Four Generations of Whistling

Whistling Past and Present

One thing that I find pretty remarkable about my 14-year-old son is that he whistles.

Music has been passed down in my family for many generations. Many of my family members play the piano, most of them play “by ear”. I took classical piano for 12 years, and I sing. My son plays trumpet, and toured with the All American Boys Chorus for 5 years and plays trumpet. I truly believe that a good whistler has somewhat of a musical background.

Whistling has become a rare sound these days. No-one whistles walking down the street anymore, and hardly anyone whistles at work. In old movies, especially black and white ones, it was common to see men whistling, but now it seems that whistling  has been banished from the silver screen forever. 

I also believe that whistling is hereditary. All of the men in my family; my grandfather, my father and my brother were accomplished whistlers, and so I grew up hearing it all the time.  My grandfather used to whistle when he had nothing to say, or when he was doing a task (usually different tunes every time). My father was a semi-professional musician who used to play the trumpet in a jazz band. He also whistled when busy. My brother also started whistling at a young age.  As for the woman in my family, my twin sister whistles just like my Dad, and so does my Aunt (my Dad’s sister). The whistling in my family was pretty constant. I got so used to it that it became comforting.

Many people think that whistling is an acquired habit. Not so for my son. He didn’t grow up hearing anyone whistle (I can’t whistle to save my life)!

I read that the ability to whistle depends on the physical geometry of your mouth and throat, as well as the ability to learn the fine motor control needed to vary the shape of your oral cavity. Both are to some extent genetically determined, but environment can affect mouth geometry (esp. tooth placement – e.g., thumb-sucking as an infant), and one’s ability to learn depends on practice. So, genetics does play a significant role, but is not the only factor.

When my son was about 8 years old he started humming. It drove my daughter crazy! He started whistling when he was about 11. It was such a strange thing to hear him whistling at such a young age. It came out of nowhere, and it came so natural to him. Because he was in the All American Boys Chorus he whistles  a wide variety of songs, and some very old songs.

When I asked him why he whistles he cocks his head,  shrugs his shoulders and says ” I don’t know”.

I think that whistling is a pick-me-up and promotes a happy-go-lucky feeling. Hearing my son whistle gives me a warm feeling inside, and brings back wonderful memories of my grandfather, my dad and my brother.


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