The final whistle blows

Previously, we discussed screams, applause, bouncing and pouring water. Continuing our examination of every day sounds, we bring you… the whistle.

This one is a little challenging though. To name just a few, there are pea whistles, tin whistles, steam whistles, dog whistles and of course, human whistling. Covering all of this is a lot more than a single blog entry. So lets stick to the standard pea whistle or pellet whistle (or ‘escargot’ or barrel whistle because of its snail-like shape), which is the basis for a lot of the whistles that you’ve heard.

metal pea whistle


Typical metal pea whistle, featuring mouthpiece,  bevelled edge and sound hole where air can escape, and barrel-shaped air chamber and a pellet inside.


Whistles are the oldest known type of flute. They have a stopped lower end and a flue that directs the player’s breath from the mouth hole at the upper end against the edge of a hole cut in the whistle wall, causing the enclosed air to vibrate. Most whistle instruments have no finger holes and sound only one pitch.

A whistle produces sound from a stream of gas, most commonly air, and typically powered by steam or by someone blowing air. The conversion of energy to sound comes from an interaction between the air stream and a solid material.

In a pea whistle, the air stream enters through the mouthpiece. It hits the bevel (sloped edge for the opening) and splits, outwards into the air and inwards filling the air chamber. It continues to swirl around and fill the chamber until the air pressure inside  is so great that it pops out of the sound hole (a small opening next to the bevel), making room for the process to start over again. The dominant pitch of the whistle is determined by the rate at which air packs and unpacks the air chamber. The movement of air forces the pea or pellet inside the chamber to move around and around. This sometimes interrupts the flow of air and creates a warble to the whistle sound.

The size of the whistle cavity determines the volume of air contained in the whistle and the pitch of the sound produced. The air fills and empties from the chamber so many times per second, which gives the fundamental frequency of the sound.

The whistle construction and the design of the mouthpiece also have a dramatic effect on sound. A whistle made from a thick metal will produce a brighter sound compared to the more resonant mellow sound if thinner metal is used. Modern whistles are produce using different types of plastic, which increases the tones and sounds now available. The design of the mouthpiece can also dramatically alter the sound. Even a few thousandths of an inch difference in the airway, angle of the blade, size or width of the entry hole, can make a drastic difference as far as volume, tone, and chiff (breathiness or solidness of the sound) are concerned. And according to the whistle Wiki page, which might be changed by the time you read this, ‘One characteristic of a whistle is that it creates a pure, or nearly pure, tone.’

Well, is all of that correct? When we looked at the sounds of pouring hot and cold water we found that the simple explanations were not correct. In explaining the whistle, can we go a bit further than a bit of handwaving about the pea causing a warble? Do the different whistles differ a lot in sound?

Lets start with some whistle sounds. Here’s a great video where you get to hear a dozen referee’s whistles.

Looking at the spectrogram below, you can see that all the whistles produce dominant frequencies somewhere between 2200 and 4400 Hz. Some other features are also apparent. There seems to be some second and even third harmonic content. And it doesn’t seem to be just one frequency and its overtones. Rather, there are two or three closely spaced frequencies whenever the whistle is blown.

Referee Whistles

But this sound sample is all fairly short whistle blows, which could be why the pitches are not constant. And one should never rely on just one sample or one audio file (as the authors did here). So lets look at just one long whistle sound.

joe whistle spec

joe whistle

You can see that it remains fairly constant, and the harmonics are clearly present, though I can’t say if they are partly due to dynamic range compression or any other processing. However, there are semi-periodic dips or disruptions in the fundamental pitch. You can see this more clearly in the waveform, and this is almost certainly due to the pea temporarily blocking the sound hole and weakening the sound.

The same general behaviour appears with other whistles, though with some variation in the dips and their rate of occurrence, and in the frequencies and their strengths.

Once I started writing this blog, I was pointed to the fact that Perry Cook had already discussed synthesizing whistle sounds in his wonderful book Real Sound Synthesis for Interactive Applications. In building up part of a model of a police/referee whistle, he wrote

 ‘Experiments and spectrograms using real police/referee whistles showed that when the pea is in the immediate region of the jet oscillator, there is a decrease in pitch (about 7%), an increase in amplitude (about 6 dB), and a small increase in the noise component (about 2 dB)… The oscillator exhibits three significant harmonics: f, 2f and 3f at 0 dB, -10 dB and -25 dB, respectively…’

With the exception of the increase in amplitude due to the pea (was that a typo?), my results are all in rough agreement with his. So depending on whether I’m a glass half empty / glass half full kind of person, I could either be disappointed that I’m just repeating what he did, or glad that my results are independently confirmed.

This information from a few whistle recordings should be good enough to characterise the behaviour and come up with a simple, controllable synthesis. Jiawei Liu took a different approach. In his Master’s thesis, he simulated whistles using computational fluid dynamics and acoustic finite element simulation. It was very interesting work, as was a related approach by Shia, but they’re both a bit like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. Massive effort and lots of computation, when a model that probably sounds just as good could have been derived using semi-empirical equations that model aeroacoustic sounds directly, as discussed in our previous blog entries on sound synthesis of an Aeolian Harp, a Propeller. Sword sounds, swinging objects or Aeolian tones.

There’s been some research into automatic identification of referee whistle sounds, for instance, initial work of Shirley and Oldfield in 2011 and then a more advanced algorithm a few years later. But these are either standard machine learning techniques, or based on the most basic aspects of the whistle sound, like its fundamental frequency. In either case, they don’t use much understanding of the nature of the sound. But I suppose that’s fine. They work, they enable intelligent production techniques for sports broadcasts,  and they don’t need to delve into the physical or perceptual aspects.

I said I’d stick to pellet whistles, but I can’t resist mentioning a truly fascinating and unusual synthesis of another whistle sound. Steam locomotives were equipped with train whistles for warning and signalling. to generate the sound, the train driver pulls a cord in the driver’s cabin, thereby opening a valve, so that steam shoots out of an gap and against the sharp edge of a bell. This makes the bell vibrate rapidly, which creates a whistling sound. In 1972, Herbert Chaudiere created an incredibly detailed sound system for model trains. This analogue electronic system  generated all the memorable sounds of the steam locomotive; the bark of exhausting steam, the rhythmic toll of the bell, and the wail of the chime whistle, and reproduced these sounds from a loudspeaker carried in the model locomotive.

The preparation of this blog entry also illustrates some of the problems with crowd sourced metadata and user generated tagging. When trying to find some good sound examples, I searched the whole’s most popular sound effects archive, freesound, for ‘pea whistle’. It came up with only one hit, a recording of steam and liquid escaping from a pot of boiling black-eyed peas!


  • Chaudiere, H. T. (1972). Model Railroad Sound system. Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, 20(8), 650-655.
  • Liu, J. (2012). Simulation of whistle noise using computational fluid dynamics and acoustic finite element simulation, MSc Thesis, U. Kentucky.
  • Shia, Y., Da Silvab, A., & Scavonea (2014), G. Numerical Simulation of Whistles Using Lattice Boltzmann Methods, ISMA, Le Mans, France
  • Cook, P. R. (2002). Real sound synthesis for interactive applications. CRC Press.
  • Oldfield, R. G., & Shirley, B. G. (2011, May). Automatic mixing and tracking of on-pitch football action for television broadcasts. In Audio Engineering Society Convention 130
  • Oldfield, R., Shirley, B., & Satongar, D. (2015, October). Application of object-based audio for automated mixing of live football broadcast. In Audio Engineering Society Convention 139.