Nonsense, utter nonsense!

Posted by Sandeep

I’ve lately been listening to a lot of music by the Icelandic singer Jónsi and his band, Sigur Rós. Most of his songs are in Icelandic, but he does have a couple of songs in English, too. I’ve found his music to be a great study companion in law school because I can’t be distracted by the lyrics — I don’t understand a lick of Icelandic (although, as a Germanic language, it does have plenty of features in common with English).

It turns out that Icelanders can’t understand a lot of his lyrics, either. In many of his songs, Jónsi uses a made-up language called Vonlenska in Icelandic, directly translated into English as “Hopelandic” (von “hope” + –lenska “-landic,” from íslenska Icelandic). On Sigur Rós’s official website, Hopelandic is described:

hopelandic (vonlenska in icelandic) is the ‘invented language’ in which jónsi sings before lyrics are written to the vocals. it’s of course not an actual language by definition (no vocabulary, grammar, etc.), it’s rather a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument.

A Wikipedia author also described Hopelandic:

… it consists of emotive non-lexical vocables and phonemes; in effect, Vonlenska uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language.

Jónsi uses Hopelandic to create moods and exploit rhythms without the lyrical burden of language. It’s interesting to consider language a burden, rather than a vital component, in music — at least in some contexts.

Here’s one of Sigur Rós’s biggest hits, “Hoppípolla” (literally, “hopping in puddles,” from hoppa + í + polla. Isn’t it crazy how similar Germanic languages are?). The lead singer Jónsi uses Hopelandic from 2:25-2:50 and again from 3:03 onwards.

Hopelandic is far from the only example of “non-lexical vocables” used in music. In fact, we use these nonsense words in music all the time — we say “la la la” when we can’t remember the lyrics to a song, we sing scat in jazz, and we use nonsense words like “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” in famous songs!

Perhaps most fundamentally, in Western music we use syllables like “do,” “re,” and “mi” to describe relative pitches, known as solfege. Indian classical music has an analogous system to describe relative pitches, using the seven syllables sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, collectively known as sargam. (Strictly speaking, these syllables, both in Western and Indian music, aren’t random syllables — they are supposedly derived from longer words, but in the context of music they’re pretty much meaningless.)

I wonder, too, if the use of non-lexical vocables in music hints at the origins of lyrical music — maybe our distant ancestors began singing using nonsense syllables, later moving on to actual lyrics.

Indian classical music uses these non-lexical vocables quite a bit:  there’s a type of composition called a tillāna (in South Indian music) or tarāna (North Indian) in which nonsense syllables are used in lieu of actual lyrics, in order to exploit extraordinarily complex rhythms. Tillānas usually accompany dance. Here’s an example. The song is sung with these nonsense rhythmic syllables like dheem, ta-na, and jha:

There’s also a whole type of performance in South Indian music called ragam-tanam-pallavi, of which the big middle chunk, the tanam, consists of exploring the mood of a particular scale solely on the nonsense syllables ta and nam, derived from the word and concept anantam, “without end.” To be able to do a proper ragam-tanam-pallavi is considered the pinnacle of musical performance in South India.

In my experience as a singer, non-lexical vocables are incredibly emotive and liberating for the singer: we can focus entirely on the mood and the rhythm of the music, rather than the words. This is especially true in forms of music like jazz, which love to focus on the emotive and complex rhythmic aspects of performance. Indian classical music places an extremely high premium on the emotional power of music — often to the exclusion of the lyrics, especially in North Indian music. I’ve seen plenty of singers get so lost in the emotion of their performance that they resort to non-lexical vocables instead of the real lyrics. Audiences love it when that happens!

Who knew that our hapless la-la-las had such illustrious cousins?