How did humans develop the ability to whistle?

Why is it that almost anyone can whistle a tune perfectly? How did humans develop this ability? What use could it have had to our ancestors?

Almost anyone can whistle a perfect tune to pitch and everything (or close enough) but yet most people fail miserably while trying to use their voice and sing along.

Uh its just the way we blow air through our mouths, its like asking what advantage snapping or clapping has. It is just something someone figured out. I can make a fart noise with my arm pit it doesn’t mean it is advantageous

Perhaps passed on from accidental discoveries in the beginning? I have seen some horrific tone deaf whistlers…

first came somebody finding a lemon tree

Er, really? I was under the impression quite a few people couldn’t even whistle, much less whistle tunes perfectly. Perhaps I’m just more incompetent than I realized…


It would very very impressive if you could fart a melody though.

But, I would say whistling is somewhat of a complex activity… I mean you have to change the shape of your mouth for every different note when you blow air out of it. Most people (or at least some, ** Indistinguishable**), can do this instinctively by my observation----small children even. Just seems odd that we would be able to do this when whistling isn’t a seemingly important thing that we do but are still very good at it.

Sorry… make a melody out of farting noises with your armpit

It’s not physiologically harder than talking, though, right? Changing the shape of the mouth for each vocal sound?

And in the days of, and before, protean speech, it might have been as useful, too.

We just put our lips together and blew?

I can’t whistle a single note, either. It’s definitely not a univeral human ability.

Haha… didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. You’re really not missing out on much with the whistling thing though. Learn to play a saxophone— it’s way cooler anyways.

I don’t think this is actually true. Children, in my experience, have to learn to whistle - sometimes finding it quite hard (and often via an intermediate step of tooth-whistling, or even trying to fake it by pursing their lips and making a high pitched ‘ooooo’ sound with their voice).

It’s something that is possible because of the configuration of the human mouth for the various requirements to be able to eat, speak and breathe. I don’t think it’s a selected behaviour, because it has to be learned. There’s no more purpose for it than there is a purpose in the human ability to play tennis (another learned activity that we do because our bodies are capable of it - not the other way around).

Beaten to it.

After that, it’s practice, practice, practice, just like with any other musical instrument. I learned to whistle later than most children and remember the work that it took very well. It’s only after you’ve practiced enough to have all of the tones mapped into your brain that you can follow a tune automatically. Until then, we struggle with it.


And not only that, but I can’t whistle by blowing air, only when aspiring it. And even that took me some effort when I was about 4-5, I remember it distincly. It wasn’t in any way instinctive.

Interesting. So I guess that makes me a prodigy? Or did I just completely forget that the whistle-learning period of my childhood existed at all…?

There are two different aspects, and I can only speak to one: the physiological response: it came with the ability to speak. We are just coordinating the same muscles, from the stomach muscles, to the diaphragm, to the tongue and lips. We can make fine adjustments to these the same way we do when we talk.

The part about being in tune is one I can’t address directly, but I assume it comes with all other musical ability. Once we learn to make different pitches of sound, we can make music out of it. While this is harder with instruments, the voice is easy to modulate for almost anyone, and whistling is not that far removed from that. I’d say it’s in between playing by ear and singing, actually.

Oh, and in my experience, most people can learn to play by ear, at least with one note at a time, without any real training–just through repetition and trial and error. The only people that have extreme difficulty are those who are classically trained, and so they fall back on their classically trained habits. Well, that and the truly tone deaf who cannot distinguish the differences in pitches–but I’ve only seen them in documentaries.

Probably, yeah. Do you remember the entire process of learning how to talk? Maybe you do, but I don’t. Likewise I don’t remember learning how to whistle, but as a child, making all sorts of noises, copying adults around me, I must have learned how to do it at some point. There’s probably a lot of things we learned to do as children that we don’t remember now. I mean, I have sporadic memories of me at 2 years old, crawling around etc, but I don’t remember the process of learning how to walk, I don’t remember my parents holding my hand as I struggled to get to my feet.

Actually, I don’t think I can even remember the day I learned how to ride a bike…but I know it happened. :stuck_out_tongue:

I can distinguish the differences between pitches…providing they’re large enough. I tested how much once but now can’t remember exactly the result. I needed a difference of either one tone and a half or two tones and a half to reliably state which note was the highest pitched.

No need to add I can’t sing or whistle in pitch, or play an instrument (I realized it when I tried to learn to play the guitar, actually, even though I already knew I was an awful singer). Well…technically, I could play an instrument, by learning exactly what string to hit when, but I wouldn’t be able to tell if the instrument is out of tune, and could only tune it by using whatever is called the electronic item that measures frequencies, not by comparing with another sound.

Weirdly enough, I still enjoy music a lot. I’m always wondering what I’m missing. Especially since on top of that, I’ve a hearing loss in high frequencies. I’d really like to know what other people can hear and perceive that I can’t.

Just to clarify a point that’s sort of been made, there are two parts to whistling:

  1. Learning to whistle at all – this does, AFAIK, need to be “consciously”, deliberately learned (unlike talking – singing is sort of in between in this respect), so most of us learn to whistle when we are about five years old.

  2. Learning to whistle tunes is another task – but if you’ve already had some experience singing (as most five-year-olds have), this is a trivial step, because other than the lips, the mouth/larynx/etc. shape is basically the same for any given tone, whether it’s whistled or sung.