Singing Like Rain

I (Johanna, volunteer women’s-choir attendee and occasional alto) just finished listening to one of my favorite podcasts “The Allusionist” which is usually about the etymology of words but in this episode was about music. The subject was “vocables” the application of which any choir member will be familiar, if with not the actual term. In linguistic parlance, a “vocable” is simply a sound used in speech (not to be confused with phoneme. Phonemes are the atoms, vocables are the molecules of speech). In musical terms, a vocable is a thing you say on purpose but which doesn’t have meaning, for example: shoo bop sha wadda wadda yippety boom de boom.

The music experts on the Allusionist (read the transcript or listen to the story here) made the distinction between vocable use and “scatting” which is more improvisational, though equally senseless. Especially in pop music, vocables are planned and are used strategically to set the tone and rhythm of the song, provide a memorable hook, and/or fill in the background. Sometimes, they are used to leave things unsaid. For instance, here’s JLS’s “She Makes Me Wanna”

While it can seem lazy to not finish the dang sentence, the song-writer allows the listener to fill in the meaning of the lyric, leaving radio-friendly vocables as scaffolding. It won’t take you long to find tons more examples of vocable use in pop songs. In fact, often the music industry relies on these vocable hooks to sell music and keep you tuned to their radio station (read this New Yorker piece on the subject).

But in choral singing, vocables take on an even weightier meaning. Like in jazz scatting, vocables allow choral singers to treat their voice like an instrument. Notice how the scatting in Ella Fitzgerald’s “One Note Samba” sounds like a saxophone.

The difference is, in choral music, vocables are all meticulously planned and strategically organized. This season, Sonoro Women’s Choir is singing several different pieces which all use vocables for different purposes.

Firstly,”Tundra” by Ola Gjeilo (which we did last season) uses simple “ooh”s to evoke a wintry wind. This is a great example of how choral music uses vocables to paint a picture beyond words. On the other hand, in Eric Whitacre’s “She Weeps Over Rahoon,” the choir is instructed to sing “muttering rain and” over and over on one note at each singer’s independent speed for a whole page. The overlapping words–though initially meaningful–are divorced from their meaning and become unquestionably the sound of soft rain. Listen carefully, in this video it’s hard to tell they’re saying words at all!

The second way song writers use vocables is to use them as color. At first peek, Kevin A Memley’s “If I Were the Velvet Rose” (based on Sara Teasdale’s poem “A Maiden”) seems to use vocables as run-of-the-mill filler. However, as you can see below the vocable-singing altos are deliberately instructed to match vowels with the lyric-singing sopranos.vocable eg

Matching vowels in the vocable line makes sure that there is no tonal turbulence. (It just sounds clash-y when one person sings an ‘ehh’ and another person sings an ‘eeee’. Try it with a friend.) In this way, the writer was very careful about the selection and use of vocables. Another great example of this careful consideration of nonsense syllables is “Adiemus” by Karl Jenkins.

Here, Jenkins uses sounds meant to evoke Latin, but which are actually nonsense. He uses vocables the whole song through and selects them based on rhythm and color. They are not simply background, but the whole song. Jenkins asks the listener to place their own meaning upon the song.

We’re singing a similar song: “Tango to Evora” which began as a violin piece by Loreena McKennit and adapted by Jon Washburn for choir. There is not a single word, only “la la la” the whole way through. I asked our Director, Jeremy Shilley, ‘isn’t it a bit lazy to not put words to a song?’ He replied, ‘no, because when you use words, you have to make a decision as to the meaning of the piece. Using ‘la la la’ allows the listener to decide on the meaning.’

‘But,’ I countered, ‘why even bother to adapt a song which does so well as a violin piece to choral music in the first place?’

‘Why not?’ he shrugged and we laughed. That’s art. Adapting and and reinventing. If we can have Gregorian chant version of Metallica songs, I suppose we can have women be a violin. ‘Think of it as an impressionistic painting’ he told me. Where “Tundra” uses vocables to evoke a place, “Tango to Evora” uses vocables to inspire a feeling.

Vocables: the paintbrush strokes of music.

See Sonoro Women’s Choir at their vocable best this summer; details to come.

Extra Reading


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