What Is Melisma?

H. Bliss

Melisma is a style of singing that involves singing more than one note to a single syllable of text. A singer using this technique is said to be using melismatic singing. In contrast to melisma, the style of singing that uses one note to each syllable of a word is called syllabic singing. This technique appears in many different types of songs, from American patriotic hymns like “My Country 'Tis of Thee" and holiday carols to popular radio hits spanning many different genres and decades. Melisma can be written in notation or improvised by the singer during performance.

Sam Cooke was known for his use of melisma.
Sam Cooke was known for his use of melisma.

Though most people recognize melisma as the lengthy vocal acrobatics many singers improvise when singing standard songs, it can be a simple composition technique used to form the basic melody within a song. In music composition, it is often used to convey strong emotion or to put focus on a word in the lyrics. It appears in anything from vocal classical music to soul, rock, and pop. Popular female singers well-known for their skilled use of melisma include Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera. Male singers include Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and Maynard James Keenan.

Melisma involves singing more than one note to a single syllable of text.
Melisma involves singing more than one note to a single syllable of text.

When melisma is used carefully, it can be easy to overlook. One way to recognize subtle, simple melisma is to speak a word in the lyric that is being sung without singing the notes, then count the notes that are sung during that word. If the spoken word has fewer syllables than notes to be sung, the sung word contains melisma. Sometimes, the note change can seem to natural within the word that identifying it requires listening with a keen ear. When melisma is written, it often appears with dashes dividing the word so the spoken sound coincides with the written notes. The number of notes that can be used in a single syllable is unlimited and up to the discretion of the composer or performer.

Though it appears in popular music, melisma is a historical composition and singing technique that has been in use for hundreds of years. This style of singing is theorized to have developed in liturgical hymns and Gregorian chant around the 1500s, but it was mostly popularized in the United States by singers at African-American churches. It has been used in many types of music all over the world, and is highly pronounced in a type of Indian classical music called raga, which influences melodic technique used in Indian popular music at large.

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