High-Pitched Quiet Melody Played on WBBM Radio During Mystery Theater?
December 13, 2003 8:53 AM   Subscribe

When I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, I used to hear this strange, eerie tune on the radio late at night. What WAS it? [more inside.]

I used to listen to this radio program called The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (Twilight Zone-like radio plays). The station I listened to it on was WBBM in Chicago. After I'd been listening for about a year, I started getting this uneasy feeling at certain times during the broadcast, but I couldn't figure out why.

Then I realized what it was: there was a weird little tune playing over-and-over again in the background, so quiet that it was just on the edge of my consciousness. Every night, this tune would start playing, but always at different times. Quiet as it was, after I became aware of it, I couldn't NOT hear it. Sometimes I would drift off to sleep during the show, and then suddenly snap awake when that tune started playing. When I asked other people to listen to it, they generally couldn't hear it unless I taped the show and played it over and over again. Then they'd say, "oh yeah! I hear it now."

Now, this wasn't background music to the radio drama, because sometimes I would hear it WHILE the real background music was playing. Anyway, it wasn't appropriate to the stories. Actually, the music may have had nothing to do with the CBS Mystery Theatre. I might have been something WBBM was playing, and it might have played during other programs too, but at that time, the Mystery Theatre was the only thing I listened to on that station.

It occurred to me that it might be coming from another station close by, and that the sound might be bleeding into WBBM. So I spend hours subtly adjusting the radio dial, but it was pretty clear to me that the tune was coming from WBBM.

It was a short tune that repeated about 10 times and then stopped. It was very quiet, and it sounded like it was being played on the very high keys of a piano (no chords, just a tapped out melody) or maybe even a child's xylophone.

That tune will be stuck in my head forever! I made an mp3 of myself whistling it. It's really bad in quality, because my mic is old and broken, but all of the crackling will simulate the way I used to hear it, because WBBM didn't come through all that clearly.

mystery tune

This is one of the biggest mysteries of my life. If anyone can clear it up, I'll be eternally grateful!
posted by grumblebee to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
maybe a link from here can help? or send an email to WBBM about it?
posted by amberglow at 9:08 AM on December 13, 2003

The answer is somewhere on this fansite, it just has to be.

I kept seeing the composer Nathan Van Cleave mentioned on google, and a song called "Perchance to Dream" but I don't know what it sounds like, so have no idea if that's the one.
posted by iconomy at 9:10 AM on December 13, 2003

The fansite I linked to above - he says if you have any questions about RMT, to email him at otr @ mousetrap.net and he'll be happy to answer.
posted by iconomy at 9:19 AM on December 13, 2003

Response by poster: Thanks, but I'm almost sure that the tune wasn't part of RMT. I think it was just being broadcast at the same time by WBBM. Why? Why? Why?
posted by grumblebee at 10:02 AM on December 13, 2003

Well now I have to know too. Why would a radio station play the same tune over and over and over and over and over and over again? No one else had ever heard it until you recorded it?

Please email that radio station so we can all sleep tonight!
posted by iconomy at 11:20 AM on December 13, 2003

Where did you live when you listened to WBBM? In the early Eighties I listened to old-time radio on WBBM, too, but I lived about 90 miles to the southwest of Hannibal, Missouri, meaning I was listening to it on skip. I don't remember the whistling, but that doesn't mean anything.

If you were also listening to it on skip, it could mean that you had interference from other stations skipping, too. That station could have been playing another show, such as The Whistler mentioned above (though the MP3 of the show, at the very bottom of the page here doesn't sound much like the whistling you recorded for us).

A reason you might have had more skip than usual, and thus more chance of overlapping stations (since WBBM is not a clear channel station--not to be confused with Clear Channel--which means that it is not the only station in the country to broadcast on its frequency), is that we were at a high period in the sun cycle in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Depending on where you are, the time of day, and what frequencies you're tuned to, strange and interesting things can happen when the sun's activity is high, meaning some stations can propagate far beyond their normal range (or far less, it just depends).

Me being also a shortwave radio listener, your whistling sounds a lot to me like what is called an "interval signal." These signals are looped and continuously broadcast from around ten minutes before the start of a shortwave station's broadcast. Each loop is usually five to 30 seconds long, most often 10 to 15. Since shortwave broadcasts are rarely continuous on a single frequency, but instead hop back and forth towards favorable bands and frequencies, this permits listeners to tune in before the broadcast by finding the unique interval signal, and so not miss any of the programming. The Voice of America, for example, has long used a rousing marching band-like rendition of "Yankee Doodle."

Now, another thing I remember is the day that I discovered the main difference between a shortwave radio and a mediumwave (or AM radio, as we yanks put it) is a single wire, the one which is wrapped around the ferrite rod. Thus, you can easily modify a MW radio to receive SW, and sometimes, if the radio is crappy or malfunctioning, it will do it on its own, meaning you can get both SW and MW stations appearing on the dial. (I've got the instructions around here somewhere, if you want them). This could easily happen on accident.

Which leads me to a question: did you always listen to the same radio? If not, then the malfunctioning theory is out, but it is possible you lived near a SW broadcasting facility, such as the Radio Canada International facilities at Sackville, which might mean that super-strong signals were bleeding in.

So I think you should try either this archive or this archive of interval signals and see if you find the tune you remember. I'd recommend starting with large, fairly wealthy or politically aggressive countries first, as they have always been more likely to have shortwave broadcasts and lots of them.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:21 AM on December 13, 2003 [1 favorite]

PS: The Sackville facilities are used by more than just RCI; lots of international stations use them to relay their own shortwave signals to the Americas.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:27 AM on December 13, 2003

Response by poster: Mo, I will try the archives, thanks. But wouldn't interval signals come just before the hour or half hour? I seem to rememeber the tunes being randomly placed.

Also, I don't think they were bleeding through from another station. I was listening to WBBM, which is a Chicago station, while I was living in Bloomington, Indiana, so the signal was not all that strong and it did fade in and out a lot. But whenever it faded, the tune faded with it. And when it was strong, you could hear both the WBBM normal content and the tune at the same time.
posted by grumblebee at 3:37 PM on December 13, 2003

Response by poster: Oh, also: I listened to WBBM on many different radios at my house and at friend's houses. And I heard the tune on all of them.
posted by grumblebee at 3:44 PM on December 13, 2003

Oh dear. I can just see what's going to happen. Some DJ is going to download grumblebee's whistling MP3 and turn it into the next banging club anthem. (It happens)
posted by wackybrit at 4:09 PM on December 13, 2003

Response by poster: Hey, as long as he pays royalties, he's free to use it. And when I learn who composed the tune, I'll happily split any profits with him.

hmmm. Maybe THAT'S how I can solve this riddle. I will create a hit single based on that tune, and when the real author comes forward to sue me for stealing his material, I can ask him about it.
posted by grumblebee at 4:49 PM on December 13, 2003

I've tried searching on slashdot.org but I don't know exactly _what_ to search for. Anyway, a while back (1-4 months maybe) there was some sort of article posted on music copyright. One of the comments mentioned that X-notes in a sequence is enough to cause a hubbub over violating somebody's copyright. Somebody else pointed out a site where you could enter a sequence of notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and it'd try to find it in a score. Maybe somebody recalls this, perhaps this will be useful to grumblebee.
posted by substrate at 6:26 PM on December 13, 2003

I've apparently mucked up my /dev/dsp, and can't play the mp3 right now. But you say it made you uncomfortable.. And you heard it during a twilighty zone type show. Is it possible it was there specifically to make the listener a little uncomfortable? Subliminal style?
posted by duckstab at 6:31 PM on December 13, 2003

Response by poster: I forget the name of that site too, sub, but I know what you're talking about. When I went to it, I immediately searched for the tune, but it didn't come up.

Duck, I don't think that's why it was there. I oversimplified when I said RMT was Twilight Zone-like. Many of the episodes were, but some were comedies and other genres. The music was always there and sometimes it played at the same time as the REAL background music. And, as I've said, I have mp3s of most of the episodes and none of them have the tune.

Whatever it was, it was either a WBBM phenominon or someone else was broadcasting it into WBBMs airspace.
posted by grumblebee at 8:46 PM on December 13, 2003

grumblebee: I loved listening to CBSRMT! Man, I miss that show. I never heard this music. I live in Hammond, Indiana though, only about 20 miles from WBBM's transmitter. If you were picking it up in Bloomington, I'd have to think you were hearing another station on the same frequency.
posted by AstroGuy at 10:54 PM on December 13, 2003

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