Updated: Mar 4

“Nonsense whistles in the flower.”

-Chinese idiom

Sound should be more exciting than silence, much like light energizes the brain more than darkness. Apparently for physical reasons, to my knowledge yet to be determined, higher-pitched sounds are semantically associated with other evidently brain heat-related and excitement-related phenomena such as fluidity, disorder, light, brightness, redness, high speed, excitement, anger and sex. Expressions such as “stir up a hornets nest,” “a bee in a bonnet,” “mad as a hornet,” “fever pitch,” “buzzkill,” “watch your tone,” “all keyed up,” “for crying out loud,” “scream bloody murder” “make it snappy,” “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” “rattled,” “voice cracked,” “rattle your cage,” and “making whoopee" seem to make evident that animals relate high pitch and excitement. Some of these types of expressions incorporate fluidity in the form, for example, of tears and blood. A more direct high-pitch—fluidity connection exists in “slick as a whistle.” Oppositely, low pitch is related to lower excitement in the expressions “low key,” “humdrum,” “tone deaf” and “tone it down.” Whistling at women by men is widely considered a reference to sexuality, and high-pitched sounds are a common element in sexual behavior in animals, much like fluidity and spikiness. The idea of “the birds and bees” being related to sex is another probable connection between sex and high-pitch. It seems likely the verbalizations we call swearing and cussing have a higher pitch than average pitch, or a greater proportion of or emphasis on consonants than the average word. Our use in politics of the concept of a dog whistle connects high-pitch, and dogs, to violence. Also indicative of higher-pitched sounds being more exciting than lower-pitched sounds is the fact that cheering and clapping are conventionally more exciting than booing. Other meanings of the word pitch include throwing something fast and a semiliquid part of a tree.

Combinations of high pitch with solidness, darkness, stasis, downwardness and containment are common in popular expressions and poetry. Idioms of this kind include "saber rattling," "rattle my cage,” “dead ringer," "rattle trap," "all horns and rattles" and "rattle bones," "clean as a whistle," "whistle stop tour," "whistling in the dark" and "whistle down the wind." In Mother Goose’s “Bees”: “A swarm of bees in May / Is worth a load of hay; / A swarm of bees in June / Is worth a silver spoon; / A swarm of bees in July / Is not worth a fly” high pitch is arguably in contrast to the solid silver spoon (Goose and Wright 1916). In “Blue Bell Boy” the solidness of a bell is apparently in contrast to it’s sound and the color blue, “Wee Willie Winkie” cries through a lock, Tom runs “crying down the street” in “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son,” and crying works in contrast to the solidness and oldness of chairs in “Old Chairs to Mend.”

Assuming high-pitched sounds are associated with temperature increases in the brain can help us understand, perhaps, the repulsiveness of the sound of nails on a chalkboard, and the way that high-pitch combined with rapid variation (dynamism) describes screaming, which seems to be part of a the lives of many different animals. It's also notable that humans have a curious interest in the idea of a high-pitched sounds shattering glass.

As with fluidity, disorder, light and speed, higher-pitches may be more exciting than lower ones, but this doesn’t mean we like them more. Judging by the structure of language and music, an intricate mixture of high and low pitch is preferable. If our preference for music over noise is a side effect of brain physics then it should be present in all animals with brains. As with other relatively exciting things, high-pitch references mix with less exciting things in popular expressions, for example "chime in," "squeal like a pig" (high-pitch—round), "scream blue murder" (high-pitch—dark) and "whistle stop tour." Assuming higher-pitch to be more exciting, "whistle while you work" suggests we think work is less exciting than play.


Works cited

Goose, Mother, and Blanche Fisher Wright. “The Real Mother Goose.” Apple Books. 1916.

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