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I'm looking for a simple explanation of how a whistle operates. I know that forcing air over a sharp lip can set up a wave in a resonating cavity, but how? "Most whistles operate due to a feedback mechanism between flow instability and acoustics"--yes, but what does that feedback mechanism look like?

I was surprised to be unable to find a basic diagram online demonstrating how a whistle operates. I did find lots of images like this: enter image description here

. . . but such images are unhelpful since they don't show exactly what's producing the oscillation!

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Let's consider the specific type whistle shown in the question.

When we blow the whistle, air is forced to rush out through the narrow opening. The flow of air at the center of the stream is significantly faster than the neighboring air close to the main stream. If the air stream is easily deflected(unstable), vortexes are generated. If the same thing happens repeatedly, many more vortexes with similar properties will be generated. These vortexes cause air pressure to vary in a periodic way, so sound wave is produced. The frequency of this sound wave is related to the rate at which the vortexes are shed. Since the process is rather chaotic, many different rates or frequencies are produced at a time.

As you can see in the picture, the stream is divided into two parts. One part coming out of the opening and the other part stays inside. Sound wave trapped inside will interfere with each others. If the frequency of sound doesn't match any of the resonant frequencies of the chamber, the waves will interfere destructively and vanish quickly. However if the frequency matches the resonant frequency of the cavity, the wave's amplitude will increase overtime. The rate of increasing will decreases as the amplitude builds up. Eventually it will reach a steady state. At this point the amplitude of sound wave is strong enough that the sound becomes very audible. The sound wave come out of the hole, get dispersed strongly, and finally reaches our ears.

Some whistles have a small ball bounces around inside the cavity. The ball changes the shape of the cavity and at the same time the resonant frequencies. Thus it allows us to hear wider range of sound frequency.

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"If the air stream is easily deflected(unstable), vortexes are generated. If the same thing happens repeatedly, many more vortexes with similar properties will be generated. These vortexes cause air pressure to vary in a periodic way, so sound wave is produced." +1; This is the key part I'm asking about. Can you clarify how this happens for an accepted answer? Is this related to vortex shedding? I can't picture exactly how a periodic change is set up. –  imallett Feb 27 '13 at 6:37
Yes it is a kind of vortex shedding. Perhaps this is what you are looking for? –  Emitabsorb Feb 27 '13 at 7:56
Yes; exactly. Thanks. –  imallett Feb 27 '13 at 16:22
That link is now broken; stills can still be found here. Do you know where the video is? –  imallett Dec 5 '14 at 3:59

These things usually work by feedback that causes pressure changes, that then causes the original flow to be re-directed, which then has the opposite effect on pressure, etc.

This is simpler to think about when considering a common ball whistle, like athletic coaches and refs usually have. The part you blow in has a thin slot, which makes a laminar sheet of air blow accross a opening, but which then continues on into the round part. However, there is no other opening in the round part, so eventually the pressure builds up and this pressure "breaks through" the laminar sheet that sort of "covered up" the opening. This allows the pressure to release through the opening, which also re-directs the air from the nozzle to not go into the round part. The pressure in the whistle then drops, the laminar sheet can re-form or resume its original un-redirected flow, which cause the pressure to build up again, etc.

The ball inside the whistle isn't necessary for making sound. It periodically breaks up the process above, effectively modulating the whistle frequency at a much lower frequency. I'm not sure why exactly this is done, but I think the sound with the ball is more interesting or attention getting or easier for humans to localize.

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I think I had known this at one point, but had forgotten. Thanks for reminding me. This isn't the kind of whistle I was specifically asking about, but +1 for helping! –  imallett Feb 27 '13 at 6:34

How do you manipulate pitch? Is it radius of the circle, length of pipe?

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If you have a new question, please ask it by clicking the Ask Question button. Include a link to this question if it helps provide context. –  Bill N 9 hours ago
This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. –  DanielSank 5 hours ago

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