If Singing’s Tough, Try Whistling

Next time you find yourself at a karaoke bar, let me suggest a song:

Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”


The reason? It’s got whistling in it. So you’ll sound better. Because new research out in the journal Royal Society Open Science says it’s easier to accurately whistle a melody than it is to sing it. [Michel Belyk, Joseph F. Johnson and Sonja A. Kotz, Poor neuro-motor tuning of the human larynx: a comparison of sung and whistled pitch imitation]

“This was a bit of a surprise because we spend all day using our voices. Most of the time it’s for speech, but we do all sorts of subtle and interesting things with speech.” Michel Belyk is a neuroscientist at at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Ontario, Canada. 

“As I’m speaking now I’m placing emphasis on certain words, stress on certain syllables. You can tell I’m making a statement verses asking a question by the tone of my voice. These are all very subtle uses of the voice that we have tons and tons of practice with, much more so probably than whistling. And yet, people were a little better with the whistle.” 

For the study, Belyk and his team asked 28 undergrads, with varying levels of music and singing experience, to imitate a melody like this <<melody sample>>, by either whistling or singing. And the singing was more consistently out of tune, regardless of musical level. Michel’s theory on that: 

“What I think is going on here, even though we don’t practice whistling, we have a long evolutionary history of having fine-grained control of the lips. Whereas control of the larynx has mostly evolved after humans split from other primates.”

So next time you feel like you’re really nailing that rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody… just imagine how good you’d sound if you whistled. 

<<whistled bohemian rhapsody clip>>

–Christopher Intagliata 

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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