The Inadvertent Whistling test

Much to my surprise, I found myself whistling a little snatch from a Monteverdi madrigal the other day.

The reason this surprised me is that I don’t really ‘get’ Monteverdi. I bought a CD of his madrigals a while back, to try to learn to appreciate his music, but it never really caught on. I decided I must be too much of a modernist, too caught up in the rebellious works of 18th century radicals like JS Bach to pay attention to an old-fashioned 16th century fuddy-duddy like Monteverdi. The songs never seemed to me to have proper ‘tunes’, instead just wobbling around in what seemed a rather scruffy series of notes that lacked any harmonic or rhythmic structure I could recognise.

So I gave up. I had to concede that I’m probably just not deep enough, or maybe not artistic enough, to understand Monteverdi.

But then came the magic of Windows Media Player’s Shuffle setting. I have installed my classical music collection on the hard drive of my work computer so I can listen to it while I work. I never know what it will play next (well, actually sometimes I can guess, because Microsoft’s pseudo-random number generator is a bit too pseudo and not enough random – lift your game, Mr Gates!).

The player has 2,296 classical tracks to pick from, but some of them are quite short, so you often hear the same thing a couple of times within a few days. Last Tuesday the computer decided to play a Monteverdi madrigal just before I went home. I had completely forgotten about it by the time I packed up and got into the lift but then, blow me down if I didn’t suddenly realise I was whistling it to myself. Maybe a series of pseudo-random exposures to his songs, unnoticed by me as I was hard at work regulating financial institutions and investigating mathematical models, had taught my subconscious mind to appreciate his finer points. Was I becoming a Renaissance sophisticate at last?

As soon as I get time, I plan to go and listen all the way through my Monteverdi album, to see if I can enjoy the whole thing now.

This pleasant little experience called to mind other occasions when I have found myself whistling unexpected things. There have been tunes from film scores, lots from stage musicals, even some Kylie Minogue and once a Smiths song. And of course, lots from those old German favourites: Beethoven, Bach and Kraftwerk. It made me think that perhaps that is the real test of whether a piece of music is any good. If it can sneak its way into your subconscious and embed itself there, emerging unexpectedly as an involuntary whistle or hum, it must have something going for it.

If this test has anything to it, it will be particularly useful to help me form opinions about ‘young people’s music’. It seems impossible to form an objective opinion about songs that are played nonstop by one’s teenage children, especially when most of the children’s conversation seems to be about how famous the singer is, how much they would love to be famous, and how they met somebody who once met somebody who said they had met one of Ed Sheehan’s roadies. It’s hard not to be naturally prejudiced against anyone that is the subject of such quasi-religious adulation.

But the subconscious mind doesn’t seem bothered by that sort of thing. I have found myself whistling a song by The One Directions, even though I have suspicions that they may be a Boy Band – a species of artistic ensemble that I thought went out with Milli Vanilli. I have also sometimes been known to whistle songs by Taylor Smith, even though I suspect that she is in league with Satan. How else could she possibly be so pretty, blonde, fluffy-haired, slim, tall, popular with girls and boys, and very, very, very rich? This is corroborated by the fact that, according to her songs, all of her romantic relationships seem to end within a few weeks in an alarming tragicomic farce of acrimony, deceit and recrimination, and it is well known that that that is one of God’s favourite punishments for those who defect to the opposition.

I am also tremendously comforted that I have never, to my knowledge, whistled a note of anything by Jackson Bieber. I once almost hummed an F sharp that I think he used in one of his ‘songs’ (it was from ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ if I remember correctly, although I may not be reporting those lyrics exactly accurately), as I was humming my way towards the climax of Richard Strauss’s ethereally beautiful ‘Beim schlafengehen’. But I realised just in time and managed to skip over it.  I don’t think anybody noticed.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, February 2014