Why do you never hear someone whistle?

Cultural technique: "Can you whistle?"

Why is there hardly any whistle in the Austrian public anymore? About happy and ugly whistling, the barons of artificial whistling and the use of whistling for sex and soul.

If you first hear nothing and then something, the new noise is noticeable. If you first hear something and then nothing, you often don't even notice the silence. Is it so with the whistling, the cheeky little sister of singing to yourself? Who today whistles except on an instrument, who still peaks their mouth in public without being embarrassed?

The whistling has disappeared from the Austrian public almost unnoticed. At most now, in the first real spring days, someone might notice his absence, because they invite you to whistle. “The sparrows whistle from the roofs”, it is said, that corresponds to our perception - even if biologists explain to us that, anatomically speaking, bird sounds are made very differently than human whistling.

With this one thinks of the twittering of birds and reacts (to both) either extremely annoyed or, more often, with happiness. The whistling of people as well as birds arouses feelings of lightness and carelessness. Whistling not only expresses happiness, it also creates it (when whistling), the language has known it for a long time, one whistles one another or whistles at something. Even in the phrase of “whistling in the forest” there is already the knowledge of today's psychologists that whistling dampens nervousness and helps against fear.


Athena knew that whistling makes you ugly

Nevertheless, you can only hear older men whistling. In a US Internet forum, too, a user wonders: “When I hear someone whistle in a public place, it is usually an elderly citizen. I almost never hear young people whistle. Why?"

It's not just a question of age, it's also a question of gender. Older women whistle significantly less. Because, as in the myth of Pallas Athene, they don't want to appear ugly? The Greek goddess, it is said, stopped blowing the aulos because it did not flatter her face. Above all, female whistling has long been considered improper. A Scottish proverb that is first attested in 1721 says that a whistling girl does not bring happiness to a house. German has an even more drastic version of this popular saying, "Girls who whistle and hens that crow should turn their necks in good time." A few years ago, the author titled a study of the lives of older lesbians "Whistling Women" "Whistling Women". In the history of women's emancipation, female whistling has long been a symbol of rebellion against old stereotypes.

Male whistling also seems to have rarely been proper in Western history. As recently as 1931, the American painter Charles G. Shaw found that whistling was a symptom of nonsense and that no great man ever did it. Many are allergic to it (in Vienna you could get legal warnings for whistling in the stairwell). Again and again it was branded as unclean, even associated with the devil.

Mefistofele in Arrigo Boito's opera of the same name whistles instead of singing. Perhaps because too great a lightness is morally suspect, perhaps because whistling - see bird call, see male whistling afterwards - is associated with sexuality? “You don't have to say or do anything,” says Lauren Bacall in the most famous scene in the film “To Have and Not to Have”. "At most you have to whistle. You know how it works: you press your lips together and blow."

Since when have people actually been making sounds "with the help of air that flows quickly through a cavity with a small opening and creates turbulence there" (quote from Wikipedia)? Probably almost as long as there are people. A whistle is already mentioned in the biblical book Isaiah, the ancient world knew the whistling.


Artificial pipes as an Austrian specialty

And the melodic whistling? As early as the Renaissance, artificial whistling emerged as a serious competitor to the as yet little developed instruments. It was mainly used to perform instrumental music. Then in the 19th century, at the time of the Schrammel brothers, it became a very Austrian phenomenon. The most famous art piper of that time was a fiaker, Baron Jean, who also appeared before Crown Prince Rudolf. The “Baroness” Lips von Lipstrill, who died in 2005, was also at home in Austria; Oh a woman? No, at least not always, she was born as Rudolf Schmid.

Not only the Comedian Harmonists (“Can you whistle, Johanna?”) Were whistled prominently, also in pop music, for example with the Beatles (“Two of Us”), Otis Redding (“Dock of the Bay”), the Bangles (“Walk like an Egyptian”) and of course Bobby McFerrin.

Why have we lost the desire to whistle one another? Because music is so easily consumed that it seems unnecessary to produce it yourself; because very few still have internalized melodies; and of course because in the age of cell phones and MP3 players you have different things to do with every journey you take. It is no coincidence that the whistle was whistled while hiking, Sergio Leone's Western "Once Upon a Time in the West" contains one of the most famous whistles in film history. Whistling is only possible in a culture in which you can be alone from time to time.

("Die Presse", print edition, April 12, 2013)