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© Aart-Jan Venema

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© Aart-Jan Venema

John Osborne has always hated the sound of whistling. But it wasn’t until a man whistling in a café infuriated him so much that he got up and left that he realised it was becoming a problem. Could he even be suffering from misophonia – a condition characterised by a strong dislike of certain sounds?

To find out, John embarks on a whimsical journey of self-discovery, diving headfirst into the worlds of professional whistling and psychology in an attempt to understand if he could ever learn to tolerate – or even love – the sound of whistling. A transcript of this audio piece is below.

This documentary is also available on the Mosaic podcast through iTunes, RSS, SoundCloud and wherever good podcasts are found.

Further information

David Morris, a world champion whistler. In the documentary, David performs: 

  • ‘Henry’s Theme’ by Anne Dudley’s Humonics (featured in an advert for the TSB Plus Account)
  • ‘Post Horn Galop’ by Hermann Koenig (featured in an advert for the BMW Mini)
  • ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
  • ‘Londonderry Air (Danny Boy)’
  • ‘Nessun dorma’ by Giacomo Puccini

Professor Tim Griffiths, Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University

Andrew Parr, hypnotherapist

Professor Trevor Cox, School of Computing, Science and Engineering, University of Salford

Carole Anne Kaufman, the Whistling Diva, and also a world champion whistler

Some of the content used in this audio documentary may be under copyright and we do not warrant its use under our Creative Commons licence.

Transcript

[Music]

Professor Trevor Cox: You can scrape your fingernails down a blackboard in this room and I will not care.

Professor Tim Griffiths: Misophonia means hatred of sounds.

David Morris: Whistling, it can annoy some people.

John Osborne, narrator: Have you had people come in specifically for whistling?

Andrew Parr: No one’s ever asked me for whistling in particular.

Carole Anne Kaufman: I am a two-time world champion whistler.

Professor Trevor Cox: You’ve probably picked a bad sound to be misophonic about.

John: Hello, this is a documentary about whistling, and I decided to make it because I don’t like the sound of whistling. I’ve never liked it, I’ve always found it an annoying noise.

[Music continues]

© Aart-Jan Venema

But I’ve realised over the last couple of years it’s starting to become a bigger problem. Like I left a café recently because the man working there was whistling. It was an empty café and he was just getting on with his person-working-in-the-café duties with his cloth and his blackboard, checking on the cakes. And I left and as I was walking away I thought, that was a little bit extreme, since when did I start walking away from cafés because of the sound of whistling?

And I started to really overanalyse it and – eg making a documentary – so this is sort of legitimately overanalysing it now, and so I thought what I would do, I don’t know whether I’m trying to cure, to understand it or to minimise it I guess would be a good outcome, and maybe by the end of it I will still hate the sound of whistling and I won’t have achieved anything. But I don’t know, I’ve never done a documentary before, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on.

I went to see a sound engineer, Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, to explore what it might be about these sounds and if my reaction was a little eccentric. 

Professor Trevor Cox: I don’t think anyone’s reactions are eccentric or over the top. It’s not one I’ve met before. You’ve probably picked a bad sound to be misophonic about because you’re hearing it from an evolutionary perspective as a kind of early warning system, it’s an information-gathering system in terms of speech. And so it latches onto things that are useful and interesting to it. And a whistle with a melodic line is not so different to speech. The other thing is it’s quite high-pitched. Most people are whistling probably close to where your ear is most sensitive, and also in terms of the background noise, the general rumble, you talk about being in a pub and hearing it, the babble in the pub was probably at a lower frequency, the whistling was at a higher frequency and this allowed the whistling to be more prominent. And also, your auditory system is going to go: that’s interesting, I want to pay attention to it. 

John: I asked Trevor how whistling compared to some of the worst sounds in the world.

Professor Cox: I did a public engagement research project around the worst sounds in the world. And in that case the worst sound in the world was someone being sick. When you hear the sound of someone being sick you immediately go, someone’s being sick, and then your response is about what memories you have of that, your training, whether it’s innate or it’s learnt, about trying to avoid disease and you know, the fact that someone’s being ill and you’ve got to keep away, and all those kind of feelings that are going on. So it’s an association. Now whistling’s a bit different because it depends kind of how they’re whistling, but for me when I hear someone whistling I’ll probably think, that’s someone whistling, and that’s going to be my first response to it. But then it could be music, so it could actually be a piece of music and then my response is modulated mainly by that piece of music. It’ll certainly be modulated by how good the whistling is.

John: I wanted to spend time with someone who could tell me positive things about whistling, and I ended up being invited to the house of a world championship whistler, David Morris. He invited me to his beautiful cottage in the countryside, the dining table was covered in stacked best crockery. He’d had a dinner party the night before, and we spent the afternoon talking about whistling.

David Morris: Do you want a level on whistling?

John: Yeah, that’s a good idea.

[David whistles so that John can set his audio recorder at the right level of sensitivity]

Oh that sounds nice.

David: My whistling has been featured on some very high-profile TV ads in recent times – the TSB bank ad [whistles jingle from TSB ad]. I also did the BMW Mini car, which featured my ‘Post Horn Galop’ [whistles the tune]. That one, that’s gone all round the world, been very, very successful. Apparently huge in Japan. In 2003 I entered the world championship of whistling held in North Carolina that year, America, and I went over and I was successful, I won it. I became world champion whistler and since then, I turned pro almost immediately after that because bookings started coming in thick and fast. So and I also did some whistling for a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz. I recorded that down at the famous Abbey Road studios in London, which was very exciting, so yes, so it’s all exciting times in the wonderful world of whistling.

John: We spoke for well over an hour, and I wondered if instead of making a documentary about how much I hated whistling, I could do one about how much I liked David Morris. Other than having a nice afternoon though, I’m not sure it improved the way I felt about whistling. I liked it when he did it, it was everyone else that I had a problem with. So I decided to talk to someone else, and I ended up talking to a therapist to try and unpick what was going on in my mind. Andrew Parr met me in a café. It was all so normal – until he started to unpick my demons. 

Andrew Parr: Let’s pretend there’s someone whistling over there. What would you be thinking and feeling right now if there was?

John: First of all it doesn’t matter whether it’s sort of tuneless whistling or a beautiful tune that they’re whistling, note perfect. That is irrelevant. It’s irrelevant that –

Andrew: So it’s just the whistling itself, not the quality, it’s the actual whistling.

John: Yeah it’s that [pause] – that sound.

Andrew: What was that there? That sound. 

John: Yeah, I was trying to almost like, I guess, make the shape of a mouth when you’re whistling.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s it, so what you were doing, you were putting your fingers together like that, that’s the shape isn’t it, so it’s that sound and that shape. So what is it about that sound and that shape just like that?

[Music]

© Aart-Jan Venema

John: I was genuinely concerned. I found myself contorting my body in an attempt to explain the way I felt when I heard the sound of someone whistling. And did this hatred go even deeper? Was there something wrong with me and with my brain? Tim Griffiths is Professor of Cognitive Neurology at Newcastle University. 

Professor Tim Griffiths: We had a number of people contact us and say they had this condition called misophonia and did we know anything about the brain basis for that and could it be related to how people process unpleasant sounds in general? I have to declare an initial prejudice here, which is I thought it was complete nonsense when I first heard about it. But it only needed us to sort of talk to two or three people in the clinic to realise that there are striking homogeneous features that this condition has that means it must be a bona fide brain cognitive syndrome really. It generally starts in childhood, it can start as early as the age of five. The mean age of onset I think is about 12, and what people generally describe is that certain types of sound will give them an extreme aversive reaction. Misophonia means hatred of sounds, and it is like an extreme feeling of anger or hatred that makes them want to leave the situation. But the kinds of sounds that do it are oftentimes chewing or sucking noises. I know you’re particularly interested in whistling, we’ve been through the questionnaires and we certainly pick up whistling as one of those sounds that can produce it as well. And there’s a sort of locus as well for these sounds, so oftentimes people might say that when it first occurs it’s only related to when the sounds are made by certain family members, but then it might evolve into a condition where it can be produced by anyone. And I think that’s interesting in and of itself, because it immediately means it’s not just a simple relationship between the sound structure and the effect, given that the chewing and sucking made by someone on the Tube sitting next to you, is going to be very similar acoustically to the chewing or sucking that your mum or dad might make when they’re having dinner next to you.

People can really be extremely disabled by this. The obvious example being people will often have to eat their meals separately from the rest of the family and it can be quite socially isolating really, particularly it’s not just having the feeling that you want to separate but you know, you’re trying to suppress this huge feeling of anger and being very upset by the phenomenon.

John: Because when I do that, I –

Andrew: Yes, because you’re moving your hands like you’re making like a –

John: Animated, like a cartoon. This is the animated sound coming out of my mouth.

Andrew: Right, okay, as if that’s the whistling sound coming out. Okay, so when you think of that, there’s going to be some idea with that, that tiny little sound coming out like that. What’s the sensation you experience that goes with it? Just now you moved your hands towards your shoulders and your neck a bit.

John: Yes, it immediately makes me tense and as soon as it’s in your shoulders then I guess that just feeds into the rest of your body.

Andrew: Okay yeah, so what you’re doing there is your shoulders tense up first of all, and it’s almost like you’re shrugging your shoulders and there’s tension. So that’s the first response, which is kind of like a clenching, protective system somewhere. So the question to ask would be, I wonder why you need to protect yourself from it? You don’t need to answer it, but I wonder why if that part of you that was trying to protect yourself can rise up and come out as words in some way, I wonder what it would be saying.

John: Maybe I did need to protect myself from whistling. Maybe with hindsight visiting world champion whistler David Morris hadn’t been as helpful as I thought it would be.

David: I do lots of difficult, shall we say intricate pieces. I mean I do things like ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ [whistles ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’]. Something like that. I also think the human whistle can be a very, very passionate and emotional instrument, and I do call it an instrument. I think it can be very emotional, I mean I’ve actually seen people reach for their handkerchiefs in audiences when I’ve been doing this live. Things like ‘Londonderry Air (Danny Boy)’ [whistles ‘Londonderry Air’]. And so on [whistles ‘Nessun dorma’].

John: It must be incredibly enjoyable, is it?

David: It’s been amazing really. What could be better?

John: What could be better?

[Music]

What could be more enjoyable than emotionally rich, full-blown whistling? I’m in touch with my emotions, I like music, I don’t have any other phobias, I’m happy for people to get along with what they’re doing. What was going on? The more I talked to Andrew, the less we spoke about whistling and we started to talk about emotions instead. He wanted to dig deep.

Talking about this now without the sound of – without any annoying sounds around, apart from just general people, I imagine you’d just be able to say, if I was giving someone else advice, I would say, just say to yourself, it’s only the sound of whistling, it’s just someone whistling.

Andrew: Yeah but I never do that. I never give advice, because that doesn’t work. Because to someone giving advice it’s only the sound of whistling, but to the person experiencing the problem it isn’t. There’s the sound of whistling, but there’s something else about it as well. So I’d have to dig a little deeper, that little line of questioning I was doing just then, I’d keep probing and keep poking probably until I hit the emotional hotspot for it. Because I’m pretty sure if we kept poking and digging there’s going to be some emotive reaction to it somewhere, and when we hit that there’ll be some kind of – a little moment of release or realisation or letting go of something, probably with some kind of understanding. Then, when you get that, then it’s easier to change your thoughts about it, because you’re not fighting this internal bubble of emotion that comes up.

John: I wanted to talk to one more person, find one more positive portrayal of the whistling world, and I met possibly the world’s biggest whistling enthusiast. Carole Anne Kaufman is a two-time international whistling grand champion and was 2012’s International Whistling Entertainer of the Year. She is available to book for private parties. She’s based in Monrovia, California. I wanted to fly out to meet her, but apparently that was too extreme, so we spoke through our computers.

Carole Anne Kaufman: Whistling moves people. We all know that music is important to people, music matters to people. Anything that involves notes could be called music. Now here’s the interesting thing: if we establish whistling as an instrument with classical potential, right? Then we now have a brand new instrument that’s the oldest instrument on the planet, the oldest, oldest, oldest, built in. If we establish whistling as a classical instrument we now have a free instrument to offer every single community no matter what the demographic, no matter the income, no matter anything, right? You don’t have to go to the store and rent for $100 a month your violin. It really excites me to think that if we elevate the respect of the instrument, then we elevate the respect of the instrumentalists, and now we all have access to an instrument that’s both beautiful, important, and as we established in the first place, is kind of the cornerstone to who we are as people. Music is who we are as people, I mean there’s just no denying it. 

John: I hadn’t told Carole this documentary was about a hatred of whistling. I felt an awful human being for having anything other than positive thoughts about something that she loved so much. I hoped her enthusiasm would alter the bit of my brain that made me flinch whenever I heard someone whistling.

All of the sounds, certainly with the condition of misophonia, and the reason that made me interested in this project in the first place, I realised that all of them are manmade and all of them are avoidable. The sound of whistling, why does that person just not whistle? The sound of someone clicking their fingers, they could just as easily not do that, they’re not getting any enjoyment out of it, but like tapping their foot or anything, chattering with teeth, all of those noises are sort of idle, day-to-day, background noises.

Andrew: Yes, in some way they’re things that people could control, that they’re not, and you wish you could control, but you can’t.

John: Yes.

Andrew: Does that make sense?

John: Yeah. It’s basically nine times out of ten I imagine if you said to the person, “Excuse me, can you not whistle,” they’d say, “Oh, of course.”  They don’t realise that they’re causing offence. I imagine that it is the fear of – not the fear of confrontation, but the unwillingness to –

Andrew: Okay. Usually the first words that come out are the most poignant, so the fear of confrontation, so an unwillingness to ask, because that would be a fear of confrontation. So let’s say if you said those words, then the angle would be, okay, is this just an annoyance with the sound, or is this the sounds are there to give you a situation where you’re afraid of confrontation, because that’s an issue within yourself, shall we say? And if we dealt with that one it would be easy to say, “Would you mind?” – and then probably it wouldn’t even happen because once an issue goes the circumstances that trigger it tend to disappear. Does that make sense? So now we’re starting to dig a little bit deeper and deeper still, so that will be a line of questioning there. 

John: If there’s someone outside my house with a pneumatic drill digging the road I don’t have a problem with that noise. If there’s someone mowing their lawn that’s fine, because it’s got a function. This is what I’ve sort of tried to analyse and –

Andrew: So if it’s got a function it’s okay. But if it’s a pointless sound in some way, then there’s something about that.

John: As soon as you’ve identified the noise it seems to be less of a problem, because you think that person’s just doing their job, they’re digging up that road to improve the road or to put pipes or whatever – it’s fine. Whereas someone whistling it’s just…

Andrew: It’s just what?

John: It’s just unnecessary. 

Andrew: Okay, and the fact it’s unnecessary means that…?

John: It’s making my day slightly worse, my moment slightly worse, because I want peace and quiet and to be left on my own, but there are other people…  

Andrew: Okay, alright, so now we have an idea, okay, of wanting peace and quiet, to be left on your own.

[Music]

© Aart-Jan Venema

The other day I was in a café and there was a bloke whistling and it really annoyed me and I was really upset because I thought I’ve listened to all of these people talking about whistling, giving up their time, I’ve been into David Morris’s house, the celebrated whistler and he made me a coffee and he gave me a copy of his CD and I’ve spoken to Carole Anne Kaufman who’s talked to me passionately for over an hour about whistling and I’ve spoken to scientists and now I’m trying to do a – finish off a documentary about whistling and I’m just as annoyed as I was before the documentary.

But walking home from the café I realised that actually it was really important to identify that I was annoyed about whistling. That was it, that was as irritated as I got. So I think maybe it’s not always a case of trying to find a cure for something, sometimes the best you can do is identify something that you don’t like. To say, I don’t like the sound of whistling, but then take a deep breath and get on with things the best you can.

[Music]

I imagine that there has to be something kind of good within you to be a good whistler. Do you think that someone who’s like a not very nice person could be a whistler? It seems to be –

David: Well yeah, I think you’ve got to be happy to be whistling. You don’t whistle if you’re not feeling very happy. I’ve never seen anybody whistle if they’re feeling angry. You know, it’s something associated with contentment I think and happiness. Yeah, calm down, have a whistle.

John: Calm down and have a whistle seems to be a great note to end it on. I like that. I’m going to do another documentary now I think. I wonder what it’ll be about.

[Music continues]

[End of recording]

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