Nonsense syllables

No, not just ad libs this time. I’m talking non-lexical vocables today.

In February, I wrote of listening to Michael Jackson:

Still, when in the mood for it, I dutifully include every sniff, snort and sharp intake of breath when singing along to his tunes, as any good fan surely should, particularly when driving alone in the car where nobody else can hear. (Well, don’t you? Be honest.)

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one to admit to this.

Sometimes the artist gives you little choice but to join in with the sha-la-las and dooby-doos because he or she has included so many of them.

We all remember, I’m sure, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, with its enduring ‘Do-Re-Mi’ which teaches the von Trapp children and countless millions of others by extension the seven notes of the major musical scale. For each note (well, with the exception of La, but be fair: can you think of an example for La that young children would recognise and then condense it into a line that rhymes with… whatever it would have rhymed with, presumably, if not for the note’s bloody awkwardness messing everything up?*) a familiar, similar-sounding English word is matched to it (Do becomes a female deer, Doe; Re becomes Ray, a drop of golden sun, etc.), and each note is sung to a special sound-cum-word at the pitch it names. (I don’t care to better understand or attempt to explain it with more clarity than I just did, either, but stick with me. Oh, and please don’t bother trying to explain it to me, I always hated music lessons even though I did have a fairly tuneful and constant la-la-la playing inside my head throughout each class. Reading about this music lark led me to glottal stops which are much more interesting anyway, so I’m not going back to sol-fa or solfège even if you paid me to do so. It would just be wasted on me. Thanks anyway.)

By now, if you didn’t already know and my guess is that many of you did, I expect you’ve gathered that non-lexical vocables are those delightful utterances – or vocables – that mean absolutely nothing, as in the refrain to the well-known Christmas carol ‘Deck the Halls’ (“with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la”). Let’s call them nonsense syllables because that sounds less pretentious. These emulate the sound of musical instruments and allow us the joys of vocal improvisation. Think of doo-wop, scat or beat boxing, where the voice is used as an instrument to produce sounds rather than words. They have become words without meaning, if you like; sometimes for poetic effect, sometimes to be funny (thinking Disney: ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ from Mary Poppins and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book), sometimes just to create the right mood.

The master of vocal improvisation is Bobby McFerrin, who has recorded without any instrumental accompaniment and, as did Roger Waters and Ron Geesin on 1970’s Music from the Body, instead favoured sounds created by slapping his body or popping his fingers. (Check out his version of the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ from his 1984 album, The Voice).

However, I’d like to honour John Paul Larkin, a jazz pianist better known for his brief success as Scatman John. His 1994 debut single ‘Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)’ was a worldwide smash hit and topped the charts across Europe and in Japan. He was in his fifties at the time and throughout his life had been plagued by insecurities arising from his stutter, eventually descending into alcoholism and self-doubt. His is an inspirational story, so if you’re in need of that warm inner glow today, do read about him.

He also wrote, and rapped, this great line:

“Why should we be pleasing all the politician heathens
Who would try to change the seasons if they could?”

Why indeed.

Another example with a good story behind it is Paul McCartney’s tribute to Jamaican ska, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (which means ‘Life goes on’, apparently, in the language of the Yoruba people of West Africa; more here, if you’re interested). If you know of a story behind any of these songs or any of these nonsense syllables for that matter, please don’t keep it to yourself.

Take your pick of examples from the likes of Kate Bush, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and the doo-wop acts of the Fifties and Sixties. There are many to be gleaned from the back catalogues of that lovely lot.

Here are a few to start the ball rolling. Be sure to sing along.

– Manfred Mann, ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’
– Roy Orbison, ‘Only the Lonely’
– The Police, ‘De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da’
– Ringo Starr, ‘La De Da’
– Van Morrison, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’

The chatroom will be open tomorrow from 1pm (UK), should you have nothing better to do for a couple of hours.

*Alright, so Scousers sometimes use “la” at the end of a sentence as a substitute for “mate” or “buddy”, but surely that wouldn’t have worked on the von Trapps.

Author: FEd

Features Editor of David Gilmour’s official blog, The Blog (‘Features’ previously being its rather naff title), affectionately – or lazily – shortened to ‘FEd’.

74 thoughts on “Nonsense syllables”

  1. Goodness me F’ed, you are in an erudite vein just now.

    I’ve never been drawn to doo-wops or sha-la-las per se and am scratching my head for anything but your mentions (well except the Police which was always just irritating do have a certain joie de vivre, n’est pas?

    One that springs to mind is the Carpenters “Yesterday Once More” which has the advantage of being self-referential as it is about songs that contain such things …

    Every sha-la-la-la
    Every wo-wo-wo
    Still shines
    Every shing-a-ling-a-ling
    That they’re starting to sing’s
    So fine

    Quite. Actually this is one of relatively few songs that has a strong association for me … specifically of a caravan holiday in the Lake District (Skelwith Fold if you know it) when this song seemed to be on the radio a lot. Karen Carpenter’s honeyed tones are lovely; if rather spoiled by the smaltz of the production.

    Another example not listed by you would be “Good Vibrations” which has plenty of oom bop bops and a splendid closing series of na na nas and do do dos.

    “Doe a deer etc.” is actually genius when you think about it …. it’s a rare thing to write a song that becomes almost a standard text for musical education and the Sound of Music deserves great respect for being absolutely jam-packed with sing-a-long standards.

  2. You took “Brown Eyed Girl” from me, which is one of my favorite non-PF/DG songs. D’yer Mak’er also comes immediately to mind, but then again Zeppelin could probably fill a thread of its own with all the oohs, ahhs, ayes and ohs in their repertoire. “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue” from the Stones also come to mind when I think of abundant “oohs”.

    But probably my favorite nonsensical lyric is from “Roadhouse Blues” from The Doors. I’ve been trying to sing that one for over twenty five years and I still can’t get it right.

  3. Little Richard “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bop-bop.”

    This is from the song “Tutti- Frutti” (1955).

  4. Interesting and informative post, thank you.

    Not sure I’m able to mention many examples of nonsense syllables, because maybe they sound like nonsense to me but actually are not at all in English.

    But I will give it a try:

    – ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, Gene Vincent
    – ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’, The Hollies
    – ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, The Sherman Brothers
    ‘Hey! Ba Ba Re Bop’, Lionel Hampton
    – ‘Tchiki Boum’, Niagara
    ‘Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)’, John Scatman

    You always hated music lessons… Did you prefer Math lessons? 😉

    1. Both seemed to be very cunning forms of torture to me. I grudgingly accept that Maths should be a compulsory subject taught to everyone whether they like it or not, but Music shouldn’t. What a waste of time for those who couldn’t give a toss about good boys deserving football or cows eating grass.

    1. Oh, but in the world of doping, “Doobie” has a meaning. It’s a really good joint, as in “Smokin’ a doobie.”

  5. Or this one Fed:

    “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma” by Steve Miller Band, a fine sentiment.

  6. A to Z challenge time again…

    Here goes…

    Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey – Modern Romance
    Bama Lamma Bama Loo – Little Richard
    Be Bop A Loola – Gene Vincent
    Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep – Middle Of The Road
    Da Doo Ron Ron – The Crystals
    De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da – Police
    Do Wah Diddy Diddy – Manfred Mann
    Dick-A-Dum-Dum – Des O`Connor
    Eeny Meeny – The Showstoppers
    Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) – Otis Redding
    Gimme Dat Ding – The Pipkins
    Gin Gang Goolie – The Scaffold
    Hi Hi Hi – Paul McCartney
    Ieya – Toyah (You’ve just got to love the Eighties)
    It’s In His Kiss – Cher
    Jabalaya – The Carpenters
    Kara Kara – New World
    La Booga Rooga – Andy Fairweather Low
    Me Oh My – Bryan Ferry
    Na Na Na – Cozy Powell
    Na Na Hey Hey kiss Him Goodbye – Steam
    Ooh La La (Let’s Go Dancin’) – Kool and The Gang
    Ooh Wakka Doo Wakka Day – Gilbert O’Sullivan
    Peek-A-Boo – Siouxsie & The Banshees
    Que Sera – Chris Rea
    Radio Ga Ga – Queen
    Rockin’ Robin – Jackson 5
    Sha La La – Manfred Mann
    Sha La La La Lee – Small Faces
    Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee – Bob Dylan
    Uh Huh Oh Yeh – Paul Weller
    Veni Vidi Vici – Ronnie Hilton
    Wig Wam Bam – The Sweet
    Xanadu – Olivia Newton John
    Ying Tong Song – The Goons
    Zabadak – Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch

    I could have also mentioned Venga Boys – Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.

    1. Love that Pipkins tune. I’d originally meant to include ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. It would have paved a nice opening to the next topic.

    2. Love that Pipkins tune. I’d originally meant to include ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. It would have paved a nice opening to the next topic.

      Next-but-one topic now. It’s hardly a suitable soundtrack for rioting Londoners.

  7. The first song that came to my mind is Cab Calloway, “Minnie the Moocher”. This is the version performed in the movie “The Blues Brothers”.

    1. Hi de hi de hi de hi! -ho de ho de ho de ho!-
      he de he de he de he!

      I love this hep cat more than I can say: FABULOUS Cab Calloway!

      He built a GIANT vocabulary of nonsense words that could challenge any dictionary for its rich complexity, not to mention sheer boogie-ness. 8)

      Here’s a list to “keep you groovy 24 hours a day!”

      Calloway Boogie
      Geechy Joe (Flubbadubbadubbadubbadubba….!)
      The Scat Song (untranscribable)
      Are You All Reet? (Yes, we’re all reet!)
      Who’s Yerhootie?
      We the Cats Shall Hep Ya (aboodledeebeedledeebye-abbaddeebangboy-langdeebipbo-arigledeeboobledeebob-that’s righteous riff!)
      Trickeration (untranslatable)
      Boo Wah Boo Wah

      Last but not least, Kickin’ the Gong Around!

  8. I don’t think this fits in with the topic but it’s very good and maybe worth a look.


    Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with the company. Sorry for bringing advertising here Fed, if you want me to do penance, I will.

  9. Paint It Black.

    “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaa” right at the end.

    Strangers In The Night. For you Fed 🙂

    “Dooody doooby doo. . .doo doo doo dee dah. . . dah dah dah dahyahyah eee yahyah eeeyahyeeh.”

    (I hope you appreciate the effort I went to to quote all those nonsense syllables, do you have any idea how many replays you have to play to get them all? And I got dizzy trying to get the one on the fade out, so it may not be accurate.)

    The Mana Mana song by the Muppets. :))


    1. Bonus points for Ash for the Frank Sinatra mention. I’m going to be listening to him all day now. Heaven help those of you who visit the chatroom this afternoon.

  10. Keep Talking

    At about four minutes in, David uses a voice box, is it called? Does this qualify?

    Trying hard to think of a, ‘la la la ooby dooby do’, Floyd song. 8| There isn’t one, is there?


  11. Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!
    Tutti frutti, oh rutti,
    Tutti frutti, oh rutti,
    Tutti frutti, oh rutti,
    Tutti frutti, oh rutti,
    Tutti frutti, oh rutti,
    Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!

    (Don’t know if the spelling is right! I imported it from some website.)


  12. Here is an oldie I think you’ll remember FEd, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah from Song of the South. In fact now I will be singing that song for the rest of the day.

    Take Care and have a great weekend,

  13. Lots of nonsense syllables in ‘We Go Together’ from ‘Grease’ – Not that I like this musical, though:

    “We go together like ra ma la ma
    La ma ka dinga kading a dong
    Remember forever, as shoo wop
    Shoo waddy waddy yippity boom de boom
    Chang chang changity chang shoo bop
    That’s the way it should be, wahoo yeah

    We’re one of the kind, like dip da dip da dip
    Doo wop da doo dee doo
    Our names are signed, a boogedy boogedy boogedy
    Boogedy shooby shoo wop she bop
    Chang chang changity chang shoo bop
    We’ll always be like one wa wa wa one

    Ra ma la ma la ma ka dinga kading a dong
    Shoo wop shoo waddy waddy yippity boom de boom
    Chang chang changity chang shoo bop
    Dip da dip da dip doo wop da doo dee doo
    Boogedy boogedy boogedy boogedy shooby shoo wop shoo wop
    Sha na na na na na na na, yipity dip de boom

    A wop boma loo mop, A wop bam boom

    We’re for each other
    Like a wop boma loo mop a wop bam boom
    Just like my brother
    He’s sha na na na na na na na yipity dip de boom
    Chang chang changity chang shoo bop
    We’ll always be together, wahoo, yeah”

    We also have our nonsense syllables here: 😉

    “Des CLIP ! CRAP ! des BANG ! des VLOP ! et des ZIP !
    Ça fait VLAM ! ça fait SPLATCH ! et ça fait CHTUCK !
    Ou bien BOMP ! ou HUMPF ! parfois même PFFF !”

    ‘Comic Strip’ by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot – Love it. 🙂

  14. Yes, I sing loud and proud to Paul McCartney’s “Heart of the Country”!

    (By the way, the eye surgery was grand and I’m seeing better than ever! I choked when I got to the operating room, but this nice man gave me a shot of something wonderful, bless him, and I really didn’t give a rat’s patootie after that!)

  15. Alessandra beat me to the punch with Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” with its nonsense chorus:

    “Hi de hi de hi de hi, Ho de ho de ho de ho.”

    What Alessandra didn’t mention is that the chorus had words, but Calloway forgot them one night on stage (and possibly with a live radio audience as well). So the nonsense words and the “call-response” thing were improvised out of that. Sometimes a moment of sheer awkwardness can become a flash of brilliance that defines an entire career.

    Check out this trippy Betty Boop cartoon from the early 1930s that features a weird version of the song (starting at about 4:25). It also features the earliest known live-action footage of Calloway himself. The cartoon was banned in 1934 for its drug references.

    1. My annoying internet connection finally let me watch the Betty Boop video. Creepy is just the right word. 8|

      The ghost animal, which I read is a walrus, made me think of The Beatles song, “I Am the Walrus”.

      “Goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob.”

    2. Great minds think alike Alessandra. 🙂 We both thought of The Beatles song.

      Well done Dan, your telepathic powers are improving, you placed that in both our minds. 😛

      Anyone think that this could be the earliest moon walker we’ve seen?


    3. The Betty Boop cartoon is mostly ghostly. :)) :/

      In the past I’ve wondered if this was in fact John Lennon’s fabled walrus! 🙂

      “Betty Boop”-“Minnie the Moocher” was frequently shown on cable cartoon shows during Halloween in the USA. It certainly wasn’t banned in the 1980s! I still love this holiday in which “Minnie the Moocher” gets a prominent airing for trick-or-treaters at my house!

      Cab Calloway was an unparalleled gem when it came to music for special occasions! My all-time favorites are “Don’t Falter at the Alter” and “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House.”

    4. Censorship laws were put in place (in the US) in 1934 in response to certain entertainment that pushed the boundaries. These were the first porno films, among other things, but lots of other subjects got banned as well (such as drug use). This radically changed the silver screen until the advent of the ratings system and the gradual repeal of the censorship laws.

      Cable TV in its earliest years was not subject to censorship laws at all, as it did not involve the public’s airwaves or an auditorium that was open to the public. I did not have cable until much later, so I never saw this Betty Boop-Minnie the Moocher cartoon until the day I posted it here.

  16. My contribution is sparse …

    In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – Iron Butterfly
    My Ding-A-Ling – Chuck Berry
    Razzamatazz – Quincy Jones
    Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo – Rick Derringer
    Shambala – Three Dog Night (perhaps this doesn’t qualify since it’s the name given to a Tibetan mythical kingdom)
    Thanks For The Memory – Slade (wasn’t that “wam bam thank you m’am?)
    Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah – Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans (already given an honorable mention above I see)
    Who Put The Bomp (in the bomp, bomp, bomp) – Barry Mann
    She Say (oom dooby doom) – The Diamonds
    Goodness Gracious Me — Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren

  17. Tutti Frutti – Little Richard

    Apparently this song was about his homosexual lover, but the lyrics were changed by the record company.


  18. David, I know you probably wont see this message. But you´ve got too many fans here in Brazil. Roger Waters is coming in 2012… Why don’t you try it, and make a legion happy?

  19. Hi.

    Don’t forget “Good Morning Starshine” from HAIR… gliddy glop gloopy, ibby obby nooby, lee lee low low…etc..etc..!

    I still love that song! 😀


    Just thought that one and what a load of crap it is.


  21. Are you OK FEd? I’ve seen strange pictures of London burning…

    What’s happening? Are the riots caused by gangs or are they normal people?

    Best regards


    1. Thank you for the thought, Taki. I’m some 200 miles away from all that, thankfully. Incredible scenes, aren’t they?

      As for an answer to your question, it depends on who you ask. Normal people, I’d say: people who are tired of struggling to exist on a pittance and being squeezed so that the rich may get richer. Mindless thugs too, no doubt, enjoying the rampage (arguably because they have little else to do). I wish they’d take their anger and direct it some place other than the doors of homes and businesses of ordinary working people who are also struggling, but that’s another matter.

    2. I think it’s as a lot of the media are reporting Taki and Fed. There are feral youngsters out there and they are taking the opportunity to loot because they have pack cover and they outnumber the police.

      So you think you’ve had a bad day, when this type of thing happens. I think we’ll have many more, very bad, days like this if our government doesn’t review its public spending cuts starting with the police service.


    3. I was wondering the same things asked by Taki.

      Our mass media were not clear at all on that point.

      1. Well, the spark was the police shooting and killing a man – a black man, allegedly a gangster and drug dealer, claims which are denied by his family. There is some controversy surrounding his death. The police originally said that they had been fired at first, but this does not match what witnesses have reported.

        You are more likely to be stopped by the police if you are black. The black community in London maintains that the police are, and always have been, racist.

    4. He allegedly had a gun. Our police don’t carry firearms as a routine like in parts of Europe or the USA, firearm trained and carrying officers are only called in when there is strong suspicion that a suspect has a firearm. The police must have had a good reason to be carrying guns. Apparently a non police issue gun was found at the scene.

      As Fed said, the shooting was the spark, but now it is lawlessness.

      It was realised that there were not enough police available to deal with a spontaneously forming large mob.

      It’s almost like the borg hive mind (StarTrack bad guys for anyone who doesn’t know. . . how could anyone not know the borg?). These looters adapt so quickly to a changing situation, they pass on info more quickly than police can track and other parts of the country copy.

      I blame mobile phones. :)) what did we do before we had mobile phones?


    5. Also, it’s been claimed in newscasts that some of those involved are 9, 10, 11 years old!!! 😕 Can you imagine the outcry if the police grab and manhandle such a young looter? The police are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.


    6. When I finally whittle down a ridiculously long piece I’ve written about the unrest, which has been troubling me all week, I hope we can discuss these points further. Bear with me.

  22. ” Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la, Baby it’s You, Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la!”

    Blue Moon: Sha Na Na! 😉

    1. I just watched the video and I think I found them. If you hadn’t told me they were in it, I would have never seen them.

  23. No one has mentioned “I Am The Walrus”, coo coo ca chew, coo coo coo ca chew. 😀

  24. I just remembered about Talking Heads’ Dadaist experiment “I Zimbra”.

    The entire lyrics are nonsensical, but I suppose the meaning, here, is just in the lack of meaning.

  25. 8| Unbelievable.

    Here’s hoping the unrest stops here and now.

    I’m puzzled: were the buildings destroyed as targeted arson or were the burnings random violence? It looks like patrol and riot vehicles were targeted specifically.

    All we are saying is give peace a chance…

  26. I hunted for a Happy Birthday scat, the closest I got was this guitar singing.

    ee diddle do do do
    do do do duh – and lots more good bits like that, and a guy singing too.

    Have a great day Alessandra. 😀

    Love ash X

    1. Beatles

      Da na na na na na na na na (Today is your birthday!)
      Da na na na na na na na na (Well, it’s my birthday too, yeah!)
      Da na na na na na na na na (Today is your birthday!)
      Da na na na na na na na na (We’re gonna have a good time)!

      It’s a lexical vocable at least when WE sing it!

      Happy Birthday to you, Alessandra!

    2. I’ve just seen we were born on the same day, Sharon.

      Happy belated Birthday to you, too. 🙂

    3. Belated Birthday Greetings Sharon. 😀

      Apologies for not catching you on the day, your name wasn’t on the calendar, ask Fed to pencil you in.

      ash X

  27. Thank you all for your Birthday wishes and thank you, Ash, for the B.B. King song. 🙂

  28. Been trying to think of the song that goes to these (sounds like) non lexical vocables:

    Hey boda um boda dit
    Hey diddle ah lida dit
    Um dida ah dida dit


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