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What's that humming sound? In music, it's not to be ignored

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

OK, confession time. I love Teddy Pendergrass. I was on a road trip a few days ago listening to this song...

(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUENOTES SONG, "DON'T LEAVE ME THIS WAY")

RASCOE: ...One of his hits with Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Before Teddy starts singing, he actually hums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LEAVE ME THIS WAY")

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: (Humming).

RASCOE: And let me tell you, can't nobody hum like Teddy Pendergrass. But it did get us to thinking about what other artists are great hummers. It's a challenge we put to music commentator Jacques Morel. He joins us now from Brooklyn. Jacques, welcome.

JACQUES MOREL: Hey, Ayesha. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: Jacques, let's just listen to a little more of Teddy first 'cause I can't get enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LEAVE ME THIS WAY")

PENDERGRASS: (Singing) Don't leave me this way. I can't survive. I can't stay alive without your love.

RASCOE: OK, that was beautiful. That was beautiful. I just have to say - I mean, thoughts on that.

MOREL: I think it's absolutely amazing because I showed my youth in - I had never heard at the beginning of the song. I had never heard the intro humming. But then when it got to the chorus, I was like, oh, I've totally heard this song - sing to every single movie ever. And my theory is humming is an intimate act. It's something that you do for - only when people are around you or if you're by yourself. It's something - it's, like, a mindless thing you do as you're working out a puzzle or you're cleaning, right? And if you'd - before the days where you're just constantly wearing headphones, right? Or if you're trying to, like, soothe a baby to sleep and you can't be too loud, you hum. And I feel like Teddy Pendergrass spends a minute of that song humming because the rest of the song is him trying to convince his lover to not leave him.

RASCOE: Yes.

MOREL: And it's almost like he's steeling himself. He's getting himself ready to not go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LEAVE ME THIS WAY")

PENDERGRASS: (Singing) Now can't you see it's burning out of control?

MOREL: But with that new context, listening to this song sounds completely different to me. First, that there's an intro and, two, that, like, it really is - he's setting himself up for those three big choruses.

RASCOE: "Don't Leave Me This Way." Like, he needs you, and he's going to - I love that. I love what you brought to that. OK, so, I mean, obviously, I could talk about Teddy for hours, but we're not going to just leave it there. You've actually done a deep dive into another artist who is really into humming. That's Kid Cudi, right?

MOREL: Oh, it's Cudder, baby. It's funny. When you said that there isn't anybody that could hum like Teddy Pendergrass, I was like, Mr. Rager might have to have a word with that.

RASCOE: He going to have to have a word, but OK.

MOREL: (Laughter) He's going to - you know, he's taking notes. Kid Cudi has been humming since his debut album, "Man On The Moon Part I" (ph). He first hummed on "My World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WORLD")

KID CUDI: (Rapping) Took a turn to the worse when my father left me lonely (humming).

MOREL: Kid Cudi's father passing away was a really big moment in his life. And it's a very short hum, but in that, it kind of sets off what would then become one of the biggest memes of his career. Cudi hums on all of his biggest songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REBORN")

KID CUDI: (Humming).

MOREL: I did some research and spoke to an actual, like, humologist (ph), if you will.

RASCOE: There's a humologist? You found out there's a humologist?

MOREL: It's, maybe it's - I mean, I'm saying that euphemistically mainly.

RASCOE: (Laughter) But he studies humming.

MOREL: Yeah. His name is Dr. Suk-Jun Kim. He's a professor out in Aberdeen. He did a book called "Humming," where he went to different neighborhoods in Germany and across Europe for about 10 years now. He's been working on this for 10 years. And he asked people to hum him songs that remind them of different periods because he basically posits that there's not enough research done on humming in general and that since it's such an intimate act and such - it's such an act that you do when you're only at your most comfortable, that it's tied to memory.

RASCOE: Like, so who are some of these other people that - some of the other music you're going to tell us about that involve some humming?

MOREL: Yeah, we also have Lil Nas X in "Call Me By Your Name."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)")

LIL NAS X: (Humming).

MOREL: You also have "Kiss It Better."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS IT BETTER")

RIHANNA: (Humming, singing) Do what you got to do.

MOREL: Or Beyonce's "Irreplaceable."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IRREPLACEABLE")

BEYONCE: (Humming, singing) To the left, to the left - everything you own...

RASCOE: And so - I mean, this really is across all kinds of music, though.

MOREL: Yeah. Because I'm sure - like, I know some artists use, like, humming and just random, like, when they're trying to figure out a melody, right? They're kind of humming it to themselves, you know? And, like, humming is almost like the little brief break you have where you don't need a word there. You just need to kind of convey an emotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HUMMING...")

ENYA: (Humming).

MOREL: Especially in "Call Me By Your Name" - right? - a song where, you know, Lil Nas X is like, you know, demanding his lover to kind of, in some ways, come out of the closet, to love him for who he is, right? It's a very sexual song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Call me when you want, call me when you need. Call me out by your name, I'll be on the way like (humming).

MOREL: The way Lil Nas X is humming on the chorus, it's kind of to convey the emotion of, like, come here. Come to me. It's like...

RASCOE: Come hither, come hither. Yes.

MOREL: Come hither, yeah. I'm sure we would all love Lil Nas X to tell you to come hither.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Come hither. You know, that's the way it go.

MOREL: Hey (laughter). Yes, it is. Hey...

RASCOE: "Love TKO," OK?

MOREL: (Laughter).

RASCOE: That's music commentator Jacques Morel. Thank you so much for being with us.

MOREL: Ayesha, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BITTY PRETTY ONE")

THURSTON HARRIS: (Humming). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.