Melisma (Greek: μέλισμα, melisma, song, air, melody; from μέλος, melos, song, melody), plural melismata, in music, is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, in which each syllable of text is matched to a single note.
Music of ancient cultures used melismatic techniques to induce a hypnotic trance in the listener, useful for early mystical initiation rites (such as Eleusinian Mysteries) and religious worship. This quality is still found most famously in Arabic music where the scale is said to consist of "quarter tones". Orthodox Christian chanting also bears a slight resemblance to this. Middle Eastern melismatic music was developed further in the Torah chanting as well as by the Masoretes in the 7th or 8th century. It then appeared in some genres of Gregorian chant where it was used in certain sections of the Mass, with the earliest written appearance around AD 900. The gradual and the alleluia, in particular, were characteristically melismatic, for example, while the tract is not, and repetitive melodic patterns were deliberately avoided in the style. The Byzantine Rite also used melismatic elements in its music, which developed roughly concurrently with the Gregorian chant.
In Western music, the term melisma most commonly refers to Gregorian chant. (The first definition of melisma by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is "a group of notes or tones sung on one syllable in plainsong".) However, the term melisma may be used to describe music of any genre, including baroque singing and later gospel. Within Jewish liturgical tradition, melisma is still commonly used in the chanting of Torah, readings from the Prophets, and in the body of the service itself. For an examination of the evolution of this tradition, see Idelsohn.
Today, melisma is commonly used in Arab, Middle Eastern, African, Balkan, and African-American music, Fado (Portuguese), Flamenco (Spanish), and various Asian folk and popular musical genres. Melisma is also commonly featured in Western popular music. Early in their careers, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder used it sparingly. Melisma is utilized by countless pop artists, although this form usually involves improvising melismas (and melismatic vocalise) over a simpler melody.
Prevalence in popular music (mid 1980s to late 2000s)
While use of melismatic vocals was slowly growing in the 1980s - songs such as Whitney Houston's early music featured the style - the trend in R&B singers is considered to have been popularized by Mariah Carey's song "Vision of Love", which was released and topped the charts at #1 in mid 1990, and went on to be certified Gold.
Along with new jack swing artists like Paula Abdul, Mariah's success was another blow to synthpop-influenced teen pop on the lines of Deborah Gibson and Tiffany Darwish, popular during the better part of the '80s.
Recent backlash (late 2000s-early 2010s)
In recent years, there has been increased criticism of melisma being "abused" by singers, in part due to the popularity of shows such as American Idol in which show contestants have copied the style of artists who have popularized the technique.
As late as 2007, melismatic singers such as Leona Lewis were still scoring big hits, but by about 2008-2009 this trend reversed back to how it was prior to Carey and Houston's success - singers with more kinship to synthpop and less showy ranges such as Kesha, Katy Perry, and Cheryl Cole began to outsell new releases by Carey and Christina Aguilera, ending nearly two decades of the style's dominance of pop music vocals.
The French carol tune "Gloria" arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes in 1937, to which the hymn "Angels We Have Heard on High" is usually sung, contains one of the most melismatic sequences in popular Christian hymn music, on the "o" of the word "Gloria", which is held through 16 different notes. "Ding Dong Merrily on High", arranged by George Ratcliffe Woodward, contains an even longer melisma of 31 notes, also on the "o" of "Gloria".
The choral work "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" from George Frideric Handel's Messiah (Part I, No. 12) contains numerous examples of melisma, as in the following excerpt. The soprano and alto lines engage in a 57-note melisma on the word "born."
Melisma is also used, though rarely and briefly, in the music of Jethro Tull: examples include the eponymous track of the album Songs From the Wood and the song "Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of the New Day)". One of the most striking instances in recent pop music occurs in Bruce Springsteen's "The Ties that Bind", in which the i in bind is iterated thirteen times. Another famous example is Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You".
- Shepherd, John (2003). Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Performance and Production, p.565. ISBN 9780826463227.
- Melismatic - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- Out With Mariah's Melisma, In With Kesha's Kick: Trilling Songbirds Clip Their Wings. Browne, David, Dec. 24, 2010. The New York Times.
- Whitney Houston and the art of melisma Retrieved 18 February 2012
- "Whoa, Nelly!" review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
- ""Vision of Love" sets off melisma trend". The Village Voice. February 4, 2003
- Frere-Jones, Sasha (April 3, 2006). "On Top: Mariah Carey's record-breaking career". The New Yorker. CondéNet. Retrieved 2008-08-30.
- "The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time : Rolling Stone". Rolling Stone. November 12, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-22.
- Katzif, Michael, "How 'American Idol' Uses (and Abuses) Melisma", NPR