It’s Time to Scat

It's time to scat

Can you free your mind to sing notes that are not Beyoncé’s and still stay within the harmonic structure of her song? –asks Donna McElroy

How does a singer get the ease of improvisation, the language of scat, the vocabulary of the solo?

A simple start would be to sing the part above or below the melody.

In gospel music, harmonization is the rule for most songs; as the chords progress, so the three parts sung by the choir move in parallel motion.

Any alternate melody sung within the chord structure is improvisation.

Can you free your mind to sing notes that are not Beyoncé’s and still stay within the harmonic structure of her song?

If so, then you’re improvising!

Understand Scatting

Vocal jazz improv, or scatting, is best accomplished with a tremendous commitment to learning the chord progressions of songs and being able to sing the members of each chord – either “arpeggiating” or singing the scale notes available in the chords.

It is important to know that this is the method used for all instrumentalists and there is no escaping it!

Also, listening to instrumental improvisers and picking out (even notating) patterns and phrases exclusive to the respective instrument, you’ll be able after a while to decide if you want to improvise in the style of a particular instrument.

Trumpet, saxophone, guitar and piano all present patterns that can inform singing – even drummers play in patterns which are “singable” if you listen closely and figure out the rhythmic pattern.

The most famous and innovative jazz vocalists improvise instrumentally.

However, they all have a unique and personalized syllabic approach, as should you, resulting from years of instrumental listening, harmonic analysis, and experimentation, or jamming, with other players.

Here’s a tip:

Pick your current favorite song and for a whole day just sing the bass line to it.

Dedicate your ear to the bass player’s performance.

Then move to the horns or strings or some other part of the arrangement – free yourself from the melody.

Your knowledge of the song as a whole will be greatly improved, and you will gain more confidence in your improvisation skills!

My Reactions to This Week’s Peer Review Vids

Rachel Lahr Rachel Lahr – “All of the Starts” by Ed Sheeran (Cover)

Rachel! I loved that you took Ed Sheeran’s song and changed the key to fit your range; you had no fear in your expression! You should continue to work on your guitar chops; try standing and breathing in tempo as you practice your comping on the guitar. First long breaths, then half of that, then half again, combining relaxation with muscle memory, to avoid stealing energy from the song! Good luck building on breath control and tempo establishment!

Katy Scott Katy Scott – “Hey Jude” by The Beatles (Cover)

Katy! From what I can hear of your voice, you have a strong and vibrant sound! Never begin singing live, especially with a rhythm section, unless and until you have positioned the mic directly in front of your moving lips; and don’t be afraid to let the “extra” time have its due in the interludes. They’re written in for a reason; to give the audience time to appreciate the meaning of the lyrics and your beautiful instrument. Remember, sing into the mic!!

Nina Nina – “Once Upon a Dream” (Cover)

Nina! I think your musical theater days are going to be glorious once you find more great songs and roles to marry with those big blues and that enormous voice! In the introduction and the outroduction(that’s my word for it!) work on more animation and maybe a little movement to avoid the risk of seeming a little bored or even afraid. There are so many songs out there waiting for you! Go get ’em, Nina!!

Douglas Silva Rodrigues Douglas Silva Rodrigues – “You And Me” (Cover)

Doug, a very true-to-the-sound sound-alike! I would like to hear and see the result of your positioning the camera further up so you aren’t singing down into it. I think it would breathe new life into this beautiful song, and, in raising your head, jaw, and eyes, may be a better version than the original! Great song and great cover!


Donna McElroyDonna McElroy is a Grammy nominated vocalist, celebrated arranger and well-loved Voice Professor at Berklee College of Music. Her contributions include arranger/background vocalist on gold and platinum releases “Why Haven’t I Heard From You?” by Reba McEntire; “We Shall Be Free” by Garth Brooks, “Addictive Love” by BeBe and CeCe Winans, and “House of Love” by Amy Grant. She’s been the recipient of a Grammy nomination for Bigger World (WB) and a Dove Award for Songs from the Loft (Reunion). Television appearances include Arsenio Hall, The Tonight Show, and The Grammy Awards.


  • Linda

    Thanks for this, I’m also practicing scat for a friend ~

  • Kim Chandler

    Nice article :-) If singers would like resources for practicing the various scales, modes & chords (arpeggiated) that are used in scatting then “Funky ‘n Fun 3” will be useful: http://www.funkynfun.com/funky-n-fun-3/. And if they want to further develop their musicianship by practicing challenging, well-known instrumental & vocal riffs from famous songs, then “Funky ‘n Fun 4” can help: http://www.funkynfun.com/funky-n-fun-4/