Kanye West is rarely at a loss for words, yet on “Feel the Love,” his new song with Kid Cudi, he blurts out “Grrrat-gat, Gat-gat, gat, ga-gat-ga-ga-gat.” This was neither nonsense nor an accident — he purposely chose those sounds, possibly to symbolize violence the love needs to overcome. But the idea of using sounds instead of words is also part of a long tradition in popular music that includes everyone from Lady Gaga to Led Zeppelin to Ray Charles to Louis Armstrong.
Those sounds, like Hanson’s “Mmmbop, ba duba dop” or Stevie Wonder’s “La la la la la la” in “My Cherie Amour,” are non-lexical vocables — a fancy way of saying sounds that aren’t real words.
Songwriters, singers, and listeners find these basic sounds simply irresistible, and not just in the background vocals.
“It’s a pure kind of emotional statement,” says Boston singer-songwriter Mark Erelli, who first became aware of the potential for using sounds instead of words upon hearing the “Woo ooh ooh” in Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” “I realized instead of a guitar wailing, I can be wailing.”
“There’s something primal about these sounds,” says William McKeen, a Boston University professor who recently taught a history of rock ’n’ roll course. “Has anyone really improved on the energy and danger in ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’? When you can capture the emotion and feeling, why bother with words?”
Stop reading right now and you’ll easily come up with a handful of songs that use non-lexical vocables. And then, a handful more, whether it’s Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing” from 1936 to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” from 1975 or Nathaniel Rateliff’s modern soul hit “S.O.B” from 2015.
Ask a friend and your list will grow even longer. Everyone I know had a suggestion: I got multiple e-mails — sometimes in the middle of the night — from the jazz lover (don’t forget Babs Gonzales’s original version of “Oop-Pop-A-Da” ), the rocker (J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”), the Bowie fanatic (must include “All the Madmen”), and the rap aficionado (Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer”). My wife started singing the Jackson Five’s “ABC” at the dining room table; days later she called to sing the relevant snippet of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.”
The most mentioned song was the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” “It is completely nonsensical, but in the song it makes total sense,” Erelli says.
The ultimate vocable, McKeen says, is the Beatles’ “na na na” ending of “Hey Jude,” which came out in August 1968 after months of protests, assassinations, and riots. “It was the perfect mantra for that insane year of disaster and calamity,” he says. While the song’s lyrics are about feeling confused and alone, the ending has “voices that rose together as one. Without using any language we know it provided a great message of hope and redemption, saying we will persevere.”
Not every vocable works for every listener. Many fans, including Erelli, love the poignant-sounding “lie-la-lie” sing-along chorus in Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” but McKeen finds it adds nothing but length to the song. And Paul Simon once admitted that “lie-la-lie” was merely a placeholder that got left in, adding “every time I sing that part . . . I’m a little embarrassed.”
Many songwriters use sounds as placeholders. “Ninety-eight percent of the time you replace them with words but sometimes those sounds fit the spirit of the song or even become the spirit of the song,” says Guster’s Ryan Miller. “And sometimes I don’t want there to be words — there can be a Rorschach version this way where you have your own experience with the music.”
The same sounds can have different meanings in different contexts, Miller adds, pointing to the “fa fas” in Otis Redding’s “Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song),” the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” and Guster’s own “Fa Fa.” They convey such different emotions that Miller didn’t initially connect his song to the others.
“You can say a lot without saying anything,” adds Callie Peters, singer-cellist for the Ballroom Thieves. “And listeners lock into these sounds — they can sing along without knowing the words.”
For evidence of syllables as communal experience look no further than fans singing over the horn parts on “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway Park or chanting a syllabic version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” riff at sports stadiums around the world.
Martin Earley of the Ballroom Thieves says these sounds can be evocative in ways that go beyond words. For him, the “la la la di di da” in Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” “transports you to that bar where people are drunkenly singing along.”
The Ballroom Thieves song “Only Lonely” originally had “oohs” at the beginning, Peters says, but it felt forced until they added “ahs” that transformed the sound into more of a howl. “It’s a song about depression and loneliness and that’s the one time where you’re not alone but part of a wolf pack,” adds Earley.
Erelli uses “ohs” and “oohs” to different effect. “It’s very much a power vocal sound for me, where I can really open my voice up,” he says.
In a lyrically dense song or album vocables can give listeners a break, he adds, pointing to the “do do do do” chorus in between the story of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” (And, he adds, the unique rhythms of her vocables inspired the dance remix by DNA that gave the song new life.)
Starting from scat
Non-lexical vocables got their start in the modern era with Louis Armstrong. Jelly Roll Morton and others introduced scat singing into early jazz but Armstrong first popularized it with his 1926 song “Heebie Jeebies” — supposedly Armstrong started scatting only when he dropped the lyric sheet, but the song became a hit.
Tufts University professor Michael Ullman says audiences responded to scat singing because it seemed authentic, as if the sounds were just “welling up out of the musicians.” Ella Fitzgerald would later pretend to forget the words to a song before bursting into a scat singing improvisation to evoke that feeling.
Vocables 2.0 arrived in the 1950s with doo-wop, and while most of the non-lexical sounds were in the background vocals, there were plenty of flourishes in the foreground in songs like the “Dom dom dom dom domby dooby dom” of the Del-Vikings “Come Go With Me,” the entirety of the Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit,” or the opening “ooh wahs” on Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” (Using vocables just to lure audiences in like that is fairly common — think Cat Stevens’s “Wild World.”)
But the 1950s also introduced the first steps toward a sexual revolution. Ullman cites Ray Charles’s call-and-response moans and groans in “What’d I Say” and the way they “build to a release” as a classic example of saying what you mean without words.
Little Richard couldn’t use his original lyrics about anal sex for what became “Tutti Frutti,” says McKeen of BU, but his singing on “Wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bom-bom, Tutti frutti, oh rootie. . .” expressed that raunchiness just fine.
In the early ’60s, more milquetoast and blatantly commercial variations on the theme followed: “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Who Put the Bomp.” “These were silly and weak protests” of the era’s social mores, Ullman says. (Sting, however, might disagree
— he has said he wrote “De Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da” for the Police to explore why simple songs like these could have staying power.)
Then came the Beatles, who found fresh uses for vocables: cheerful innocence in “From Me to You,” sinister nonsense in “I Am the Walrus” (“goo goo g’joob”), unifying sing-along in “Hey Jude,” and even Monty Python-esque absurdism in “You Know My Name.”
Nearly every classic rock band contributed to the vocable oeuvre, whether it was to add a light touch, a darker undertone, or sexual longing. The Doors returned to scat singing in “Roadhouse Blues.” The Kinks added more fa fa fa’s in “David Watts.” “Doo doo doo” shows up in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” and the ending of Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes.” In that same era, soul and R&B had fans singing along to Wilson Pickett’s “na nas” in “Land of 1,000 Dances,” Al Green’s “Sha La La,” the “ba de ya” in Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” and the “ba pa-pa-pa’s” of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star.”
You could even make the argument that the screams in songs like the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” or Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” fit into the non-lexical vocables’ category — they are another way of breaking free of the shackles of words. In that category, the ultimate masterpiece is Roger Daltrey’s scream at the end of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” “You can’t top that,” McKeen says.
But when it comes to nonverbal sounds providing emotional release in a way that words cannot, no one topped James Brown. “His grunts were his ‘la la las’,” McKeen says.
Berklee College of Music professor Katherine Dacey says that, like Little Richard before him, Brown used sounds to be sexual in a way that was otherwise verboten. “He found a lot of expressive possibilities in those sounds,” she says. (Michael Jackson was also a master of grunts and yelps.)
Even as music evolved, non-lexical vocables remained prominent — whether it was punk (the Ramones’ “Gabba Gabba Hey”), New Wave (Modern English’s “Melt With You”), alternative (the Cranberries’ “Ode to My Family”), heavy metal (Korn’s “Freak on a Leash”), pop rock (Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”), or pop (the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”).
It has become incredibly prevalent in modern pop, and perhaps nobody does it better than hit-maker Rihanna, who used this technique to great effect on “Umbrella” (breaking off the last two syllables), “What’s My Name,” and “S&M.”
“It can become a gimmick, but if she has a great hook with a lot of swag it grabs your attention,” Dacey says.
Even rap, which as Ullman says, is “almost obsessive about finding the proper words and rhyming scheme,” has embraced diverse sounds in songs like Dr. Dre’s “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” Jay-Z’s “Izzo,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “M.A.A.D. City” as a “way to break away from the words.”
Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the staying power of non-lexical vocables can be found in the 2013 song “What Does the Fox Say.” This purposely stupid song was a satire of club music by the Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis, who meant for it to fail. Yet the song that claims the fox says things like, “Joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff,” “Jacha-chacha-chacha-chow,” and “Fraka-kaka-kaka-kaka-kow”” earned 750 million YouTube views and reached No. 6 on the Billboard charts.
To which one can only say, “Na na na na na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye.”
Stuart Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.