This is going to read like the start to a fairy tale…  Once upon a time there were hardly any mobile phones, the fax machine represented high tech, and there was no publicly accessible internet. Remember?

That meant no Siri, Alexa, or Google to answer your every question. So what were you to do if an earworm drove you mad? Or music for a funeral had to be found, or a half-remembered theme from a film bugged you.

One option was to visit your nearest music library. It must have taken some nerve to stand at the enquiry counter and hum / sing / otherwise render your musical query. And to be asked to repeat it several times as colleagues drifted in and out to see if they could provide the answer. Decidedly low tech, but the concept formed the basis for a hugely popular remote access service, 1990s style.

Birmingham – UK City of Music

[Clicking on the images will enlarge them]

In the run-up to the Millennium, the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it was then) announced an ambitious programme of events, matching cities or regions of the UK with particular art forms. Who went first? Birmingham. 1992 was the city’s year in spotlight. Musical events of almost every conceivable kind and genre took place under the umbrella billing of ‘Sounds Like Birmingham’.

For me, the opportunity to be part of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Sternklang (Starsound) performed in Cannon Hill Park was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – utterly memorable. To give you a flavour, here’s a short excerpt from a more recent German performance:


Libraries featured strongly in the year-long activities. At the start, a discussion between Chris Meade and John Gough (both leading libraries’ contribution) about ‘alternative engagements’ led to the suggestion of the Humline. It was both a continuation of a service offered by Music Library, and something different.

The idea was simple. Using a dedicated phone line and answering machine, library customers could phone at any time, leave their query, and staff would get back to them with the answer (hopefully). It was meant only to point-up a quirky aspect of what we offered. It very soon became so much more than that.

Going viral

Planned radio interviews
Part of a record of radio interviews (Library of Birmingham)

Nowadays, we’re used to the idea that the most unexpected things can garner worldwide interactions and attention. It was much more of a shock in 1992.

Humline was launched at the start of the year with little fanfare. Then the Daily Mail decided to brighten up dull January coverage by running an article on something quirky coming out of Birmingham. In a quiet news period, the story got picked up in a way nobody could’ve imagined. The rest is history, though it’s a story largely contained in these papers, and people’s memories.

Televsion proposed interviews
Section of the TV interview log (Library of Birmingham)

Humline in operation

For those working in Music Library, what started out as a novelty soon became the norm, with increasing amounts of time spent answering Humline enquiries. It wasn’t only the search but all the bureaucracy which came with it: noting call details in a log book, marking them complete, and getting in touch with enquirers.

Making your enquiry via an answering machine came with its own pitfalls. Too often, people hesitated just as they were about to relay the tune and got cut off. Forgetting to include contact details was another common error. For some, context ruled, with the actual enquiry getting crammed in at the end.

So what was asked? Music in TV adverts, films, and shows on TV were staples. Here’s one for British Airways that could be answered almost before someone asked the question:

Inspector Morse was a hugely popular show at the time. Questions came in both about the theme and other music John Thaw spent time listening to.

Don’t forget that there were four terrestrial channels and newcomer Sky – that was the extent of choice in 1992. It made for a largely homogeneous watching experience.

The remaining enquiries comprised a wide-ranging selection of music – anything to which someone decided they’d like an answer. That became trickier as news of Humline spread far and wide – yodelling isn’t much known in this country.

Solving the puzzles

[image via Pixabay]
So how did the staff go about answering the questions? Remember, no internet. There were a few printed sources which helped: TeleTunes (self-explanatory), Dictionary of musical themes (classical), and something referred to as ‘the up-down’ book. This ingenious publication rendered a multiplicity of themes on the simple basis of whether the tune went up (U), down (D), or remained the same (R). The opening note was omitted. Take Twinkle, twinkle, little star as an example:


It looks weird, but if you sing it to yourself (the first note isn’t there), you’ll see what I mean.

Otherwise, the staff’s communal brain would usually find the answer. Expertise, personal enthusiasms, and a large, wide-ranging stock made for a deep pool of knowledge. What kind of success rate was achieved? This is entirely unscientific but my guess would be 8 out of 10 – pretty good.

Why now?

The Humline would be a fun topic for any time. However, producers from the BBC have recently asked about the collection with the view to making a short video. We enjoyed rediscovering the archive with them. If the filming happens, you can be sure we’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, if you have any memories, we’d be very happy to read about them. You can comment here, or on any of the Library of Birmingham’s social media outlets.