Our readers seem to be interested in the notion of cultural neoteny, so Dr. Boli will proceed with his planned series of articles, publishing another one every so often when he has nothing else to say.

But first, a possibly related phenomenon was brought up by our frequent correspondent “James the lesser,” who asks, “how often do you hear someone whistling to themselves? The good Doctor is old enough to remember the art.”

Indeed, Dr. Boli is a practitioner of the art, though he keeps an alto recorder, otherwise known as an English flute, next to the desk for occasions when more advanced forms of whistling are required.

But it is not hard to guess why whistling is nearly extinct. Here is a sociological experiment you can perform yourself, as long as the ethics committee doesn’t hear about it. In fact, it can be made into a kind of competitive game. Simply ask friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers, “What is your favorite song?” Once you have received the answer, “follow up” (as the journalists say) with the question, “Why is that your favorite song?” If we are playing this as a game, the winner is the first person who finds as much as a single subject who mentions anything at all about the music rather than the lyrics. It may take quite a while to finish this game, but the winning strategy would probably be to conduct one’s interrogations in retirement homes noted for a high centenarian population. For people under the century mark, the purpose of a song is to convey an idea, the music being a sort of unfortunate necessity without which the words are less effective.

Does this phenomenon have something to do with the juvenilization of culture? Possibly, although Dr. Boli would be more inclined to say that it is the ultimate triumph of American puritanism. A century ago, the average educated American sneered at the Methodist fanatics who insisted that the only legitimate music was the stuff listed under “8787D” or “CM” in the metrical index to your standard hymnal. Today the average educated American has become one of those Methodist fanatics. Art must have a practical function, or it is not only useless but evil. Music by itself has no function. Therefore the only acceptable music is that which, by accompanying and emphasizing words, makes it easier to convey useful discourse. The idea of an “instrumental,” as songs without words were called in the first half of the twentieth century, is nonsense to a puritan, and whistling is a kind of instrumental performance without an instrument.


  1. The Shadow says:

    “Therefore the only acceptable music is that which, by accompanying and emphasizing words, makes it easier to convey useful discourse.”

    This seems unlikely? At any rate, a quick survey of popular music does not seem to turn up much discourse that is remotely useful…

    • John Salmon says:

      Much of pop culture does have a puritanical strain, in both senses of the word. Movies are now more about lefty agitprop than entertainment. Car makers increasingly produce not cars people want but the EV’s people “should” want. Rap music (cough) is about informing us of the bitter realities of urban life, as if only “other people” are responsible for those bitter truths.

      Where I disagree with our host is in his view that the Puritanism is coming from both sides. The cancel culture is a progressive project.

  2. John Salmon says:

    People don’t whistle because they never hear good melodies.

    We laugh, justifiably, at currentBroadway musicals-but earlier musicals formed our songbook, the standards that the best pop and jazz artists performed. All of those songs were melodic-musicals had overtures chock full of tunes that let you anticipate the melodic pleasures to come.

    The great American musical-think of movies like The Bandwagon, On the Town, Funny Face, It’s Always Fair Weather-was a triumph of 20th century American civilization, and a blurring of the line between pop and high culture.

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