On Mel’s third class in the course of “Popular Music of the 20th Century”, Mel has started to sing the chorus of “Witch Doctor”.
The class joined in:
Mel’s response: “How could you know this stupid song? It has no words! Yet it is famous and known by everyone.”
Later that week, my father played another familiar song:
This is when I understood – the power of the melody is so strong, that the words can be nonsensical and absolute meaningless and still leave a strong impression on us. I set out to discover where to draw the line.
So where do we begin?
I guess by looking at the amount of nonsense in our songs.
We’ll place them side by side in a line and sort them by how much of them is made up, popularity and only pick songs relevant to the class’ curriculum.
That creates three basic categories:
1. Little nonsense – just a hook that caught on.
2. Some nonsense – a chorus or more that caught on.
3. All nonsense – the entire song or most of it is made up.
I searched for songs with meaningless words and compiled a playlist which is available here.
We start our journey with the hook.
Those songs have a distinct hook that everyone remembers, most of the time it is in the chorus or the beginning.
The hook is made up entirely of made-up words.
A good place to start, a known song loved by many – “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard. The hook is very strong here:
On the other hand, there is a famous song which has two strong hooks: one in the beginning of the song and the other one in the chorus.
I’m talking about the famous “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire:
You can agree that both hooks are important to this song.
But the strong attachment comes to meaningless chorus!
Another great example, and one of my favorites, is a famous classic from Israel – “הבלדה על ארי ודרצ’י” by כוורת:
In this example, the song utilizes humor and use the lyrics as the melody!
Last “hook” song is a song which was unfamiliar to me before I began researching this book – “Mr. Bass Man” by Johnny Cymbal:
This song has a lot of potential in my opinion, it utilizes the same technique of using the lyrics as the instrument for the melody, lacking the humor part of “כוורת”.
More nonsense! Moving to medium level songs, those has a lot of meaningless lyrics in the song or the entire chorus is meaningless.
A song that I know and love, our protagonist, will be our first example – “Witch Doctor” by the “Cartoons”:
If you haven’t heard this song before, you would probably be hooked right at the first 5 seconds of the song. The lyrics are meaningless, but the melody is captivating!
There are more meaningless words but somehow this song creates a bigger traction and is more famous! everyone knows how to sing the chorus!
The second song is the famous song “Obla di Obla da” by the Beatles:
Released on 1968, peaked several times in the charts in the following years. What makes it memorable?
The lyrics are mediocre but somehow this chorus is like a hook of a song.
Could it be that making easier, more melodious chorus is what makes a meaningless song popular?
It turns out that not necessarily!
Our third song is “אבניבי” by יזהר כהן:
Israel’s entry to the Eurovision of 1978, won first place and is very famous in Israel. This song invents a made up language called “שפת הב” (translation: language of the B).
This song complicates the lyrics of the chorus because it uses real words from the Hebrew language which has been changed. As an Hebrew speaker, you’ll be trying to understand the words but encounter gibberish. Still, loved by many – people know this song very well and learned the made up language to sing along!
Our last entry for this category is a song I didn’t know before – “Who put the bomp” by Barry Mann:
The song starts slow but as soon as the lyrics lose their meaning, the rhythm increases. Is this important?
Going to the highest level of nonsense!
The pinnacle of gibberish!
Those songs are known for their meaningless lyrics.
Our first contender is a famous, known and recently surfaced in the movie “The Lion King” – “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens:
This song is SO GOOD!
Everyone can follow along on the first time hearing it.
Even the normal lyrics are easy!
This song is uses again the technique of pacing the melody using the lyrics. A wim-ba-weh!
Sometimes, a word loses its meaning when you say it too much. This is absolutely the case in the song “Surfin Bird” by The Trashmen:
The word “bird” appears a total of 88 times in the song(!).
There actually only 38 actual words in the lyrics.
This song breaks the format of using the meaningless lyrics to pace the melody, but there is something very important about the rhythm. It’s very fast paced.
Our next song, which inspired this entire book, played by my father on a random night – “Hafanana” by Afric Simone:
This song is great because all the lyrics are made up!
I grew up thinking the lyrics are real and tried searching many time for the lyrics: where is the “Mozzarella”? or the “Polka”?
This is a very special song for this project since it got absolutely 0 real words in it!
I want to bring to your attention a song that didn’t make it.
This is not a famous song. If you heard it before, please let me know where, I’m very curious.
This song is like “Hafanana”, made up entirely!
Searched for a song like this specifically for the book – “Bi Aza Ku Sasa” by The Mogambo’s:
Whether you like it or not is subjective, but objectively the song is not popular.
This song has a few thousands view on youtube and probably very few fans around the world.
My guess here is that something revolving the rhythm is messing with the song’s ability to be successful. Also the lyrics are kinda hard to pronounce.
My personal favorite song for this book is a Disney song – “I wanna be like you” from the “Jungle Book”:
This song uses every musical element right!
It’s fast paced, the lyrics are easy and intoxicating.
Even if there are actual words in the song, the memorable part is the “Oh, oobee doo… I wanna be like you!”.
My favorite part is when Baloo enters the song with his amazing duet with Louis.
Fun fact: this song was played on the first lecture in Mel’s course of 2019-2020, I danced to this song and got the flower!
Before we summarize our findings, here is a list of the songs:
|I wanna be like you
|I Am Glad I’m Finally Going home
|The Lion Sleeps Tonight
|Bi Aza Ki Sasa
|Obla di Obla da
|Who put the Bomp
|Doo Wah Diddy Diddy
|Da Doo Ron Ron
|NeeNee Nananana Nunu
|Dicky Doo & The Don’ts
|Ching Ching Wong
|Bernie Turner & The Armorettes
|Earth, Wind & Fire
|Sam the Sham the Pharaos
|Mr. Bass Man
|הבלדה על ארי ודרצ’י
The entire list can be found here.
An honorable mention before conclusion:
An internet sensation, known as the “Trololol” song, “I am glad I’m finally coming home” by Eduard Khil:
This song was written with lyrics and made into the masterpiece it is because of the censorship in the Soviet Union when it was released on TV.
This song is amazing to sing along! ♫
I have reached a conclusion that songs with meaningless words have two criteria to meet in general in order to become popular:
- A rapid rhythm – above 100 BPM.
- Easy phonetics – easy to pronounce the words and sing along.
We can put our theory to the test with unknown songs.
The song “Wooly Bully” by the Sam the Sham the Pharaos:
The song has the rhythm of above 100 (139) and easy lyrics (Wooly Bully). You decide if you like it or not!
The song “Bi Aza Ku Sasa” by The Mogambo’s:
The song has the rhythm of less than 100 (~99) and hard to pronounce lyrics (Bi Aza Ku Sasa), therefore not popular.
Another example, which really challenges my theory is “Abba Zaba” by Captain Beefheart:
This song has the rhythm of more than 100 (103) and easy words. The threshold is not clear, I think it has potential.
As per Mel’s request, let’s take a small dive into the world of scat music.
First of all, what is scat?
Well, as defined by Wikipedia: “scat singing is vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all.”
Let’s consider a few famous examples of scat from different times:
When did scat being?
Some attribute the origin of scat to Louis Armstrong in his recording of “Heebie Jeebies” (1926), have a listen:
Other singers claim to scat in earlier years before, but Louis’ performance was the turning point for scat music.
Cab Calloway’s work in the 1930 eventually inspired Gerswin’s work in the “Porgy and Bess”. Another great example of scat comes from Ella Fitzgerald:
The scat has brought much popularity without the use of words. Which supports the claim that songs can be popular even without words!
In conclusion, a song without meaning, can still be popular.
All you need is a fast rhythm (above 100 BPM) and easy to pronounce words, the more the merrier!
Of course there are exceptions, but I think as a general rule of thumb is this pretty good.