Scat Singing: What Is It, and How Do I Do It?

scat singing trumpet

If you’ve ever heard someone singing a string of nonsense syllables in the middle of a song and wondered “what’s that all about?”, then you need schooling in the art of scat!

Scat singing is a fun and freeing vocal style, but there’s a lot more to it than just making funny noises with your voice. Whether you’re a jazz aficionado wanting to learn everything you can about the art form or a beatboxer looking to expand your bank of sound effects, you’ll find much to enjoy in the world of scat.

We’re going to look at what scat is, where it came from, and how you can learn to dooby dooby do it too in the style of some of the greatest scat vocalists of all time:

What is scat singing?

Scat singing is non-lyrical vocal improvisation – that is to say, a singer is free to make up their own words and melody to solo in much the same way as any other instrument in a band.

Scat singers often use their voices to create a kind of scat vocabulary, similar to the drum-style ‘ba dum tsh’ sting you might have heard to mark the punchline of a joke, or the trombone-style ‘womp womp’ sounds you might hear when a contestant gets a question wrong on a game show.

As jazz grew in popularity throughout the early 20th century, the ability to improvise became more and more important. Musicians found more and more inventive ways to match the range and expressiveness of the human singing voice, such as the slide on a trombone being used to scoop up from a lower note to a higher note, or the strings on a guitar being bent to simulate vibrato.

With so much soloing happening onstage, it wasn’t long before singers joined the party, imitating the sounds of the instruments right back to them in a ‘call and response’ arrangement.

Watch this scat introduction and demonstration given by Michael Mwenso and Brianna Thomas for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy to hear what we mean:

Where does scat singing come from?

The exact origins of scat singing are unknown, but singing without words is likely to have existed in some form or another since music began.

When most casual jazz fans hear this question, they would probably answer ‘Louis Armstrong’. This is most likely because Louis’ impressive musicianship and distinctive voice helped to propel scat into the mainstream and influenced many other famous jazz musicians to put their own spin on it.

Legend has it that, when recording the future hit ‘Heebie Jeebies’ with his band the Hot Five all the way back in 1926, Louis Armstrong’s lyric sheet fell to the ground. Rather than stop the session, he decided to improvise.

In his own words: “So when I dropped the paper, I immediately turned back into the horn and started to Scatting . . . Just as nothing had happened . . . When I finished the record I just knew the recording people would throw it out . . . And to my surprise they all came running out of the controlling booth and said—’Leave That In.'”

After some typically excellent trumpeting, you can hear Louis start to scat just before ‘Heebie Jeebies’ reaches the minute-and-a-half mark:

Although scat singing is most closely associated with the jazz genre, we can trace its roots much further back than that, with some music historians believing that it began with the close relationship between musical instruments and the human voice in West African music, before making its way over to the United States.

One of the earliest known recordings of scat was of Vaudeville singer and ‘Ragtime King’ Gene Greene singing ‘King of the Bungaloos’ in 1911. The final chorus that Greene sings bears all the hallmarks of scat singing:

However, this doesn’t take away from the huge and lasting impact that Louis Armstrong’s work with scat had on the jazz genre, and the music world in general. Everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Mel Tormé would be inspired by Armstrong to pioneer their own areas of scat singing, taking it to dizzying new heights.

Here’s a video of Ella and Mel demonstrating their expert-level scatting abilities together:

Imitating instruments with nonsense syllables was also adopted by other genres, such as doo-wop, which was hugely popular from the fifties until the early sixties. The main appeal of doo-wop for teenagers growing up in the rougher areas of Detroit, Chicago and New York was that little to no actual instrumentation was required to form a group, so vocal doo-wop groups began to spring up at school dances and on street corners, mimicking the sounds of the missing drums and double bass with their voices.

Listen to bass singer Fred Johnson’s iconic ‘bomp-baba-bomp’ intro to the Marcels’ 1961 cover of ‘Blue Moon’:

Louis Prima’s turn as King Louis in Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation of the Jungle Book brought jazz to a whole new generation of movie-goers, and is still today many people’s go-to example of what scat singing is. King Louis is scatting right off the bat in ‘I Wan’na Be LIke You’, displaying some impressive trombone- and drum-like sound effects – but it’s when he’s joined by Phil Harris as the lovable bear Baloo that the scat singing is taken to the next level.

Listen to Louis and Baloo trade off riffs in this scat sing-off:

Who are the best scat singers?

There are many vocalists who have achieved or at least come close to Louis Armstrong’s legendary status in the scat world.

Scat’s true home is undeniably in jazz – here are 4 of our favourite reasons why:

The Boswell Sisters

Sisters Martha, Connee and Helvetia Boswell’s unique take on jazz standards made them among the earliest stars of radio in the 1930s, helping to bring jazz to a much wider audience. Not only did they bring their own signature brand of gibberish to the table, but they also did so in close harmony:

Ella Fitzgerald

Listening to Louis Armstrong and the Boswell Sisters helped a young Fitzgerald form her own vocal style (modeled after her favourite Sister, Connie Boswell) during the Great Depression and go on to be considered one of the best scat singers this world has ever seen. In 1945, she cut what is generally agreed to be one of the most influential scat performances of all time – you can hear why after the first few seconds:

Scatman Crothers

Known as much for his memorable appearances in such films as the Shining, Benjamin ‘Scatman’ Crothers also lent his vocal talents to the world of animation, voicing such classic characters as Hong Kong Phooey and Scat Cat in the Aristocats (which also features another turn from Phil Harris, this time as the swingin’ kitty Thomas O’Malley). This version features different lyrics to the version that appears in the film, as well as an excellent example of Crother’s exceptional scat skills:

Betty Carter

Highly regarded in the jazz community, Betty Carter’s unmistakable smooth voice and inventive approach to scat singing made her stand out a mile. A great example of her unmatched control over timing, tone, and pitch can be heard in her rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic ‘My Favourite Things’ – listen to how she reimagines the lyrics and melody to the point that they almost sound like scat singing themselves, before going full scat midway through the performance:

There are also many instances of scat singing outside the jazz genre. Here are 4 you may have heard of:

Scatman John

The second Scatman on our list brought scat singing to a modern audience, thanks to his first single’s euro-dance backdrop – but you can tell he’s equally worthy of this title by the intro alone. After years hidden behind the piano due to a severe stutter which had affected him since childhood, John Larkin moved to Berlin, threw caution to the wind, and became internationally famous as a scat singer at the age of 53:

Freddie Mercury

Queen’s performance at Live Aid has gone down in history as one of the greatest rock performances of all time, and Freddie Mercury’s  ‘Ay-Oh!’ back-and-forth with the audience proves that scat speaks to people from all over the world. However, if you want undeniable evidence that Freddie was a master scat singer, look no further than his collaboration with David Bowie:

Anthony Kiedis

The Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman has flirted with a few different vocal styles over the band’s decades-long career. Along with his earlier rapping and his later melodic singing and, Kiedis has occasionally broken into scat, one such occasion being the final verse of a b-side so popular that it was re-released as a single:

Jonathan Davis

Perhaps the most unusual example on this list proves that the impact of scat singing can even be felt in the nu-metal of Korn. Jonathan Davis’s harsh, guttural take on this vocal technique would gain worldwide attention an album later thanks to its appearance during the middle section of ‘Freak On a Leash’, but true fans of the band heard it here first:

How can I learn to scat?

Professional singers will have practiced their craft for hundreds, if not thousands, of hours before they even think about debuting something new onstage. So before you try to scat at an open mic night, first you’ve got to learn, then you’ve got to practice.

Although improvisation is meant to be spontaneous, even the greatest scat singers aren’t pulling their riffs out of thin air. Musicians are like magpies, picking and choosing their favourite shiny treasures out of everything they’ve ever heard or learned, and putting them all back together again to create something new on the spot.

Sometimes, musicians borrow musical phrases or melodies from other songs, and add them to their own performances of other songs. In the world of scat singing, this is not considered theft – in fact, it’s a mark of respect to reference the work of another artist during a performance, and it’s called ‘quotation’. To quote Oscare Wilde, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’!

‘Quoting’ musical phrases from other compositions is a tradition that goes back as scat singing itself. It’s like a musical wink and nod to the audience, meaning that the performer or composer knows something that the audience knows too.

You can hear Puccini quoting ‘the Star-Spangled Banner’ in his opera ‘Madama Butterfly’ as a theme for the American character, Pinkerton. Because the American national anthem is so recognisable, it instantly makes the audience think of the United States:

You can also hear Extreme, a band known for their complex arrangements and technical skill, quote ‘Rondo Alla Turca’, a song by the incredibly talented composer and musician Mozart, in the intro to their song ‘Play With Me’:

Some musicians quote their own earlier work in later songs. The Beatles famously did this during the outro of 1967’s ‘All You Need Is Love’, recapping their career by quoting 1964’s ‘She Loves You’ and 1965’s ‘Yesterday’ alongside works by other famous composers:

One of the best examples of musical quotations in scat singing can be heard in this recording of Ella Fitzgerald performing ‘How High the Moon’ live in Berlin in 1960. In the space of a single song, she managed to quote Irving Berlin’s ‘Heatwave’, George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, her own breakthrough jazz version of the nursery rhyme ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’, and many more:

This shows that the best way to learn how to scat sing yourself is to keep listening to and keep imitating your favourite scat singers, as well as other music that you enjoy so that you can incorporate it into your own scat singing.

Aside from listening to as many of the scat-singing greats as you can for inspiration, let’s think about what the core ingredients of scat singing are, and see how we can put them together to create our own vocal lines. If you come up with any that you really like, try and remember them – then you can quote yourself!

The two main elements of scat singing are:

  • the different syllable sounds
  • the musical improvisation

To come up with different sounding syllables for scat, think about the different musical instruments you can make your voice sound like.

You could sing a walking bass line, moving up and down the scale with lower, shorter syllables like ‘bom ba-dom dom dom’.

You could also try singing a trombone-style part in your mid-range, stretching and bending longer ‘wah wuh-wah wah’ syllables up and down.

Or, you could sing rapid, percussive syllables such as ‘boom boom bah-bah-bah’ to try to recreate the frantic rhythms of jazz drummers like Gene Krupa:

To improvise musically, you are going to need to know some basic music theory. Even if you don’t know the names of the different patterns that you’re singing, you’ll be able to tell by ear which ones work better than others.

Just like other instrumentalists who improvise over a chord pattern, you will find it a lot easier to know where you’re going if you’re familiar with basic scales and arpeggios. You will also find it a lot easier to improvise over a song that you know well, or at least a song that follows a chord pattern that you recognise.

Take this very common chord pattern, also known as the ‘50’s progression’, in the key of C major:

CAmFG

This chord progression can also be written as ‘I-vi-IV-V’, meaning the 1st, 6th, 4th and 5th chords of the key they’re played in, and is featured in many well-known songs such as ‘Baby’ by Justin Bieber, ‘Crocodile Rock’ by Elton John, and ‘Lonely This Christmas’ by Mud.

Even though these songs are in different keys, they follow the same 1-6-4-5 progression. So once you know what your starting note is, you know that a phrase or a riff that works for one will work for all of them.

Now, let’s focus on the notes that make each of these chords up:

CAmFG
CAFG
ECAB
GECD

You’ll notice that the first 3 chords have a couple of notes in common. This relationship forms the basis of most melodies, with other passing notes in between to make them more interesting to our ears.

Knowing this can help you come up with your own scat singing patterns, which you can then transpose to different keys for songs that use this same progression.

This short, 3-note phrase, for example, can be repeated over each of the first 3 chords of the 50’s progression in C major, because each of those chords is made of 2 of the notes.

GAC
woowuhwah

So if you wanted to use this phrase to improvise over ‘Crocodile Rock’, which is in the key of G major, you would just need to change the notes in the phrase to D-E-G, and if you wanted to scat along to ‘Baby’, which in Eb major, you’d use Bb-C-Eb.

But it’s about more than just the notes – change the syllables you sing the notes with, and change the rhythm to create something different. You could sing 2 Gs (“woo woo wuh-wah”) or change the order or the pattern and the length of the notes (“woo wuh-wah wah wu-waaah”).

The same rule applies to any scales, riffs, or runs that you want to save in your scat memory bank. Even something as simple as running down the C major scale can be made more interesting.

So rather than running straight down each note in a regular rhythm like this:

CAmFG
G-F-E-D-CA-G-F-E-D
scoo-bah-doo-buh-bahscoo-bah-doo-buh-bah

You can move notes around, lengthen and shorten them, and repeat them to create something less rigid and more expressive. You can also try adding extra ‘blue’ notes between the notes of the scale that you’re singing – notes that aren’t technically in the scale, but sit between notes that are, giving you scat singing a more ‘bluesy’ feel.

CAmFG
…G-F#-F-E-D-C… A – A –A… G-A-G-F-E-D… E-D
…scoo-bah-doo-buh-duh-baaah… scoo – scoo – scoo… buh-doo-bah-doo-buh-bah… buh-bah

You can also try playing around with the rhythm of ‘quotes’ from other songs, and adding scat syllables to them, when you’re singing a different song. Let’s combine our earlier examples that use the same chord progression (‘Baby’ and ‘Crocodile Rock’) with some of our scat syllables, and put them all into our key of C major:

CAm
Baby, baby, baby, oh / scoo-bah-doo-buh-bahBaby, baby, baby, no / la-la-la-la-
E-D E-D E-D-G / G-F-E-D-CE-D E-D E-D-A / E-D-C-D-
FG
La… / baby, baby, oh / la-la-la-la-La… / always be mi-ne / woo wuh-wah
A… / E-D E-D, G / F-E-D-E-D… / E-E-E-D / D-E-G

To practice your improv skills, keep playing around with this chord pattern and see if you can come up with something new to scat each time around.

Of course, not all songs follow the same chord pattern as the one we’ve used for this exercise, but the more music you listen to, the more you’ll notice common themes being repeated.
Eventually, you’ll have enough scat syllables and phrases (plus a few musical quotations!) saved in your music bank to enable you to skee-bop! and badda-bow! your way through any song you sing!