Miscellaneous Thoughts on Vocables

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This post arises from a collection of random notes in my Thinking Book and conversations on social media, none of which were substantial enough to make a post of their own, but would if bundled together. So, a bit of a miscellany, but at least a themed one.

Vocables are the nonsense/neutral sysllables we use in a cappella to create accompanying textures. They are sometimes intended to evoke instrumental textures explicitly, but they’re often simply about creating a distinctive expressive profile for a song and providing expressive variety over the course of the musical narrative.

Change vocable when you change pattern

One of the things that takes up an awful lot of rehearsal time when working with human beings, especially human beings who work in idioms that involve memorising music, is handling the bits where a pattern changes. You set up a riff, and then some pesky musical detail like how the melody goes or a change in chord means you have to mess with it – in the process, messing with the singers’ heads just as they’d got settled into their stride.

It really helps them remember where the change in note pattern occurs if it’s marked with a change in vocable at the same time.

Obviously, this needs a certain amount of curating, you can’t just throw in a different bar mid-phrase to accommodate a rogue twiddle in the tune and expect it automatically to make sense. But once you start working with it as a principle, it helps drive other decisions. It may set up a pattern that you can go on to use to shape longer musical arcs, or it might make you reconsider your original riff to set up the change more coherently.

But it’s very much in the category of arranging decision of ‘if I had to pay the singers by the hour to learn this, would I write it this way?’

Does it matter how you spell vocables?

This question was the focus of a discussion in the Barbershop Arrangers facebook group recently, particularly centring on whether putting an h on the vowel sounds made them more or less easy to read. Are ‘O’ and ‘oo’ clearer than ‘Oh’ and ‘ooh’?

I can report that opinions are divided on this, and that in an international group, assumptions about pronunciation derived from different regional accents cause complicating cross-purposes in the discussion. But it was a good question that got me thinking.

I use ‘Oh’ as standard, because it does appear to be standard, and it can be sung with expressive purpose, not just as a neutral syllable. Having said that, I went on to remember that Christmas carols often spell it without the H, though I’m not sure the declarative impact of an ‘O’ would be clear when not in the context of an explicit lyric. My feeling is that as a vocable, you’d get people wondering whether it should be rhymed with hot or boat, whereas with the h appended there’s no doubt it’s the latter.

With oo/ooh I’m pretty sure I use both in different contexts, though I’d not previously thought through explicitly why I might use one or the other. I know I use the h when I want the vocable invested with a particular communicative intent, though browsing through examples trying to work out what I do I also see ‘oo’ used in ways that work expressively. Though it is definitely a different expressive feel from ‘ooh’ so I’m pretty sure I have been making a distinction at an intuitive level that I’d not hitherto really spelled out (so to speak).

I think if I were to use both in the same song (I wouldn’t put this past myself though I’ve not found examples yet), I’d be wanting to make a clear distinction between the musical function/impact of the two spellings. And if you find both spellings used for different iterations of the same pattern in one of my charts, that is just inadequate proof-reading, so please let me know and I’ll clean it up.

So should vocables carry meaning?

One of the formative experiences of my a cappella life was seeing Wes Carroll give a workshop on vocal percussion, and one of the points he made was that you want the sounds you use to build the sonic texture not to be linguistic sounds. Otherwise people’s brains are forever trying to string the syllables into sense, where no sense is to be made.

I think sung syllables have less of a problem with this than the voiced (and indeed unvoiced) speech tones used for vocal percussion, but it’s still something to be aware of. It can be fun to derive vocables from the lyrics of the song itself, indeed, but since in this case the connection with the main song is clearly audible, the effect remains coherent.

Whilst you don’t want to write vocables that are going to be linguistically distracting, you do want the singers to be able to feel expressively involved in delivering the music. So, as noted above vowels that can also be used to deliver an opinion are your friend: Oh! Ooooh, Ahh… Also, vocables that contribute to shaping the musical line give the singers something to do. Actually, the key point here might be to write a line that has enough interest to be worth shaping with the vocables.

Singers like communicating with lyrics, and one of the advantages of homophonic texture is that nobody feels like they’re missing out on telling the story. So when we take that away from one or more parts for the sake of creating a more distinctive and varied audience experience over the course of a set, we need to make more, rather than less effort, to give the singers some story-telling to do. People will quite happily communicate as expressively as a Clanger so long as we give them the material with which to do so.

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