types of Whistles
Prior to the use of police whistles, police officers heavily relied on their lungs or wooden rattles to raise alarm or bring attention to themselves. Although these rattles were bulky, they were designed in such a way that they could fit into the specifically-made pocket of a police officer’s uniform. Note that rattles remained in use from the 1600s to the 19th century.
However, at the end of the 19th century, around the 1880s, experiments were performed in London to find a better substitute for rattles. That was because rattles were super heavy, and while they fit into a police uniform, their bulk meant that they took up a lot of space. Since rattles were made of wood, a major downside was that they could get cracked or chipped; especially when used with a lot of force. Another problem with the use of rattles was that they did not produce effective sounds that could cover long distances.
Eventually, it was found out that in a few cities, such as Liverpool, whistles were being used. It was also discovered that the sound of these whistles could reach up to 1000 yards (900 meters). Different forces in different parts of Britain were using variants of whistles. Around the 1970s, it was decided that if the police force would be using whistles for alarm, then only one type of whistle – a whistle that everybody could recognize as a police whistle – should be used in Britain and the rest of the world. In 1884, Joseph Hudson invented the London police whistle.
In the early days, constables and sergeants used grey/silver metal pea whistles that featured a huge ring on top and a faux cork on the inside. Owing to their loud and authoritative shriek that could be heard from miles away, the police whistle became the classic sound of an alarm. These whistles became an essential feature of a police uniform. It could be tucked inside a jacket or draped down the front of the uniform; either way, it was easier to use and carry around.
Also known as Galton’s whistle or silent whistle, dog whistles are a type of whistle that is used for training cats and dogs. These whistles produce ultrasonic sound waves that are heard only by animals. Since animals have an acute hearing ability, they can easily hear the sound produced by these whistles that are otherwise inaudible to humans. Typically, dog-whistle sounds are produced within the range of 16000 Hertz to 22000 Hertz.
Dog whistles were invented by Francis Galton during a time when it was discovered that different animals have a different hearing range. Several studies were conducted, and eventually, it was revealed that dogs can hear sounds above and below the sound range of humans. Soon after, Galton began conducting tests on various hearing frequencies and abilities. He first tested the whistle on humans by creating a small brass tube with a slider that could be used to change the frequency range. This led him to try this experiment on animals as well.
Dog whistles are commonly used by dog owners, trainers, and vets to issue commands to dogs. These tools are best used for training puppies and dogs that are unable to understand hand gestures and verbal commands. With the help of dog training whistles, puppies and dogs can be taught different kinds of stunts and tricks. This can be done by teaching them different responses through different sounds.
For example, if you want your dog to run, walk, sit, or simply lie down, you can allot different sounds for different actions. Your task will be to train your dog so that it can associate a particular action with a specific sound and perform it. Dog whistles can be exceedingly useful in scenarios when your dog finds it hard to respond to your hand or verbal signals.
Originally referred to as a steam trumpet, a train whistle or an air whistle is a loud signaling device on top of a steam locomotive. The main purpose of a train whistle is to alert everyone to an approaching train. Another use of train whistles is to communicate with rail workers. Today, electric locomotive and modern diesel use an air horn as a warning device. That being said, the word “whistle” continues to be used today by railroaders to signal that a train is on its way.
Railway whistles have been in use since 1833. It is believed that George Stephenson was behind the invention of a steam trumpet for the Leicester and Swannington Railway. According to an account, after an accident where a train had hit a cart or a herd of cows on a level crossing, Stephenson called for a meeting of directors, where his manager – Ashlin Bagster – suggested putting a horn or whistle on the locomotive. Later, Stephenson visited a musical instrument manufacturer on Duke Street in Leicester, who created a “steam trumpet” according to the instructions of the civil engineer.
The importance of a train whistle is undeniable. That’s because a train moves on a fixed rail without stopping. Unlike cars, a train can’t be stopped immediately by using brakes. Owing to trains’ heavyweight and enormous inertia, it is almost impossible to stop the train on short notice to avoid colliding with an obstacle. Hence, there needed to be a warning sign to caution others – to let people know that a train was approaching from a far distance. Luckily, train whistles are affordable as compared to other warning whistles, which is one of the reasons why they are considered as the preferred warning tools.
The following are some common train whistles used in railway stations in different parts of the world.
Plain whistles refer to an inverted, cup-shaped whistle, mounted on top of the steam engine. In Europe, these whistles were exceedingly loud and shrill. However, in the UK, these whistles had varying tones to convey different signals. In Finland, plain whistles were used on every railroad engine that had two single-note whistles – one was high-pitched while the other one was of a lower-pitch. Both of them were used for different needs and purposes.
Chime whistles comprise of two or more bells that produce sound simultaneously. These were the types of whistles that were found on American railway steam locomotives. In 1924, the New South Wales Government Railways had about 5 chimes whistles fitted on their trains.
Popularly known as the football referee’s whistle, the importance of this whistle is often overlooked. If it wasn’t for a referee whistle, sports like soccer, basketball, and football would not have been able to create match highlights and events of interest.
A whistle is an indication of highly-important information that decides the fate of the match. For example, a referee blows a whistle to stop a soccer match if there is a free kick or if the ball goes out of play. However, that’s not the only time when a referee has to use this whistle. Many important signals are communicated via referee whistles such as the beginning, restarting, or ending of the match.
It is widely believed that William Atack – a referee from New Zealand – was the first referee to use a whistle to stop a rugby match in 1884. Prior to this, referees relied on their voices and handkerchiefs to give their instructions.
Although you can find a wide range of referee whistles on the market, the most popular one is the classic Fox 40 whistle. They were first introduced to the public in 1987 are used worldwide until today. These whistles have an ultra-shrill tone that can easily be heard by every player on the ground. These classic whistles are often the first choice of professional referees, referees high schools and colleges, and referees in international sports.
Also referred to as steam whistles, factory whistles are devices used to emit sound with the help of live steam. The purpose of steam whistles in factories is to indicate the beginning and end of a shift. Besides being used in factories, these whistles are used in places like steamships, railway locomotives, etc. The most common type of factory whistles is a “gong” that has two whistles mounted on a common axis. Some of these gongs comprise of three whistle chimes.
Factory whistles consist of three main parts – the whistle bell, the steam aperture, and the valve. The lever is pulled, with the help of a pull cord, which opens up the valve and lets out the steam. This steam goes through the orifice, compressing and expanding alternatively and producing a classical shrill sound. The pitch of the whistle is dependent on how wide the valve is opened. The wider the valve is, the shriller the sound.
Other Types of Whistles
Up till now, we have talked about common whistle devices that can be used for whistling. Whistling is also a learned skill that can be acquired through some practice. In some parts of the world, such as Northern Turkey, whistling is the native language of people. Instead of using words for communication, the inhabitants of the town whistle just like bird calls. In a way, whistling can be referred to as an accomplished technique that people can master with practice.
There are many techniques that you can employ to make a particular whistling sound. Some of the popular techniques are mentioned in detail below:
Pucker whistling is a dying art, once considered to be a staple in Western music. In this type of whistling, the tip of the tongue is lowered and placed behind the lower teeth. Then the air is sucked and expelled through O-shaped lips. This creates turbulence, which, in turn, produces a distinctive sound (whistling).
Producing a successful whistle is dependent upon the amount of air you exhale. It is crucial to blow just the right amount of air through your lips. Remember – blow very gently. Blowing hard may create no sound.
Also known as wolf-whistling, finger whistling is a whistling method that requires inserting your fingers into the mouth. A lot of force is needed to produce this form of whistling. Since it produces a loud sound, it can easily catch someone’s attention in an instant.
Finger whistling can be done in two popular ways. In the first method, you are required to place your index finger and thumb into the mouth to create a shrill whistle. In the second method, you will need to place two index fingers and middle fingers of both hands and blow through them.
A word of advice is to take breaks between blows when you are just a beginner. This form of whistling needs strength, so if you keep blowing, you may hyperventilate or feel dizzy.
This type of whistling requires cupping of hands together and blowing air through it. Hand whistling employs the chamber in your palms to elevate your breath and create a loud sound. Before you place your cupped hands on the top of your mouth, make sure to purse your lips in an “O” shape.
In hand whistling, you can also change the frequency and sound of the whistle. All you have to do is blow harder to increase the pitch and try moving fingers of your right hand to change the note. Keep in mind that the sound is made louder only when the hands are tightly shut.
Whistling through your teeth is probably the most difficult type of whistling. Hence, it needs a lot of practice to become perfect at it.
In teeth whistling, you will need to extend your lower jaw a little. Then you will have to pull back the corners of your mouth slightly — no need to show your lower teeth. However, you can expose your upper teeth. Draw back the tongue so that it is the same level as your lower teeth. Suck in the air deeply and blow air through the space between your teeth and tongue.
Keep at it until a loud and clear sound is produced. If you are not able to blow any sound, don’t be disheartened, as this form of whistling is tricky. But there is nothing that you can’t master without practicing, so practice until you become perfect.
Also known as palate whistling, roof whistling is produced through the use of the tongue and roof of the mouth. The air is pushed between the mouth of the roof and tongue, which produces the noise.
If done correctly, this form of whistling can be a fun activity. It will also help create a high-pitched sound that will grab anyone’s attention nearby.
The versatility of whistles can’t be denied. Different whistles can be employed for varied purposes. Whether it is for signaling trouble, warning someone, or training a dog for herding or hunting, whistles for each of these purposes (or more) are easily available on the market. On the other hand, whistling through the hands, mouth, fingers, or teeth can be a really fun activity. If whistling is done like a pro, you can create beautiful melodies that can be soothing to one’s ear. Some of these whistles also produce forceful sounds that can draw someone’s attention right away.