Non-lexical vocables in music

Non-lexical vocables in music

Non-lexical vocables, which may be mixed with meaningful text, are a form of nonsense syllable used in a wide variety of music. A common English example would be "la la la".


Traditional music

Non-lexical vocables are used in Blackfoot music and other American Indian music, Pygmy music, the music of the Maldives and Highland Scots music. Vocables frequently act as formal markers, indicating the beginning and end of phrases, sections or songs themselves,[1] and also as onomatopoeic references, cueing devices, and other purposes.[2]

The Blackfoot, like other Plains Indians, use the consonants h, y, w, and vowels. They avoid n, c (ts) and other consonants. i and e tend slightly to be higher pitches, a, o, and u lower ones.[3]

The AIM Song has its origins in the Plains; as such, it holds similar characteristics to Blackfoot song. It is intended as an intertribal song, so the use of non-lexical vocables prevents bias to one particular language.

Other traditional musical forms employing non-lexical vocables include:

  • Canntaireachd (ancient Scottish practice of noting music with a combination of definite syllables for ease of recollection and transmission)
  • Eefing (Appalachian vocal technique similar to beatboxing)
  • Puirt à beul (traditional Scottish and Irish song form that sometimes employs nonsense syllables)
  • Nigun in Jewish religious music

Jazz music

Scat singing is a type of voice instrumental music. A scat is vocalized using wordless vocables and syllables (e.g. "bippity-bippity-doo-wop-razzamatazz-skoobie-doobie-bee-bop-a-lula-shabazz") as employed by jazz singers. Scat singing gives singers the ability to sing improvised melodies and rhythms, to create the equivalent of an instrumental solo using their voice. Scatman John (John Paul Larkin) renewed interest in the genre briefly during the mid-90s.

Vocal improviser Bobby McFerrin’s performances at major concert halls worldwide show that “wordless singing has traveled far from the concepts demonstrated by Louis Armstrong, Gladys Bentley, Cab Calloway, Anita O’Day, and Leo Watson”.[4]

Another method of scat singing is practiced by guitarists who scat along with their solos note for note. Notable practitioners include George Benson, Sheldon Reynolds, and Rik Emmett.

Musical training

  • Solfège, or solfa, is a technique for teaching sight-singing, in which each note is sung to a special syllable (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si).
  • In India, the origin of solmization was to be found in Vedic texts like the Upanishads, which discuss a musical system of seven notes, realized ultimately in what is known as sargam. In Indian classical music, the notes in order are: sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, and ni.
  • Byzantine music also uses syllables derived from a hymn to name notes: starting with A, the notes are pa, vu, ga, di, ke, zo, ni.
  • In Japan, the Iroha, an ancient poem, is sometimes used as solfège (i, chi, yo, ra, ya, a, we).

Popular music

Examples of popular music employing non-lexical vocables include:

  • A cappella (singing without instrumental accompaniment, sometimes accompanied by a chorus of nonsense syllables)
  • Beatboxing (vocal percussion)
  • Doo-wop (style of rhythm and blues music that often employs nonsense syllables)
  • Kobaïan (language used by French progressive rock band Magma)
  • Hopelandic (gibberish language employed by the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós)

Van Morrison employed scat in his performances.[5]

Scat singing influenced the development of doo-wop and hip hop. It has also appeared in various genres of rock music. Jim Morrison of The Doors sings a chorus of slow scat on the song "Cars Hiss By My Window", trying to replicate a harmonica solo he had heard; scat singing also notably opens the B-side of Joe Walsh's 1973 album The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get with the song "Meadow". The technique was employed in the song "The Great Gig in the Sky" by Pink Floyd.

Scat also makes appearances in newer genres, including industrial music, in the chorus of Ministry's 1991 song "Jesus Built My Hotrod"; nu metal music, in the band Korn whose lead singer Jonathan Davis has incorporated scat singing into songs such as "Twist", "Ball Tongue", "Freak on a Leash", "B.B.K.", "Beat it Upright" and "Liar"; and the heavy metal subgenre of death metal, where scat singing is used by John Tardy of the band Obituary. Jack Black incorporates scat into several Tenacious D songs, most notably: "Tribute", "The Cosmic Shame", "Classico Double Team" and "Bowie". Singer JoJo performs ad-libbed scats on the track "Yes or No". Other modern examples include "Rag Doll" by Aerosmith, "Under My Voodoo" by Sublime, "No! Don't Shoot" by Foxy Shazam, "Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz" by Mr. Bungle, "In My Bed" by Amy Winehouse, and "Stuck in the Middle" by Mika. Scatman John successfully combined scat and early-1990s electronic dance music.

Examples by popular non-anglophone singers using such techniques include "Bla Bla Bla" by Gigi D'Agostino, Eduard Khil's "I Am Glad, Cause I'm Finally Returning Back Home" (known as "Trololo") sung entirely without lyrics, "Restless" (Fu Zao) by Faye Wong and "Lagu Lagu" by Sa Dingding.

Disney songs

A signature of some Disney musical films is their songs' use of nonsense words, the longest and most famous of which is from Mary Poppins, entitled "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious". A close second is "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" from Song of the South, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Nonsense word song titles include:

Nonsense lyrics also feature in the following Disney songs:

  • "I Wanna Be Like You" from The Jungle Book features a segment of improvisational nonsense words.
  • "Trashing the Camp" from Tarzan also contains a segment of improvisational nonsense words.
  • "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat" from The Aristocats, sung by Scatman Crothers as "Scat Cat", contains lengthy scat sequences.


  1. ^ Heth, cited in Ellen Koskoff (Ed.), ed (2001). The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Volume 3, The United States and Canada. New York and London: Garland Publishing. pp. 368–369. ISBN 0-8240-4944-6. 
  2. ^ "Native North Americans in Canada", The Canadian Encyclopedia Historica: Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Accessed 01/23/07.
  3. ^ Nettl, Bruno (1989). Blackfoot Musical Thought: Comparative Perspectives, p.71. Ohio: The Kent State University Press. ISBN 0-87338-370-2.
  4. ^ Crowther & Pinfold 1997, p. 135.
  5. ^ Pareles, Jon; Romanowski, Patricia; George-Warren, Holly, eds (2001). "Jim Morrison" ([dead link]). Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. Fireside. ISBN 978-0743201209. 

Further reading

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