Few people have not tried to whistle! It is a natural mechanism and it can be an almost spontaneous effect of some forms of breathing through the mouth if the mouth is in a particular shape.
Yet many people can’t whistle well, or even at all. And for some people it really is a skill they would like to have. It can be pleasant both to do and to hear.
Whistling itself is an ancient human attribute, used in the past for signaling, hunting, communicating, seeking a mate (in the animal kingdom, at least!) and as a way to express what are often quite deep emotions. It has been said that whistling ‘is both speech and song’, and this is true.
Definition of Whistling
What exactly is whistling?
To be exact, it is the act of making a sound, quite like that of a high pitched woodwind instrument, by forcing air through your lips or between your teeth.
That definition, however, slightly reduces its effect. Good whistling can be beautiful, musical and highly elaborate. It can make the mouth into a mini-orchestra. It can be a lovely way to express yourself and also sometimes a genuinely useful means of communication.
Interestingly, it is a skill that crosses cultural barriers and boundaries, and, of course, it even crosses species, since many birds and animals whistle, often for their survival. So, though a refined sound, it is also sometimes a very necessary way of living.
Types of Whistling
The definition we gave of whistling above was a simple reductivist one. But whistling is actually a skill or art with multiple forms. There are very many ways of whistling, and if you can master them all, you will be quite rare.
- The first type is lip whistling. This involves shaping the lips into the shape of the letter ‘O’and blowing air gently through them. This will usually create quite a high sound. Be aware, however, that you need to have your lips really quite tightly held and with only a small ‘O’ hole. Otherwise the wind will just pass with a sort of woosh, and not actually a whistling sound.
- Another type of whistling is tongue whistling. This technique is generally thought harder to perform. It requires you to place your tongue in the top of your mouth and inhale sharply. If you do this accurately, you will hear a whistling noise, usually not as refined or defined as that of lip whistling, but still a whistle nonetheless.
- The third form of whistling is finger whistling. This is also sometimes termed two-fingered whistling, as it uses two fingers placed in the corners of the mouth that are put into a V shape. When air is passed through, it can create a genuinely loud and distinct whistling noise. Some call this a ‘wolf whistle’, perhaps because there is such a noticeable ‘through power’ to this whistle, as there is with a wolf’s howl. Both sounds cut through to the ear from even far away in ways lip or tongue whistling tends not to.
How to Whistle
Place your tongue in the right position
The tongue is the critical element and few whistles can work without the tongue being placed accurately.
Determining the accurate positioning, however, is tricky, and many find it really tough! So, what is the right position?
Ideally, place the tip of the tongue at or near the roof of your mouth, close to or right behind your upper teeth. You then need to curl it upwards and slightly backwards, which helps to create a funnel of sorts, or what might be thought of as a pocket of air. If you then blow out, you should hear a sound – that of a whistle!
That said, it really can take practice, so be sure not to give up. You may need to find a private place so that you can make as many mistakes as you need to before your technique is secure.
Shape with your lips well too
It is not just the shape of the tongue that matters. The configuration of the lips matters also.
Many advise that you need to aim to have your lips shaped into a ‘V’ shape. In fact, it is a very gentle V, but what we mean is that you need slightly to purse your lips so that they take on a shape where the middle is higher than the sides. Puckering your lips like this will absolutely make successful whistling likelier. You will also naturally find that your lips get pushed outwards a little as you do this, and this is also an important element of shaping them correctly.
Once you’re able to get the shape right, you can start experimenting with different air pressures to produce a range of sounds.
All good things need practice to improve and perfect a technique! Whistling is no different, and regular practice is key to mastering the skills required. No amount of effort put into one session can replace the benefit of steady and consistent practice over time. In fact, your lips will tire out if you force them to whistle for too long all at once.
Our advice is to aim to practice every day, or at least several times a week, until you learn the right methods. Once you can whistle well, you will find you do it a lot, as it is a lovely activity.
Tips for Beginners
Exercise your lungs by taking deep breaths
A key factor in improving your ability to whistle is exercising your lungs. Taking deep breaths helps to strengthen your diaphragm and makes it easier to control your breath when whistling. The diaphragm is at the core of all good breath control and breathing techniques.
Posture is key. Stand up straight and exhale all of the air from your lungs. Hold the breath for a few seconds before inhaling deeply through your nose. As you take in the air, allow your stomach and your chest both to expand. You will possibly be surprised at how much they do so.
Hold the breath, before slowly exhaling. Repeating this exercise several times daily will actually make you feel better all round, as well as improving your whistling techniques. Diaphragm work is a really great discipline to get into.
Experiment with different techniques to find what works best for you
The rules we mentioned above about techniques all have variants, so you really can tweak the shape of your tongue and lips and move their position of the tongue in the mouth to work to the specific shape of your own mouth and teeth. Many find that even placing the tongue nearer the lower teeth, for example, aids them in creating the right kind of funnel for sound.
For others, the cheeks being puffed out makes the sound better. Everyone’s technique is therefore slightly different, so don’t get discouraged if one method doesn’t work. Exploring different ways to whistle is part of the fun of becoming a great whistler.
Make sure to relax your neck and shoulders
The neck and shoulders should ideally always be held in a relaxed position to ensure that overall tension levels in the body remain low. Take a few deep breaths and let your body loosen up. Feel all the tension leaving your body until you feel relaxed and ready to whistle.
It doesn’t have to be a complicated technique; just make sure that you’re in a comfortable position and that your neck and shoulders aren’t too tense before you begin. If you are practicing for fifteen or twenty minutes consecutively, you will gradually tense up, so keep a close focus on this aspect, as it will make the process of learning to control the mouth and tongue more productive.
Many people find whistling implicitly pleasurable and satisfying. It can aid relaxation and distraction from daily tensions. It also helps in learning a musical instrument, where you need to have a musical feeling for line and rhythm and melody.
Studies show that regular whistling is also a stress-lowering activity, as you are allowing the body and mind to engage in a practice that is beautiful, energizing, and that requires both inner focus but also a level of randomness, as you create a soundworld.
Whistling can really be a highly enjoyable skill, so although it may take some time to master all the techniques, it is worth the effort, as it is not a skill that is lost as we age. You could be whistling into your old age quite happily!