Is this even answerable?
February 7, 2012 6:57 PM   Subscribe

So.. the little melody that people hum when they are being inconspicuous about something.. does it have a verifiable origin?
posted by mediocre to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
[Fixed the link, try again folks?]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:13 PM on February 7, 2012

I'm not sure there's any one specific melody. (I mean, there is a melody in the video, but I don't recognize that from anywhere else.) However, the TV Tropes entry for Not-So-Innocent Whistle has an entry dating back to Greek mythology.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:25 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, here's an interesting paper.

"(1) when group (herd) members hear these sounds, everyone knows they are
among the members of their own group, and there are no predators around, so they
can relax and go on with their business; and
(2) as soon as any member of a group notices any potentially dangerous signs (a
shadow in the bushes, a strange sound), it immediately stops producing “contact
calls” and stays motionless, intensely staring in the direction of possible danger.
Those members of the group who are next to this member immediately feel there is
something wrong, and they also stop producing contact calls, stay motionless and
scan the environment. This triggers a chain reaction, so in a few seconds the whole
herd is aware that there is a potential danger, so they all stop producing contact calls,
stay motionless, and stare towards the possible danger. This intense silence continues until the group members decide there is no danger. After this they resume their
activity (grazing, picking food), and the sounds of the contact calls fill the air again.
So everyone can relax again.

Let us remember this important fact: for members of groups of social animals
silence is a sign of danger. The feeling of safety comes to them not from silence, but
from continuous “humming,” or the background known as “contact calls”"

That all sounds pretty reasonable and sensible, and from it I gather that "humming inconspicuously" plays on our evolutionary knowledge of "contact calls as a sign that all is well" and may even be involuntary. Basically it's somebody's way of telling everybody else "everything's fine, nothing to see here", and three tones ("dum de dum") is more recognisably human and reassuring that two. "Dum de" would make me wonder what happened to cut it short, and "dum de dum dum" is a bit too obvious.
posted by tumid dahlia at 7:30 PM on February 7, 2012 [9 favorites]

I know EXACTLY what you are talking about. I asked my BF "what do people hum or whistle when they are being inconspicuous about something?" and he hummed "doo-doo-doooo..." which is the correct answer. I am fascinated by this question.

I realize this is not totally helpful but the typewriter with wheels cartoon from sesame street would sing something similar to that melody...such as in this video.

Anyway this is a great question that I didn't even know that I was desparate to know the answer to until just now.
posted by capnsue at 7:34 PM on February 7, 2012

My good friend calls this the Harmless Man Song. He hums it while walking outdoors to signal that he is not challenging anyone's social status.
posted by Sallyfur at 5:35 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

tumid dahlia puts forth an interesting academic exploration of humming as evolutionary survivalism.. but it's not really what I am looking for, since I am referring to a very specific melody. One that it is relatively safe to presume every single person (in America, at least.. I can't speak to if the same melody works on a worldwide scale). I figured when I started pondering the question that humming is partly instinctual, but since this is a *specific* tune I am referring to.. It seems logical that it would have an origin somewhere. My question is if that origin has been lost to time.

If I can find some experts, linguists maybe? Who would I try to contact within academia to address this question? If I can gather enough information and come to a reasonable conclusion, I could see myself writing an article about it and trying to get it posted somewhere.. it's exactly the sort of insane examination of an incredibly unimportant minutiae that internet readers seem to really get off on..
posted by mediocre at 6:50 PM on February 8, 2012

I don't associate this with a unique tune -- just a downward motion with three vague pitches (that could really be anything, so long as they're descending and pretty close to each other).

If you have a specific tune in mind, sing it and post it...I'm not sure what tune exactly you mean.
posted by nosila at 9:04 PM on February 8, 2012

Is this noise perhaps related to that awkward moment stretching a collar with a hooked finger and gulping thing?
posted by oxford blue at 11:55 PM on February 8, 2012

Complete shot in the dark, but if I were investigating this I'd look to the first "talkies" and cartoons from the early days of film. Or perhaps even radio plays? I feel like some form of widespread media must have ingrained this particular "do-de-do-de-dooo" into our collective memories.
posted by platinum at 12:55 AM on February 9, 2012

Yeah, my association with that tune is totally the typewriter from Sesame Street, in the "wandering along, nothing of significance happening" vein.
posted by bardophile at 1:16 AM on February 14, 2012

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