In an attempt to refresh mind and body between school and a twilight Parents’ Evening, I recently spent an hour in the pool and health suite of North Berwick Sports Centre. In the steam room I found myself, inexplicably whistling*. Apart from the fantastic acoustic and the apparent contribution of the steam to the quality of sound, I wondered, “why is this so easy?” I’ve never been inclined to whistle and have probably whistled fewer than 40 seconds worth of music in as many years. Intrigued, I decided to push the envelope and put myself through a mock Grade 8 Whistling exam. I tested myself on ascending and descending scales (major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, whole tone & chromatic both forms of diminished & augmented) and then the remaining modes (dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, & locrian). Then came the turn of arpeggios (major, minor, dominant 7th, minor 7th, major 7th, minor with major 7th, diminished 7th, major 6th, minor 6th). There were some tricky moments – notably the descending form of the augmented scale – but the vast majority seemed simply to be lying in wait, pret a siffler.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you cry, “you know the sound of these through your musical explorations over the years and have the benefit of a practised ear.” This is true but what is also true is that I’d have struggled to sing them. What intrigues me is that the entire musculature of whistling seemed in place, benefiting from neither interest nor training and must therefore be hard wired. Was there a time when it was commonly used for communication than today? Many will already have come across Silbo-Gomero, the whistling language used mainly by shepherds communicating with one another across the valleys of La Gomera Silbo. Does anyone out there know if this practice was once more widespread?
Test your aural recognition of scales and modes here.
* I was the only person using the steam room at this point.