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I can read music, but not easily, and I have never been able to achieve much proficiency with any musical instuments, yet somehow, if I hear a tune, I can whistle along with ease. Does anyone have an explanation for the ability to whistle a tune?

You can whistle a tune for mainly 2 reasons:

  • You know how to whistle. You weren't born knowing this, not did you suddenly acquire the ability - you practiced it, beginning barely able to make a sound, progressing though only able to make out-of tune noise to eventually able to whistle a recognizable tune, perhaps so well that you and others enjoy listening to you.
  • You can recognize when you're whistled notes are in-tune. Research show that this is somewhat innate, or learned at a very early (0-2 years) age. A minority of people - presumably excluding you - are tone-deaf, and simply can't tell when a sequence of tone are relatively in-tune or out. Tone-deaf people don't whistle very pleasingly, as almost everybody knows, having surely heard such folk more times than enough.

You can learn to play a musical instrument - say a guitar - the same way you learned to whistle, by simply fiddling with it until it sounds pleasant, and resembles recognizable songs. The example I used, a guitar, usually is used to make fundamentally different sound than whistling, because usually from 3 to all 6 strings produce tones at the same time - a chord - which is equivalent to several people whistling together in harmony. This characteristic is both the coolest and most often abused of the class of fretted stringed instruments.


I learned to read music and play horns in school band, but didn't much like it, as I like to sing - a hard trick while playing a horn! - and wanna be a rock star, so as soon as circumstances allowed, got hold a guitar and learned to play it by ear. To this day, I still learn guitar (and other fretted stringed instrument, primarily the fiddle-tuned mandolin) songs almost elusively by ear - "in the folk tradition", as they say - and can barely sight-read music, a more minor deficiency than you might think, as I can always play sheet music, listen to it, then learn it by ear.


Playing bowed fret-less instruments (eg: the fiddle/violin and cello) decently continues to frustrate and elude me - the by-ear approach works for these instruments, but they're much harder than picked fretted instruments. This is an embarrassing deficiency, as among bluegrass musicians, mandolin players are assumed to also play at least passable fiddle, but fortunately, I have a pretty good and fun day job. :)

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  • 3 years later...

I completely agree with everything that Craig said and I think it's just a matter of how long you have been practising, that's all. We may or may not have natural proficiencies with instruments, but you have likely been whistling your whole life. If you were to study an instrument for the same period of time, you would be quite good at it, I would think. 

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  • 3 months later...

I could only do this for a short time as a child, both with the piano and the cello. I almost wish I kept at both but I grew out of it. As a kid we can pick up things much easier than we can as an adult, if I tried now I would just look like a fool. Plus my hearing is going in one ear.

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  • 1 year later...

I could do the same thing, but I was never interested in classes. If you an play with your right hand, it means you're not playing the chords, but the actual notes. If you try a bit, you SHOULD be able to play the chords too. I went to classes because my parents asked me to, but I dropped out soon after, as I was not interested in what the instructor wanted me to do. I immediately wanted to get to the good stuff. This was my experience. It's really up to you.(I was like ten years old then, and I dropped out of 3 music schools because I guess I was "too good")

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