Human whistling is the production of sound by means of a constant stream of air from the mouth. The air is moderated by the tongue, lips, teeth, or fingers to create turbulence, and the mouth acts as a resonant chamber to enhance the resulting sound, thus acting as a type of Helmholtz resonator. Whistling can also be produced by hands, or using an external instrument, such as a whistle or even a blade of grass or leaf. The ability to whistle is possibly enabled by a genetic trait, possibly the same one which allows for curling of the tongue.
Types of whistling
Non-instrumental whistling from the mouth can be accomplished in several ways:
- Pucker (or "pursed lip") whistling, in which the air is expelled or inhaled through pursed lips, producing turbulence
- Roof or palatal whistling, in which the turbulence is produced by air being pushed between the tongue and the roof (palate or alveolar ridge) of the mouth
- Finger whistling or wolf-whistling, in which one or more fingers are inserted into the mouth to shape the opening, allowing a much more forceful stream of air to be blown through.
- Bottom-lip whistling entails pinching the center of the bottom lip and sucking in, rather than blowing out, resulting in a very loud and piercing whistle.
- Hand whistling, in which air is blown from the mouth into a resonant chamber formed by cupped hands
- Throat whistling, in which air is blown through the throat with the mouth closed
A whistled tone is primarily a simple oscillation (or sine wave) produced in the resonant chamber, and thus timbral variations are slight. The pitch of a whistle can be altered by changing the volume and shape of the resonant chamber (most typically by using the tongue).
In duotone whistling, use of the lips and tongue are combined to produce two tones at once, which can also start and stop at different times, but must be close in pitch. Simple duets can be whistled solo in this way.
It is also possible to whistle and hum at the same time. With enough practice, it is possible for one to hum and whistle two separate melodies at the same time. One of the most prolific "hum-whistlers" is A.J. Johnson, of Leeds, who, in recent years, has appeared in a number of West End and Yorkshire-based plays demonstrating his craft with a live orchestral backdrop.
Some languages and code languages use whistles as a part of their communication; this is referred to as whistled speech.
"Loud whistling" is a non-musical type of whistling that used to indicate both satisfaction and displeasure, usually at, but not limited to, sporting events, political rallies, social gatherings, and movies. (Edward T. Hall, "Essential Do's and Taboos: The Complete Guide to International Business and Leisure Travel", 2007). It is also used as an attention-getter for such purposes as calling dogs, flagging down taxis and alerting bus passengers in India. This piercing style of whistling is very loud and the sound can carry very far. It can be made in a number of ways with and without use of the fingers.
One specific type of whistling called "wolf-whistling" can also be used to denote physical attractiveness in the one being whistled at. Though it was frequently heard in cartoons and films of the 50s and 60s, it is now considered very poor manners in the Western world and can even be considered a form of harassment in a professional setting. The usual setting is a man whistling at an attractive woman, but it can happen between virtually anyone. It may also be used jokingly as a compliment between closer individuals, in a romantic relationship, for example. It can also be directed to inanimate objects to signify appreciation, as with impressive buildings, or high-powered cars. The wolf-whistle usually consists of a pitch-bend up, a brief stop, followed by a quick pitch-bend up that smoothly comes back down in a continuous manner.
Whistling can be musical: many performers on the music hall
circuits were professional whistlers, the most famous of which were Ronnie Ronalde
and Fred Lowery
and several notable songs feature whistling in some capacity. The term puccalo
refers to jazz
Pucker whistling is the most common form of whistling used in most Western music. Typically, the tongue tip is lowered, often placed behind the lower teeth, and pitch altered by varying the position of the tongue body. In particular, the point at which the dorsum of the tongue approximates the palate varies from near the uvula (for low notes) to near the alveolar ridges (for high notes). Although varying the degree of pucker will change the pitch of a pucker whistle, expert pucker whistlers will generally only make small variations to the degree of pucker, due to its tendency to affect purity of tone.
By contrast, many expert musical palatal whistlers will substantially alter the position of the lips to ensure a good quality tone. Venetian gondoliers are famous for moving the lips while they whistle in a way that can look like singing.
Whistling in popular culture
- Ronnie Ronalde detailed his musical career in his autobiography entitled Around the World On a Whistle.
- Roger Whittaker was first known as a musical whistler.
- The movie Kill Bill features Daryl Hannah's character whistling the same unnerving tune as from the 1968 film Twisted Nerve.
- Andrew Bird, singer, songwriter, violinist and guitarist, bills himself as a professional whistler as well.
- Ilse Werner, German singer and actress, was especially known for her whistling.
- Bobbejaan Schoepen, a Flemish entertainer, singer, guitarist, composer, former actor, and founder of one of the most popular theme parks in Europe: Bobbejaanland. Bobbejaan is well known for his outstanding whistling, but in the late 1980s he lost his whistle gift due to an operative intervention. (in the 1960s Ilse Werner performed in his shows in the Bobbejaanland park)
- Toots Thielemans is a Belgian jazz artist well known for his guitar, harmonica playing, and also for his highly accomplished professional whistling. He is often credited by jazz aficionados and jazz critics as being among the greatest jazz hamonica players of the century.
- Claude Debussy was going to write the role of the Devil for a whistler in his opera The Devil in the Belfry, but the work was left unfinished.
- The Goon Show "The Whistling Spy Enigma" Series 5, Episode 1. First broadcast on September 28, 1954
- The Whistler radio series ran from 1942-1948. The show opened with the sound of footsteps and an eerie whistle.
- Robert Stemmons plays The Loyal Whistler in Cirque du Soleil's Corteo.
- Bing Crosby whistled and trilled in some of his songs, including White Christmas. He could imitate a birdcall and then riff on it with a swing styling.
- Les Paul whistles and is capable of duotone.
- Fred Lowery (the blind whistler)
- Elmo Tanner toured with the Ted Weems Orchestra and whistled in "Heart Aches" and "The High and the Mighty"
- Neil Sedaka whistles the instrumental break on Pat Boone's "Love Letters in the Sand", with Boone sometimes interjecting "You didn't think it was me, did you?" in live performances
- Axl Rose of Guns N Roses whistles at the beginning of "Patience" (1988).
- Louis Armstrong rarely whistled on disk but was very skillful when he did.
- Ron McCroby 1934-2002, jazz whistler.
- Brother Bones 1903-1974, had a big hit with "Sweet Georgia Brown" which is still used as the warm up music of the Harlem Globetrotters.
- Otis Redding uses whistling to conclude his 1968 hit single, "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay."
- The Highwaymen whistle at both the beginning and ending of their 1961 #1 hit "Michael Row the Boat Ashore".
- Other tunes featuring whistling are among other: "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" by Monty Python, "Don't Worry Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin, "Games Without Frontiers" by Peter Gabriel, "Jealous Guy" by John Lennon, "Lazy Sunday" by The Small Faces, "Me Myself & I" by De La Soul, "Wind Of Change" by The Scorpions, "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman" by Whistling Jack Smith, "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John, "Guyute" by Phish, "'Till the End of Time" by DeVotchKa, and "Dom Andra" by Kent.
- Indie band Grizzly Bear often includes whistling from their guitarist, Daniel Rossen, in their recordings, such as the songs "Shift" and "Deep Blue Sea."
- Billy Joel whistles at the beginning and end of his song The Stranger.
- Venkatesh Guntur has a rare talent of whistling Indian classical and Indian movie songs .
Whistling and superstition
Whistling in theatre, particularly on-stage, is considered extremely unlucky. Before the invention of electronic means of communication, sailors were often used as stage technicians
, working with the complicated rope systems
associated with flying
. Coded whistles would be used to call cues
, so it is thought that whistling on-stage may cause, for example, a cue to come early, a "sailor's ghost
" to drop a batten
on top of an actor, or general bad luck in the performance.
In Russian and other Slavic cultures, whistling indoors is superstitiously believed to bring poverty ("whistling money away"), whereas whistling outdoors is considered normal.
In Serbia, it is said that whistling indoors will attract mice, while in Korea and Japan, whistling is thought to bring snakes.
Whistling on board a sailing ship is thought to encourage the wind strength to increase. This is regularly alluded to the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian.
In Hawaiian lore, whistling at night is considered bad luck because it mimics the sound of night marchers.