HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogWhy Jen and Jo Aren't My Friends

DekeSharon's picture

 Let me start with an explanation of a theory I've developed about contemporary a cappella syllables:

The human voice, though most of history has been used in a very limited function, singing words, or simple syllables such as "ooh" and "ah." More recently, "bum" and "doo" have come into the vernacular in doo wop and barbershop styles.

Contemporary A Cappella, with its more directly imitative instrumental timbres, circumvents the brain's linguistic center (where language is processed) and instead is processed only in the music center of the brain, where people are used to processing musical instrumental sounds. Sing "la la la" or "happy birthday" and people will identify the sound a vocal, but sing "bm t pf t" or "zzzzzhhhhh" and people will hear a drum kit or electric guitar. 

These sounds trick the brain into thinking we're hearing instruments even though side-by-side they don't necessarily sound exactly like instruments. Rather, they sound more like instruments than anything else, and as such are categorized by our brains as such.

Yes, it's just a theory, but in the absence of a large science grant, I'm gonna stick with it even though it hasn't been fully vetted by the peer-reviewed scientific community.

That said, you can pretty much divide syllable choices in modern vocal arrangements into two categories: vocal and instrumental.

This said, where do syllables like "jen" and "jo" register?

In my opinion, they're the worst of both worlds.

Why? Because they sound like voices, not instruments, because they're common names in English. However, because they're not a commonly used neutral syllable (like "oh"), they draw attention to themselves. "Jen" might have sounded cool and modern to someone in 1995, but now it most certainly doesn't sound like a guitar.

I give U Penn's Off The Beat a pass on this topic, as they were the first group to start using these syllables, and created an iconic sound using them. Granted, that sound in very reminiscent of the mid-90's to my ear, but they can get away with it, since it's their traditional sound, and they have developed a very specific language that they use across all their songs.

But for other groups, I recommend you search a little harder for background syllables that don't register so clearly as words. In English. To do this, pick consonants combinations that are non-standard, and go with vowels that stray from our common vernacular. 

If you think that's hard, consider how many vowel sounds professor Henry Higgins declared there to be in "My Fair Lady." Try finding the vowels "in the cracks" between our commonly used ones, or cheat your vowels from pure open tones toward lazier schwas. Chances are it'll sound more pop and less choral as an added bonus.

Also, use your voices in non-vocal ways. Cascade lines, crossing voice parts. Have two people on the same note in different rhythms on different syllables. Think about scoring your voices as instruments, as opposed to writing four part harmony or polyphony. And toss traditional rules out the window, provided your singers can handle more challenging voice leading. 

In the end, everything works, and never say never. Jen and Jo are absolutely valid choices. However, if you're looking for a shorthand syllable for guitar sounds, I recommend you look a little further afield. 


Deke! Yes!

Holy schnikees -- I was just writing a blog on this very topic.  Except I like to call the girl Jenna, and sometimes her last name is Jodo.  They've always bothered me, and I think you hit on some great reasons why.

Thank you for saying this!  From your mouth to hopefully everyone's ears!

--Dave Brown

now: Mouth Off host | ICCA & CARA Judge

then: CASA president, CASAcademy director, CASA Bd of Directors | BYU Vocal Point | Noteworthy co-foun

Amen - our group was just

Amen - our group was just discussing it on Facebook. The more you master something in the studio, the easier it is to sneak in chang changs and the like - but they're always just approximations of instruments and as such, groups really need to innovate to find sounds that fit.

-Joseph Livesey | Fermata Nowhere | SoundStage

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