: a musical classification


From an instrumental point of view, the ceramics whistle belongs to three distinct instrumental types usually badly identified.

  The three types.
Drawings H. Nixdorff
Drawings H. NIXDORFF Tönender Ton (Fig.4 p.19)
Globular whistle.
One playing hole
La Borne(Cher) Valentine CHAMERON.
The globular whistle is the first type of whistle.

The resonant piece is made of a closed vessel. The sound is produced directly on the edge of this vessel. Its sound has a weak intensity and generally a rather deep tone. The variation of the sound is not determined by the place of the playing holes but by the opened surface. This type is the most widespread in Western and central Europe. It is the majority in the French production of the 19th century.
Most of these whistles have one or two playing holes.


The second type groups together the tubular whistles .

Rarely made separatly, they are generally inserted into the body or placed at the base of a zoomorphic or anthropomorphic statuette.

The tubular whistle is a flute without playing hole and with a very short pipe. Its tonality depends then on the bore and the length of this pipe. For the clay whistles, this sound is strident because they are very short whistles.
This category is exceptional in France except for the whistles in the shape of rider. On the contrary, it represents the majority type of the Italian, Portuguese whistles or of the Spanish Balearic Islands ones.

The difference between these two types (globular and tubular) is however not as distinct as it appears. Some rather long tubular whistles can be stopped at their end to modulate the sound. They work then like small globular whistles.
In a few cases, the tubular whistle is extended with a small globular cavity into the statuette which can has a small hole making it possible to modulate very acute trilles.
To simplify, these latest whistles will be classified however here among the tubular whistles.

Tubular whistle inserted on the base.
Siurell of the Balearic Islands
1st half 20th century
Water whistle.
2 filling holes
Unknown origin. 19th C.

The water whistles are the last type.

Those whistles are made of a tubular whistle inserted in a globular vessel filled with water. The whistle works like a tubular whistle with its end closed by water but under the effect of the blast, the length of the resonant body varies as in the case of a piston. There are then trilles like the song of a bird.

The filling can be carried out by a rather broad opening in top of the whistle. The whistle then has the general shape of a jug or an owl. In the case of a closed vessel (bird...), the whistle generally has one or two filling holes. The second hole makes possible an easier evacuation of the air when the whistle is plunged into water to be filled.


For a correct identification of the whistle types: .

It's not always easy to identify a whistle correctly especially with the often incomplete old whistles found in the archaelogical sites.

  • The tone: when it is possible to blow into the whistle, it is about the most reliable test. The tubular whistle has a strident sound when the globular whistle has a deep and soft sound.
      In the case of an acute sound , it should then be checked wether it is a tubular or a water whistle.
    • if the body is globular, it's probably about a water whistle. A filling hole on the top will confirm this assumption.
    • In the case of a whistle inserted into a base or a solid statuette, it is about a tubular whistle.

  • The holes of the globular shapes: these holes located on the globular statuettes can have three functions.
    • Playing holes: on the globular whistles, they make it possible to modulate the height of the sound,
    • Filling holes: present on the water whistles, they do not make it possible to modulate the sound. Their number is very variable going up to 5 on certain models of Belgium.
      Rarely, some water whistles do not have a filling hole. The whistle is filled by the mouth piece by plunging it entirely into water.
    • The spout hole: these holes have a technical use by avoiding the pottery breaking up while firing. They are usually under or at the back of the whistle.

  • The window: it is the hole opened at the mouth piece where the airflow breaks.
    For the globular type, this window is cut on the body of the vessel and on the pipe for the tubular whistles.
    Generally, one can note that this window is turned upwards for the water whistles and downwards for the globular whistles.
    This choice does not correspond to a technical purpose but more to practical or aesthetic reasons. The window of the globular whistle opened downwards is more discrete. It is also a more natural potter's gesture to make the hole of the whistle in this way.
  • the whistle place: for the water whistles, the whistle is made separately and inserted in the globular body where it goes down often rather low. For the bird whistles, the joint is often blurred with clay and the whistle gives the impression to belong to the body of the whistle like in a globular type.
Globular whistle
Prévelle (Sarthe). Ludovic BARBE. Early 20th C.

Water whistle
Connéré? (Sarthe) Early 20th C.