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 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 like Michael Jackson, although this form usually involves improvising melismas (and melismatic vocalise) over a simpler melody.
Prevalence in popular music (mid 1980s to late 2000s)
The use of melisma is a common feature of artists such as Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, and Nelly Furtado among others. Use of melismatic vocals was slowly growing in the 1980s. Although other artists used melisma before Houston, it was her rendition of Dolly Parton's love song "I Will Always Love You" that pushed the technique into the mainstream in the '90s. 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 1990, and went on to be certified Gold.
Recent backlash (late 2000s-early 2010s)
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 less showy ranges such as Kesha 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".
George Frideric Handel's Messiah contains numerous examples of melisma, as in the following excerpt from the chorus "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" (Part I, No. 12). 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.
- 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.
- Everitt, Lauren. "Whitney Houston and the art of melisma". BBC News. Retrieved 2014-07-06.
- "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.
- American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language entry on "melisma"
- Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary entry on melisma