What is Scat Singing?

‘Scat’ singing refers to a type of vocal improvisation which is generally wordless and often consists of syllables that do not have any meaning and are made up on the spot.

Scat is a common feature of jazz vocal performances where the voice is used as an instrument to sing improvised melodies and rhythms. 

In 1955, Little Richard paved the way for rock n’ roll with his song ‘Tutti Frutti’. The reason it was so unique at the time and inspired generations of musicians to come is because it featured a very unique scat vocal over a loud and distinct beat.

While scat singing was introduced to a larger audience through Little Richard’s song, it has a unique history and can be used in many different genres. Read on to find out what scat singing is, where it came from, and how you can use it in your musical performance.

The History Of Scat

Although it is difficult to determine an exact date of origin for scat singing, the technique is a mix of yodeling and diddling from European countries mixed with various religious glossolalia. 

Some of the earliest known examples of this technique can be traced back to the 1910s; in songs such as ‘King Of The Bungaloos’ by Gene Greene, Al Jolson’s ‘That Haunting Melody’, ‘Scissor Gringer Joe’ by Gene Rodemich, etc.

Louis Armstrong is often credited for modernizing scat singing. In 1926 he released the song ‘Heebie Jeebies’.

It is believed that Armstrong was unable to recall the lyrics of the song during recording. Instead of stopping and restarting the session, he chose to simply make up the vocals that would go on to feature in the song, thus giving birth to modern scat singing.

As jazz music continued to thrive during the Great Depression and onwards, scat singing became a common attribute of the genre and was popularised by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald. In the 90s, there was a revival of this technique by Scatman John, and the song ‘Scatman (Ski-ba-bop-ba-dop-bop)’ released in 1996 pushed it into mainstream pop. 

In the current context, scatting is a common attribute to not just jazz, but also hip hop and pop music.

Characteristics Of Scat Singing:

  • Use of nonsensical words to establish a rhythm or melody in the song.
  • Just like instrumentalists, scatting is a way for vocalists to improvise on a section of the song, especially during a vocal solo. 
  • Many musicians use scat as a means to build and create a melody before introducing words or lyrics to a piece of music.
  • It is different from ‘vocalese’, the technique which uses pre-determined words to fill in sections such as instrumental solos.
  • Often used as a means to induce humor in an otherwise serious piece of music or song.

Famous Songs That Use Scat Singing:

Scatman (Ski-ba-bop-ba-dop-bop) By Scatman John

The reason why this song became so popular is that this is the first time we hear scatting in the context of mainstream pop. While the vocals emulate a traditional jazz technique, the other elements of the song convey pop music.

Flying Home By Ella Fitzgerald

Often regarded as one of the greatest scat singers of all time, Ella Fitzgerald uses more scatting than actual lyrics in this song. In her live performances, the song was often extended allowing for further improvisation.

The Scat Song By Cab Calloway

This song was recorded in the 1930s and it was believed that he would perform this style of music at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem during the swing era.

Eazy Street By Eazy-E

As we mentioned earlier, scatting has often been used by hip-hop artists and this song is a great example of the technique integrating seamlessly into the genre.

I Wanna Be Like You By Louis Prima (The Jungle Book)

Most of us have heard this song in our childhood without even realizing the use of scat singing.  The song was originally recorded in 1967 for the soundtrack of Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’.

The Evolution Of Scatting

Since scat singing requires a lot of skill, it is not very often we hear it in mainstream music. But having said that, many singers often use it as a means to express themselves in parts of a song. Here are some modern-day examples:

  • Crazy Frog-Axel F

This catchy song released in 2005 draws its inspiration from scat singing, much to the annoyance of the listener. 

  • The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie- Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Anthony Kiedis often uses scat in various songs. In this particular one, you can hear him freestyling in the outro. 

  • October Song- Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse was known for her use of jazz techniques and the outro of this song features a small scat snippet.

  • Uptown Funk- Bruno Mars

The type of scat used in the intro of this song is known as ‘vocal bass’ and it emulates the bassline using the rhythmic structure of the song.

  • Two Princes- Spin Doctors

This song is another example of scat singing being used in 90s music. The verses incorporate scat in between them. 

  • MMMBop- Hanson

The chorus of this song is a great example of scat vocals in a more modern context. The use of gibberish to convey a melody is one of the predominant characteristics of this style.

Summary

Scat singing is something that has stood the test of time and continues to be an integral part of the music. It is used by both pop stars as well as jazz singers to sound unique and convey their feelings through the lyrics. Singing without actual lyrics allows for further improvisation giving it even more prominence in today’s music scene.

While it is hard for vocalists to scat like Anita O’Day or Dizzy Gillespie, it doesn’t hurt to use the technique when composing music.

If you are a songwriter and feel stuck, try using scat as a means to progress during songwriting, it definitely works!

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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