When whistling is a bad thing

Woman whistling

"You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

That iconic "To Have and Have Not" line brought Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall to everyone’s attention, not the least of whom was her co-star, Humphrey Bogart. He liked her whistling so much he married her.

So no one can deny whistling gets attention.

Call it what you will: Pucker, palatal, finger, or wolf; it’s been used for competition, superstition, as a sign of veneration, disapprobation; as a sign of interest, exclamation, even attraction.

Whistling’s musical possibilities are almost infinite.


You can whistle a happy tune (Rodgers and Hammerstein), whistle while you work (Churchill and Morey), and even whistle down the wind (Lloyd Webber and Steinman). With at least a three-octave range, more or less, it’s even become a very particular technique in popular singing.

It’s also a sign of warning. Seven birds doing it in the United Kingdom isn’t a very good sign; in a theatre, it’ll get you thrown out (you can come back in, but not until you’ve done a required ritual that varies from company-to-company). In Russia, doing it inside will bring you poverty, but in China, some can do it so transcendentally that all sorts of wild things can happen (from poltergeists to thunderstorms).

While it may seem how and why and what you whistle depends exclusively on where, why, and how you’re doing it, rest assured that there are some universal circumstances where whistling isn’t good at all.

One of them is in your ears. Listen to an expert.

"Hearing aids can whistle if they have a poor fit or if your ear is full of wax," said Dr. Amy Swain, of Amy Swain Hearing Centers in Rochester, Austin, Owatonna, and Waseca. "The eardrum moves when sound hits it and so when you are listening with your hearing aid the eardrum is constantly moving. This is normal. What is not normal is when you have an ear full of wax. The sound will bounce off the ‘wall’ of earwax and leak out around the hearing aid only to get amplified over and over again. This causes the hearing aid to feedback or whistle."

No need to worry. The solution in this case is simple: Head to an expert.

"If your hearing aid whistles then come in and see me to determine if it is wax or a poor fit," Swain said.

That’ll free you up to challenge Michael Stuart’s high-pitch record (4,186 Hz), or conversely, Jennifer Davies’s low-pitch title-holder (174.6 Hz), or grab your metal whistle and head out on the playing field to coach the kids.


Or, with all that spare time on your hands, you can always see how long it takes you to whistle after eating a handful of Saltines. It’s harder than it sounds, and it’s a lot more fun than you might think.

At any rate, it’s a lot better than an earful of wax. You heard it here first.

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