HomeNot So “Non-Sense” Syllables

ThomasMCaruso's picture

I loathe the term “non-sense syllable”. For so long it has been the accepted term for phonetic combinations usually derived from a linguistic origin used in vocal music.  But who decided “non-sense syllable” was the correct nomenclature?  For decades we have thought of shoo-wop and jin-jo as imitative sounds to evoke a response in the brain that says, “that’s piano” or “that’s a guitar” or “intensity” or  “happy/sad”.  If our intention as singers and arrangers is to use these syllables to evoke a certain response, how can we be content calling the syllables “non-sense”?  Years ago I began to use the term vocable instead.  While “non-sense syllable” and “vocable” share the same definition, “vocable” eliminates the misnomer.

The initial idea behind my aca-psychological train of thought came from Deke Sharon at the 2009 LA-AF.  This is where I first heard him pose the question, “How do we distinguish musical syllables from linguistic recognition?”  Over the past few years I’ve taken this concept a bit further.  My latest theory puts me quite far out on a limb and very open to welcomed criticism:

What if we are so exposed to vocables in a cappella that they are no longer just phonetic combinations, but recognizable vocabulary within our language?

Now, I’m not saying that we’ll be seeing “jin-jodo” in the Oxford English Dictionary any time soon.  However, I do believe that many vocables carry their own definition.  “Din”, for example, is 99% of the time used to represent a high piano tone or a bell of some sort.  Yes, basses, I hear your argument; however, we use “dn” not “din”.  

Vocables are used in arrangements to reinforce instrumentation and color.  This reinforcement is provided by previous exposure that predisposes us to associate a vocable to a particular instrument, mood, color, and in some cases even a musical mode.  Because these vocables carry a definition (though some may be broad), we can consider them vocabulary.  I could write 20 more pages on this subject, but then I’d be getting into the psychology of language acquisition and linguistics…all very boring stuff.

That being said, the crossover between language and music can be a very grey subject.  There is no fine line.  What makes “do” a vocable instead of the word “do”?  Is it the context within other lyrics?  Is it the voice leading?  Where do we make the distinction between linguistic recognition and great musicianship?  Are we supposed to make a distinction at all?  ...But I digress. 

The purpose of this article is to open up your mind to a new perspective.  I come from a psychology/music background.  When I listen to music I can’t help but wonder why it’s effective (or ineffective) outside of a musical context.  The topic of “vocables” is just one facet of contemporary a cappella that has the potential to get me rambling for hours.

I’m going to end the article here knowing full well that I left a lot of questions unanswered, but I’d rather let you come up with your own answers and opinions.  I’d love to hear your feedback on this topic and, more than anything, would love to engage in conversation about any of the topics/questions mentioned above!  For more articles and information about me, visit my website at http://www.ACappellaPsych.com.  I’d love to hear from you and always enjoy meeting new aca-peeps!

About the author:
Matt Caruso: I’ve been involved in a cappella for over 11 years now. I started singing contemporary a cappella back in high school and went on to finish forming and direct the all male Ursinus College Bearitones from 2005-2009. In addition to being a CASA member, I'm also a CAL MD (“Faux Pas” forming out of Princeton, NJ), and a CARA Judge. I own my own business (ACappellaPsych) that provides the standard services of arrangements and coaching as well as our newest service of total project production/consultation. My website also hosts my blog which is about sharing my perspective of a cappella from a psychological view. No, I’m not talking about laying on a big leather couch and talking through your jins and jodos. I specialize in sound preparation. That’s basically my fancy way of saying that I’m good at helping groups reach their musical potential through both musicianship and mental preparedness. I've recently began exploring the subject of "music vs. linguistics" and how they overlap/effect each other in a cappella.



Vocable Theory vs Spectrum Theory

I think the "Vocable Theory" as presented by Matt Caruso is interesting -that there is a recognizable vocabulary to non-sense syllables or "vocables"; -that " “Din”, for example, is 99% of the time used to represent a high piano tone or a bell of some sort" and presumably, that other back-up syllables have acquired meanings for as well.

That's a philosophy that I fear could make communicating with audiences more difficult and less effective, and so I argue here against it.

Instead, I posit the "Spectrum Theory" (titling these two approaches is just for ease of reference). Namely that there is a spectrum of instrumental imitation, ranging from unrecognizable to indistinguishable.

The meaning is inherent in the original instrumental sounds (snare, guitar, synth, etc.) and is largely cultural. If the singer's imitation is successful, the meaning in the original is preserved in the a cappella version because some combination of sound, placement and delivery successfully conjures the original reference. 

But the syllables have no meaning on their own. 

The danger of unsuccessful imitation ranges from ignored non-sense ("ooh"), to potentially distracting non-sense ("wakaJinJoZeeZoo"), to a badge of failure at a particularly poorly-made imitation. (This used to happen with aca-guitar solos all the time.)

Of course, creativity may be revealed in the use of sounds which maintain musical function without excessive imitation. (Listen to Jeff Thacher's use of organic sounds, for example.) 

(Of course, all syllables across all language can be imbued with additional emotional meaning. Yelling "Love me!" vs. whispering "Love Me."; upbeat vs. slow; death metal vs. soft rock, etc. But that obscures our focus on the syllables themselves.)

After reading this statement: 

"For decades we have thought of shoo-wop and jin-jo as imitative sounds..."

I would argue that most listeners do not hear those as imitative of any instrument. 

"Shoo-wop" is perceived as referential to 50s and 60s doo-wop. And for a small group of people, "jin-jo" is perceived as referential to collegiate a cappella of the late nineties and 2000s. That meaning varies from "college! cool!" to "amateur" to "overdone", but hardly communicates a particular instrument or mood.

I think a useful take-away for groups and arrangers is determining, among your target audience, whether a given back-up syllable really does fulfill its intended emotional-dramatic purpose, or whether your listeners find it distracting, unintentionally funny or even embarrassing. 

Other than enjoying a fun, intellectual debate, my main reason for writing this response is as follows: If you treat nonsense as nonsense, then you are more likely to sing it and mix it and arrange it in a way that matches how your audience hears it. That makes for better a cappella.


March 23, 24, 25, 2012
Reston, VA (just outside of DC -10 minutes from Dulles Intnl Airport)
3 days of A cappella from around the world
Proceeds go to support the Alzheimer's Association and local music programs

I think, even how bilingual

I think, even how bilingual the person is, those "no-nonsense syllable" is always present, especially today, everything is changing word by word.


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