Scat Singing and Nonsense Songs: Playing with Words
Folks have been doing the verbal two-step with scat singing for a hundred years. The creativity and virtuosity that scat allows a singer to display within the confines of any song make it a popular medium. And some of the most fun songs take scat to a new level, making an entire tune of nonsense sounds and creating a scaffold for vocal expression. Even slower, more bluesy songs are lifted out of the ordinary by the judicious application of a little (or a lot of) scat.
Along the way, vocal copies of instruments included percussion. While at first glance beatboxing may not have much in common with its jazzier cousin, scat singing, in reality they follow very similar paths. Both are difficult to do, both are impressive when done well, and both are a part of the musical history of people playing with song.
I'm a fan of scat singing. I also enjoy fun and frivolous nonsense songs. On this lens, I'm going to try to bring together examples of scat from across the decades, from such greats as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and from modern performers like Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater. I'll also include modern beatbox performances. Please let me know what you think of scat singing and beatbox, and share your favorites, as well. For a quick example of the fun that people can have without words, try Mumbles from Oscar Peterson, in which Clark Terry does just that.
What Is Scat?
Not just animal droppings! Scat is a style of singing using nonsense syllables instead of words, often following the melody of a piece but sometimes simply improvised as a sort of vocal solo. Check out the videos below for some examples.
Music Videos for Scat and Nonsense Songs
Often, performers will sing the song in a traditional manner and then build an increasingly-airy house of scat atop that foundation. That's not the case with Ella Fitzgerald's video which is pure construction in which you can recognize several jazz standards and only just identify the bones of the One Note Samba.
I've included Bobby McFerrin here, although his amazing talents stretch beyond even the generous boundaries of scat singing. In this video, though, both men do some scat as well as other improvised music. I included the Shooby Taylor song purely for entertainment value and Surfin' Bird as a prime example of pure nonsense. Don't miss Flat Foot Floogie, a song that's been making no sense since the 1930s!
Scat Singing Is Hard
At its most basic, scat singing consists of using your voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium. While you can easily imitate the nonsense sounds of someone's scat solo, improvising this way presents a major challenge for vocalists. Consider scat gymnastics for your voice. Copying the routines of others will help you stretch and tone your creative verbal muscles, but making up your own choreography impresses the judges.
Familiarity with, and a love for, the song help you improvise a scat solo, but you really have to know music to stay on tune. That's what makes the scat greats so impressive - they pull trills, runs, and chords out of the air, staying with the basics of a song while making up words. Singers like Ella Fitzgerald can make up a five-minute vocal solo on the spot and stay on key, on tune, and within the sense of the song the entire time. Try it sometime for yourself, with an instrumental song or during a solo portion of a song you know well. You'll gain much appreciation for this seemingly-silly art.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Queen of Scat - Scat Singing at It's Best
Not only do you get Ella Fitzgerald, with her amazing voice performing acrobatics all over the stage, but Duke Ellington throws in a scat or two here himself. You can almost see these two jazz legends throwing themselves into the music and having a great time doing it. This two-CD set pulls the best of this concert series into a single, scat-arrific package.
Proof of Ella Fitzgerald's Scat Royalty
Should you not yet stand in awe of the talent, range, and general amazing-ness of Ella Fitzgerald's scat singing, take a listen here and understand why she's known as the Queen of Scat. (You can also visit my Ella Fitzgerald Video Showcase for a bio and many more examples.) Many have imitated her or created their own sound, but no one has ever surpassed her ability to invent not only the nonsense sounds of scat but to interweave lyrics from other tunes and embroider upon the melody of a song to create something entirely her own.
This video is quite silly, as it's just a bunch of trains, but this was the only one I could find for this (my favorite) version of Take the "A" Train. While Ella recorded this song many times (several of them with Duke Ellington), this is just about the longest and definitely the wildest of the ones I've heard.
Is Beatboxing Scat? Judge for Yourself.
Beatbox combines elements from hip hop, scat, and non-verbal noises to create something impressive and all its own. If your definition of scat includes using the human voice to emulate an instrument, then I would think that beatboxing would fall well within that definition (unless you're not counting percussion and synthesizers as instruments).
Most of these examples are more nonsense than song. Does beatbox count as scat? I don't know, but these folks are impressive. I know that they've mastered a musical talent that requires them to use sounds and syllables to create the songs that they perform. Jazz and scat purists may dismiss this as gimmickery, but you can't help but respect someone who diplays this much talent regardless of the label you put on it. Try the Naturally 7 video, where you've got a band that consists entirely of human voices, before you make up your mind.
Part Nonsense Song, Part Beatbox, All Awesome - Reggie Watts Does Wonderful Things with Music
I takes until about 3 minutes to get to the good stuff but this Reggie Watts TED talk is a brilliant example of playing with words and your voice to make something wholly new.
Sample Scat, Beatbox, and Nonsense Songs - Louis Armstrong, Ike and Tina Turner, and Sarah Vaughn
plus Cab Calloway, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, and much more. If you just can't get enough of the vocal improvisation and sheer free-spirited joy of scat, take a listen to some of these fabulous songs.
Do you love jazzier scat or modern beatboxing? Did I miss anyone who deserves to be highlighted? I'd love some input on fellow nonsense song and scat lovers. Please tell me about your favorite music!