Scottish Mouth music: a centuries-old treat.

23 February, 2019
Scottish Mouth music: a centuries-old treat.

If you’re a jazz fan you’ve probably heard of scat. If you grew up in the 90’s you’ve probably heard of Scatman John. But did you know scat has a much older cousin from across the sea? Puirt-a-beul, also known as Scottish mouth music. This is a centuries-old enchanting way Scots found to get around oppressive policies during the Jacobite uprising. Little did they know they’d end up coming up with a musical treat for our ears.

Let’s step back into 1745

I will not get into too many details as not to bore you with a history lesson. Firstly, the scenario at the time was more or less like this. After the Jacobite uprising, around 1745, the English King George II banned all Scottish musical instruments and most of their art forms. “Why?” You ask. King George’s plan was to erase Scottish culture from the map, in an attempt to slowly annul the Scottish identity.

Secondly, the economy at the time wasn’t on the side of Scots. Consequently, most people wouldn’t have been able to afford any musical instruments (in addition to be breaking the law by simply owing one).

However, the Scots found a very clever way to keep their identity afloat. They realized that by ‘imitating’ musical instruments and melodies with their mouths they wouldn’t leave any evidence of breaking the law. And as a bonus, they’d remember their tunes for when they were free to play music again.

Keep in mind that back then it wasn’t common to write music down or learn it from a tutor. Musicians would spend some time with one another and learn by ear, trial and error. Mouth music made it easier for musicians to remember tunes and take them with them whenever they travelled. In turn, it helped spreading their culture all around.

Similar styles of mouth music were appearing in Europe and Ireland at the time for different reasons. These styles spread across the globe during colonization.

Enough with the history, what does it sound like?

Well, it’s very hard to describe it in writing, that’s why I mentioned scat on the first paragraph. Essentially, mouth singers would choose phonemes - or vocables as they say – that sounded like music notes. These vocables could be syllables as well and sound like particular instruments. Then, singers would put them together in a melodic rhythmic sequence and just let them rip.

Obviously, most ‘lyrics’ were utter nonsense, just a sequence of bah-dah-bings. In some cases, though, they managed to form proper meaningful sentences, puns, and even tongue-twisters.

The end result is a driving, toe-tapping, strikingly contagious purest form of folk music. Even the poorest peasants could afford their own voices, and communities would develop their own style of mouth music. Consequently, the cornucopia of styles must have been the most enchanting thing to witness. Too bad there is no evidence of singing competitions between villages, it would have been grand.

Modern singers still follow mouth music’s folk roots, with small changes of course. Some are even able to fit a remarkable number of actual words and meaning utterances to the lyrics.

Some interesting facts about Scottish mouth music

Although it was primarily meant was a way to get around English ruling, mouth music served a few other purposes as well.

Very much like pirates and miners, farmers, weavers, and other labourers used to sing to pass the time. These songs – quite often mouth music – were called ‘waulking songs’. Waulking songs eventually made it into Nova Scotia, the Appalachian Mountains, and Louisiana (North America).

Another unusual fact about this delightful upbeat vocalization is that – although most words were nonsense – they were occasionally used for hiding quite risqué lyrics.

In other cases, a mixture of different languages could appear in a single song, mostly due to their sonority and folk roots.

Well, there you have it, my rendition of Scottish mouth music: a centuries-old enchanting treat for the ears. Hope you enjoyed reading about. If your region – wherever in the world you may be – have a similar tradition, leave a comment, maybe I can add it to my next article, who knows?

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Dennis Tura
Dennis Tura

Dennis Tura is a language teacher, author, and proprietor of his own Startup since 2005. Shortly after endeavouring on the private language tutoring market, he realised social media would be key to reach customers far and wide, and therefore based most of his advertising on these outlets. In 2012, he took a step even further and began providing courses online, reaching customers worldwide and once again making using of social media as an optimal channel for advertising.

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